Exploring Thai Sweets at Bhan Kanom in Los Angeles
The long stretch of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards that makes up Los Angeles's Thai Town is comprised of a hodgepodge of storefronts and strip malls, modest in design, but grand in the range of Thai flavors on offer.
At the center of this enclave, Bhan Kanom Thai shares its shopping center digs with a handful of other South East Asian eateries, including one of the city's best Thai steam tables, and an Esaan joint with an inexplicable aviation motif. But as any of Bhan Kanom's staff will quickly explain to you, "Bhan" means house and "Kanom" refers to dessert, and so unlike its savory neighbors, this house of sugary snacks is all about the sweets.
In many U.S. Thai restaurants, dessert starts and ends with mango and sticky rice—a fine destination to be sure, and during sweet mango season, this stalwart is available at Bhan Kanom in fine form, the rice chewy and pliant, and the mango perfectly sweet-tart ripe.
But a trip to Bhan Kanom offers a crash course in the offerings beyond the standard, with a dizzying array of sweets, made both in-house and imported from Thailand. The refrigerator cases are stocked with a collection of thick, rich puddings and custards. A cold table displays brightly hued assorted jellies, tapiocas, and sweet rice dishes. There are warm Chinese doughnuts and taro wrapped in sticky rice, neatly packaged in fragrant banana leaves. The shelves are lined with dry goods imported from Thailand like karamae, long, flat vermilion strips flavored with pandan and honey.
Panchi, muted purple griddlecakes made with taro and coconut and studded with flecks of yellow corn, are among the most popular housemade items. Throughout the day the staff replenishes the stock, scooping ladles of batter onto the grill, allowing 20 minutes per side before flipping the cakes with a small thin spatula. When eaten warm, fresh from the grill, the panchi, latke-like in shape and texture, are subtly sweet and slightly glutinous, with the occasional pop from the corn kernels.
With such an enormous menu of housemade treats, many of Bhan Kanom's rotating staff of about 15 specialize in a handful of dishes, spending most of each day solely focused on preparing one or two. One chef takes on the majority of warm confections like the Chinese doughnuts, black sticky rice, and the popular kanom krok, delicate orbs of pale coconut pudding that are grilled in specially made pans in the shop's back kitchen.
Amatra Indra focuses entirely on a range of sweet eggy desserts, made with a thick, sticky mixture of yolks and sugar, and called thong, or gold, deemed such for their bright, tawny hue.
Indra explains that the extremely sweet custardy desserts are descendants of Portuguese desserts, courtesy of the European traders who first arrived in Thailand in the early 1500s. Though the golden confections were first limited to the Thai royal family, they're now popular for special occasions, eaten at weddings or taken to Thai temples as gifts to monks.
When he first arrived in L.A., Indra, who was born in Bangkok and raised in Chiang Mai, didn't know how to make thong, but after apprenticing with the owner of Bhan Kanom, he now spends three or four days a week doing nothing but. Though Indra takes great pride in his rarefied craft, he acknowledges that his unusual-looking desserts take some getting used to.
He recently brought a few packages of thong to a friend's house for an after lunch treat.
"My friend asked me, 'Is it cheese?" Indra recalls with a laugh. "I told him, 'No, it's not cheese.'"
For more about how thong and other Thai desserts are made, check out the slideshow above.