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Photo by Jessica Calkins During the day, Thai Hot Pot& BBQ is just another business in Anaheim's Thai Town, two perpendicular strip malls on the corner of La Palma and Euclid where OC Thais get their hair done, buy produce at the area's three grocery stores, and wait for dental checkups. But when the restaurant's owners flip on a soft neon OPEN sign every Friday and Saturday night, the expansive place transforms into Orange County's only place to see Thai entertainment in all its gaudy glory.
Some nights, brave individuals sing mournful Thai pop off a karaoke screen. Other times, a Thai band composed of a jovial keyboardist, a guitarist/vocalist who could be the Pete Townshend of the Thai lounge scene if he weren't so polite, and two elegantly dressed women with undulating voices chord out tunes that sound like a fusion of Central America and the Orient from a red-lit stage. When the group performs, young and middle-aged couples dance into the morning hours, not holding each other but instead using deliberate, graceful hand gestures to express their desire.
Dancing is fun and all, of course, but what good would it be if there weren't a meal to burn off? So while people swivel, waitresses fill empty cups with wine until the beverage kisses the lip of its container and bring out tongue-tingling platters—the real reason Thais come here.
Thai Hot Pot's emphasis on Isaan-style cooking—the cuisine of northeast Thailand that simulates hell with intense doses of chiles and lime juice—ensures that even suburbia's favorite Thai dishes possess bold tastes. Pad thai here is no longer the ultra-sweet peanuts-and-noodles dish cooked uniformly from Yorba Linda to San Clemente: it is fiery, nuanced and delicious. Satay now comes with earthy eggplants or searing garlic peppers sautéed with refreshing basil leaves and smeared with a curious plum sauce that approximates the taste of meaty jam.
As good as the pad thai and satays are, though, fine-food fans should disregard them in favor of Isaan-specific dishes such as E-Sarn sausage. To fully enjoy these crispy, slightly sour pork chunks, follow this eating procedure: first, chew on the lemongrass-tinged sausage to release all its bitter juices; follow it with an offsetting fistful of roasted peanuts. Then bite into ginger slices and chase the acrid taste away with molten green chiles. Finally, take a big swig of beer, preferably something Siamese.
Or throw the pig pieces into some kao-piek soup. From neighboring Laos (Isaan and Laotian cooking are interchangeable, although neither region will admit it), the broth is exceptionally unctuous, so thick that anything added would float on top unless it was dunked in. The accompanying chicken bits, rubbery round noodles and homey taste make kao-piek seem like an early version of chicken soup. It probably is: hens first clucked in Southeast Asia, after all.
Isaan cooking shines best in the salads, however, and all of Thai Hot Pot's selections are variations on sour, spicy and superb. Nuah nam tok is charbroiled beef minced to the size of rice grains; dotted with green onions, crispy chiles, rice powder, peanuts and ham cubes; and soaked in lime juice.
Pla-koong, meanwhile, comes with raw shrimp (dip them in a fish sauce that's more pungent than its Vietnamese neighbor to bring out their marine essence) and is all about lemongrass shards and sharp onions sweating with lime juice and radioactive chile. There are also gamy little things; those would be the slices of pickled pig ears.
But the raised eyebrows of otherwise friendly waitresses will likely greet any non-Thai who orders the pla-koong or koi-soi (raw beef salad). "Are you sure you want to get that dish?" she will ask quizzically. "It's raw meat. If you don't know how raw meat tastes, you probably won't like it." But you will.
Thai Hot Pot is excellent at any hour, but it's those enchanting Friday and Saturday nights that make the diner a delicious refuge after a bad date. Thais are effusive, friendly folks and will invite newcomers to join their festivities. And they don't just sing Thai songs, either: one of the house band's best songs is "La Bamba"—sung in the original Spanish. Only in America.
THAI HOT POT & BBQ, LOCATED AT 1739 W. LA PALMA IN ANAHEIM, IS OPEN SUN.-THURS., 11 A.M.-10:30 P.M., AND FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-2 A.M. (714) 956-8444. DINNER FOR TWO, $9-$18, FOOD ONLY. BEER, WINE. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.