For at least 20 years, Yai at Hollywood and Taft has been one of the more authentic restaurants in Thaitown. But redecorating was never at the top of management's agenda. Yai is located in a particularly sordid mini-mall with bad parking, a severe case of fluorescent glare and a kind of school-cafeteria effect to the packed-together tables. But they always had a killer beef salad and lots of untranslated specials that seemed to bear investigation.
After briefly opening and closing another branch further east on Hollywood, Yai's second location has finally opened in the giant strip mall at Hollywood and Vermont, with oceans of free, safe parking. The room is spanking clean and shows a slight nod to decor, although the lighting level remains just short of an autopsy chamber.
I know it's crazy to try a restaurant on opening night, but I love Thai food, and I can't resist. The waitress has clearly encountered her first group of non-Thais ever, but she muddles through -- it's a good thing I don't need any explanations. It seems curious that she only asks us about the heat level for the papaya salad, but I figure we'll see what they do with no guidance. First-night jitters result in a long wait for our dishes, but finally our papaya salad comes out. I'm a little disappointed that it just seems to be shredded papaya and carrot in a sour, spicy sauce -- they don't seem to have added any extras like peanuts to the dressing and it certainly didn't have any time to let the flavors meld. Nix the papaya salad. Next comes the beef salad (pictured above), always one of my favorites at the old Yai, and it's a good rendition with some carmelization on the beef. Pad thai khron khan is another of their specialities, and the more authentic version of pad thai proves too spicy for most of our party, although I like it. In addition to a nice garlicky plate of Chinese broccoli, our other dish is gai sup nok, described as ground chicken in a red dry curry and herbs (pictured at right). This tastes exactly like a fairly spicy version of mint leaf chicken, and it's rather oily, but for me, it hits the right spot of strong, spicy, minty flavors with the novelty of ground chicken instead of chicken pieces. I could eat this all day over rice, if they could drain off a bit of the oil perhaps.
Verdict: Overall, this meal was probably a little too authentic for some of our party, which included an out-of-town guest, but I'll certainly be back to try the barbecued duck salad, the fried whole trout with apple and chili dressing or the shrimp larb. And I'm sure the service will pick up once they get their sea legs. Now how do you say, "Turn down the lights please" in Thai?
Right now it's cash only, no alcohol and no delivery, but that could change. Open until 11 and maybe eventually until 2 am, according to the manager.
Yai's on Vermont
1627 N. Vermont Ave.