Regular viewers of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” live with considerable travel envy. See him sharing kitchen confidentialities with chefs in Spain, Chicago or Sweden and being a fly on the wall feels insufficient. You want to be there. Now. Watch him make his way through Asian city streets and the mind starts conjuring ways to become his driver or Sherpa. Odds are, dear viewer, you’re even willing to schlep to Buffalo, N.Y., or the woods of Maine in winter to try the local fare.
Bourdain is the common ground, but it’s the people who guide him who become the heart of the stories. As food shows settle in on the weird, the quick and the competitive, Bourdain has cornered cultural edification, shining a spotlight on places such as Medellin, Colombia, making its gastronomy sound as rich and alive as that of Tuscany.
It’s the passion of the sidekicks, though, who pump the blood in these stories, and the opportunity to relive a Bourdain adventure with one of his former guides should not be passed up.
When the opportunity arose, courtesy of a friend, I didn’t have to ride rickety watercraft through a jungle or take part in any of the butchering or drinking rituals common to the show. This was a tour of a section of my hometown, Los Angeles, a re-creation of an episode from the third season that focused on Thai food.
‘The mayor of Thai Town’
Our tour guide was chef Jet Tilakamonkul, whose name has been shortened to the more palatable Tila for professional purposes — no matter how much it upsets his mother. Bourdain, on the broadcast, referred to him as the unofficial mayor of the six-block area in Hollywood known as Thai Town. He has taken over the duties from his father who runs Thai restaurants in Orange County. (He has other unofficial titles: The Food Network’s “Secret Life of … Fiery Foods” referred to him as the culinary ambassador of Thai food in America.)
Experienced with TV from a show he did for Korea, not to mention the many guest spots he has done over the years, Tila was surprised by the efficiency of “No Reservations.”
“I had never been involved in a TV show that was so ready to go,” Tila said of his “No Reservations” experience. “They aired seven minutes, but they only shot 35 minutes. Usually to get that much they shoot for two hours.”
Thai Town is where Jet’s parents opened the Bangkok Market in 1972. It was the first Thai market in the country, and it is where Tila, now running Wazuzu at Steve Wynn’s newest resort, Encore Las Vegas, heads for authentic Thai tastes.
Thai eating tour in Los Angeles
The starting point was Yai restaurant. As Tila showed Bourdain, eating Thai in Hollywood means venturing from one strip mall to the next, shunning the Americanized dining halls with “A” ratings from the city health inspector and opting for the smaller joints with “B” hanging in the windows.
Tila basically taught the crew how to order beyond Pad Thai in a good Thai restaurant, guiding us through various spice levels and instructing us on how to use condiments to get the acidity and smokiness a Thai cook gets at home.
The difference between northern (land animal-based foods) and southern (more seafood-based and the spiciness is more acidic) was spelled out as plates arrived, including a catfish salad with green apple slaw in which the “fish” resembled a sheet of luffa or dried, tan tripe. Fortunately, it was far tastier than either.
Deep-fried catfish with a stunning chili oil followed. Steamed seafood curry arrived with a declaration from Tila that it can be “seen as life-changing.” Wild boar in house curry, which did not appear on the menu, was a favorite dish for half of the eight diners. Soy-sauce stewed pork with Thai basil earned the sobriquet of “my final meal” from Tila.
The desserts we watched Bourdain consume on “No Reservations” were served at the next stop, the bakery stuffed with ponchi, grilled sticky rice, fried bananas and crepes filled with the sweet and savory. Bourdain raised the issue of saltiness in the show. On this day at least, it was not that evident.
Noteworthy eateries in Thai Town
Tila, who has to balance authentic Thai flavors and pleasing tourists in Vegas, paused in a mall parking lot to point out places of note. He has no commercial interest or sentimental attachment. His mission is to increase understanding of the cuisine and restaurants with specialties that might be overlooked by first-time visitors. Ruen Pair gets the nod for its mango salad and pork jerky, not to mention its 4 a.m. closing time. Ganda, a steam table restaurant, is singled out for its fried meats and homemade charcuterie.
The reenactment continued at the Thai market he visited with Bourdain, where Tila pointed out what he has dubbed the Thai trinity — galang, kaffir limes and lemongrass — and where Tony bagged on Rachael Ray. With our group, Tila reinforced a comment he made to Bourdain about the cultural identity of Thai cooking, noting it was his grandmother who commanded the kitchen when he was young, and it was she who taught him.
“There are no good books because they all want to take shortcuts,” said Tila, after a walk through a produce aisle afforded him an opportunity to distinguish differences among coconuts, basil types and various peppers. “It’s a cooking style that you’re brought up in.”
It’s a convincing argument, one that lends considerable credence to Bourdain’s show and his basic point that food is the root of culture. Now if only I had a friend living in Buenos Aires. I’d love to re-create that Argentina segment.
Phil Gallo is an entertainment journalist who also writes about food and wine. His first book, “Record Store Days,” was published in April by Sterling.
Photo: Chef Jet Tila at Wazuzu. Credit: Courtesy of Jet Tila