There are spaces in town that attract … I won’t say weird businesses, for that’s just me being wrongly judgmental, but let’s say unique shops. Or at least places with an edge.
One of the them is the unexpectedly ornate structure at the northwest corner of Highland and Rosecrans avenues, in the northern reaches of Manhattan Beach. One of the occupants has been Sugaring LA, a 4,000-year-old Persian process that involves hair removal using a sugar (or honey) solution. Something that I, as a reg’lar guy, don’t know nothin’ about.
Closer to my sensibility was a good Cuban restaurant called Little Havana (sadly gone), and a very good Peruvian/Japanese shop called Kotosh, that was at least as good, and maybe even better. They both live in memory, replaced by a fine Thai eatery called Nawa — notable for both finely flavored dishes that are about as good as Siamese food gets in these parts, and for having a snappy outdoor dining area on Highland Avenue, that on a fine warm evening, with breezes floating up from the ocean below, is as good a place to eat chicken satay and steamed gyoza dumplings as any in town. Better even.
Though the people-watching isn’t as lively at this end of Highland Avenue — not as much as down at Manhattan Beach Boulevard — it isn’t half bad, not with hotspots like Pancho’s, Baja Sharkeez and Fishbar nearby, which bring in a properly colorful crowd.
But somehow, Nawa sits apart from all those. It’s an island of solace in the midst of a world of culinary hyperactivity. Sitting there, eating the first-rate som tum papaya salad, knocking back a Thai iced coffee (a drink so strong, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to yawn for a week or so), I was about as happy as a local could be. Even if I did have to park many blocks down Rosecrans. Walking helps burn calories, so I could eat more without guilt.
And there’s much more to eat at Nawa Thai. This is not some sort of post-modernist, re-interpretative, fusion Thai eatery. This is a destination for what boils down to a greatest hits list of the Siamese food we’ve come to know and love over the years. It’s good to understand that I don’t have to trek to Thai Town in East Hollywood to eat dishes this good; it’s right here at the corner of Highland and Rosecrans.
My love of papaya salad is akin to my adoration of mee krob (which isn’t on the menu), and pad Thai (which is). I’ve come to believe over the years that our passion for particular dishes is a complex mix of the manner in which not just taste, but also texture, and underlying flavor interactions, cause us to react to food in a manner unique to each of us. I don’t eat a lot of candy. But put a Kit-Kat bar in front of me, and I lose all resistance. (I came home from Tokyo, where Kit-Kats come in dozens of flavors — Wasabi Horseradish Kit-Kat anyone? — and enjoyed an entire bag of bars. I haven’t eaten one since.)
In the case of papaya salad, there’s something about the crunch of the green papaya, the crackle of the carrots and the peanuts, the sweet yielding flavor and texture of the shrimp and the intensity of the vinegar-heavy dressing that makes me weak. Much as I like chicken larb and fiery beef as salads, it’s the papaya and shrimp that owns my loyalty. Ditto my love of chicken satay over beef satay. The chicken interacts with the thick, remarkable peanut sauce in a way the beef never does. And the cucumber salad is a perfect counter-taste to both the chicken and the sauce — so radically different, and so right.
For me, Thai cooking is an exercise in points and counterpoints. A theme is established, and then a counter-theme plays against it, creating an exceptional whole. There’s a pleasant blandness of the steamed chicken gyoza dumplings, brought to life by the sweet chili sauce. There’s the chili oil and lime in the spicy & sour tom yum soup — offset by the lemongrass, the kaffir leaves, the galangal — with a choice of chicken, shrimp, veggies or mixed seafood for good measure.
This is where you’ll find a deep-fried trout in a sweet and spicy mango sauce, affably called a “Trout Refresher” — which sounds like a very strange cocktail, and certainly isn’t. And then there’s the grilled salmon in curry sauce, a flavor combination I couldn’t imagine — until I tasted it and was dazzled.
Curries abound, as do veggies — eggplant, peppers, mushrooms. They’re everywhere. And the fried banana with ice cream is a dish eaten in the upper hyperion of Heaven. Washed down, no doubt with more Thai iced coffee. Who needs to sleep in Heaven?
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]
This content was originally published here.