Funkiest Dish West of the 405: Moo Moo Thai's Yen Ta Fo
Did your new year's resolution involve sampling strange cuisine from across the city? If you're the type who scours the San Gabriel Valley like a Sichuan-studded Star Map or can quickly rattle off every birrieria in the barrio then probably not. But if you're perpetually stuck in a quaint Westside funk, haunted by cozy cafés and linen-lined bistros, we want to help you shake things up a bit. As Richard Dreyfuss once stressed to Bill Murray, baby steps are key.
You could start at Roy Choi's A-Frame, where various bits of animal tendon and forgotten cartilage are braised to a crowd-pleasing texture, or maybe Brendan Collin's Waterloo & City, where things like smoked tongue and blood pudding sneak into dishes charming enough to tempt the pickiest of eaters. The fact that both are exceedingly hip doesn't hurt either (you're more likely to play it cool around the offal when Elijah Wood is sitting next to you).
Next, you could aim for a bowl of natto, slimy fermented soybeans, at Mitsuwa market to go along with your ramen. You could order a mole-smeared huitlacoche empanada, made with a black corn fungus reminiscent of dirty mushrooms, at Monte Alban. If you're into the hey-look-I'm-Andrew-Zimmern thing, you could munch on the deep-fried silk worms at Typhoon in the Santa Monica airport, but that might be beside the point.
The best bet, we think, lies just a block and a half east of the overpass on a busy stretch of Venice Boulevard (a technical violation of our own rules, we know). The wood-paneled Moo Moo Thai Café is something of a newcomer - it was repurposed from an old grocery mart - that dedicates a surprising amount of attention to its noodle soups, a characteristic hard to find outside of East Hollywood's Thai Town. You'll find items like a liver-emphatic kouy jub, blood-thickened boat noodles, and a surprisingly hearty variation on Japanese sukiyaki.
What you're here for, though, is the bowl of yen ta fo, a Chinese seafood soup transcribed by Thai palates that arrives glowing the color of a Hello Kitty notebook. The broth's pinkish hue derives from preserved red bean paste, mixed with fish sauce, sugar, chile and a generous slick of vinegar; a walloping smack of both umami and acid. It hops recklessly between sour and salt, sweet and spice, like some frantic Thai pop-punk band playing a late-night set. But wait there's an encore! Whisps of limber noodles, cubes of white jelly fungus, fish balls, fish cakes, diced morning glory and chewy rings of squid. There's fried wontons on top too, for obligatory crunch. If any more flavors were jostled into one bowl, it might constitute oral assault.
Follow Garrett Snyder on Twitter @searchanddevour.