Once in a while I meet a very special person who lives life with a philosophy and style that I strive to achieve, one so pure and passionate that I cannot help but be drawn to it like a moth to a flame. We meet many people in life, but there is always that occasional one that stands out from the rest because of an irresistibly strong and radiant aura that glows beautifully with all of the colors of the rainbow. These people come into our lives for a reason- sometimes that reason is evident from the beginning, and sometimes that realization doesn’t come until much later when you least expect it. I found not only one but two such special individuals at Si Laa restaurant in Los Angeles, a quaint but pristine restaurant in the quieter southern stretch of Robertson Boulevard.
I was recently introduced to Ben Yenbamroong through a mutual friend who told me how much she adored Ben’s spirit. The first time that I met Ben in her new restaurant of almost 1 year, her glowing smile and gentle laughter immediately put me at ease and I felt like we knew each other for years. She became my instant Thai mother, so nurturing with her loving hugs and caring with her hospitality. But despite her gentle voice and petite frame, there was a strong sense of discipline and determination that came through, one that demands great respect. After all, she’s been in the business for over 25 years and she knows what she’s doing.
Ben is part of the renowned Yenbamroong family, the family behind Talesai in West Hollywood and Cafe Talesai in Beverly Hills. She used to run the kitchen at Cafe Talesai but has now passed that torch on to her nephew in order to open Si Laa. She brought along one of her daughters to work the front of the house and her mother to help create wonderful and authentic Thai food in the kitchen. The other special individual that I was referring to is Grandmama, the holy matriarch of this restaurant. She doesn’t speak a lot of English, but we didn’t really need words to feel that instant personal bond. I can see where Ben gets her lovely smile- is there anything cuter than Grandmama’s smile? Don’t let that friendliness and cuteness fool you though- this woman is a serious chef.
One of the reasons why I love Si Laa is because it’s a combination of all of the things that I love about a restaurant. It’s a family run ‘mom and pop’ place, the kind of neighborhood joint that you will always feel welcome in. You can drop in any time and know that you’ll get attentive personal service from the same beloved owner who will become part of your family. You know who’s cooking your food, and you can feel confident that it will always be consistently good. It’s a comforting feeling to know that you’re in very good hands with people you trust. At the same time, it’s elegant fine dining in a beautiful restaurant setting with white tablecloths, polished silverware and wine glasses. There’s contemporary artwork on the walls that give it an art gallery feel. The private dining room is dazzling and spacious. The wine list is unique and intriguing. Whether it’s for a casual weeknight dinner or a momentous event, Si Laa will create that perfect experience and meal for you.
Si Laa was hosting a birthday party for a longtime customer one evening, and Ben told me to come in to try some of her specialty dishes that she was making for the party. Everything that I had already tried at Si Laa was excellent, so I knew that these special items, not on the regular menu, would be amazing. The private dining room was beautifully set up for this party of 18 guests, and my friends and I could hear happy laughter and clinking wine glass toasts all night long from the adjacent dining room. I was happy to be benefiting from this soirée as I sunk my teeth into the first party item, shrimp toasts with microgreens. These succulent little bite-sized morsels were heavenly, with the kind of pleasant crunchiness that goes K-K-Krunch.
Chicken and vegetable dumplings, which are on the regular Si Laa menu, were amazing. The best word that I can think of to describe the wonderful texture is ‘puri puri’, a Japanese phenomimetic word to express the bouncy soft springy texture of the tender and juicy dumplings.
My favorite dish of the party menu was the tuna tartare, one of Ben’s specials that is unfortunately not on the regular menu. I don’t normally get excited about tuna tartare, and I surely never order it off a restaurant menu because it’s usually some sad heap of mutilated tuna bits that have been drowned in sesame oil or mayonnaise. These were different. Si Laa’s tuna tartare was a sensational blend of vibrant flavors, colors and textures. I could really taste and appreciate the large tender chunks of tuna, in juxtaposition to the tangy bites and assorted textures of lemongrass, peanuts, cilantro, onion, peppers, toasted coconut and kaffir lime. Just looking at these photos takes me back to that evening and makes me drool with excitement. This ‘drier’ version of Thai tuna tartare was, in my opinion, far superior to any rendition that I’ve tasted at any establishment in the world.
Crab cakes with mango chutney on fresh green tomatoes was a joy. Large meaty chunks of crab were seasoned very simply so as not to overwhelm its inherent flavors. Again, I really appreciated that Ben didn’t overwhelm these delicate cakes with mayonnaise like others do. The harmonious blend of the sweet mango chutney with the refreshing and juicy tomatoes was perfect with the crab. This dish belongs in a Michelin star establishment.
Golden triangles, crab and shrimp encased in wonton, came straight out of the deep fryer to our table, perfectly crisp, hot and steaming. These small dainty treats made soft crunching sounds in our mouths until we all ended on a simultaneous and satisfying gulp. Ben paired our seafood appetizers with a divine and elegant bottle of 2008 Gewürztraminer called G3 from Resonance in Oregon. We were all pleasantly surprised by this wine- it was astonishingly light and easy to drink, and we ended up ordering more and more. I’m now on the hunt to buy a case of this.
‘Hidden treasures’ revealed flavorful bites of succulent shrimp and crab in a seductive and spicy chili coconut sauce topped with slivers of kaffir lime.
Deep fried tempura battered soft shell crab was another delight that we enjoyed, full of texture and flavor.
New Zealand lamb chops with Thai curry spices was a fantastic dish. The meat was perfectly grilled to a medium rare, and we were all gnawing on the bones in a 5 minute run of complete silence. For the second half of our meal, she paired a 2007 Oregon Pinot Noir by Penner-Ash from Willamette Valley, whose dark berry undertones complimented the lamb and beef dishes well.
One of the most popular items at Si Laa is the short rib green coconut curry dish, served with a side of buttery roti flatbread. I can see what drives its popularity- I too fell instantly in love with the tender and juicy pieces of braised short rib that melted in my mouth. After sampling this dish, I don’t think that I can ever go back to ordinary beef curries at other Thai restaurants.
Crab noodles with scallions, bean sprouts, egg, thai chili and garlic were wonderful. This dish confirmed my observation about Si Laa- that they don’t skimp on good quality products. When a dish contains crab, it means that you get generous portions of large meaty chunks of real crab, not just a few flakes.
Spicy Devil Noodles with chili garlic and thai basil were stir fried with carrots, peppers and a generous helping of tender braised short ribs. Again, the succulent cuts of beef were the shining star in this delicious plate served with wide flat rice noodles.
Ben buys her produce several times a week at the Farmer’s Market, and frequently she will serve seasonal farm fresh ingredients. On this particular evening she had komatsuna, Japanese spinach, which was stir fried with spring garlic in a special soy based sauce.
By the end of our meal we had become friendly with the diners at the adjacent table, who have been Si Laa fans for a long time. They drive all the way up from their home in San Diego several times a month just to eat here. This time they brought their friends, owners of several delis and restaurants in New York and Connecticut, to have their last dinner in Los Angeles before they went back east. They were having such an amazing dinner experience that they even sent over their crispy duck dish to share with us (they must have noticed us staring at their food with drool coming out of our mouths. Bad table manners…). They even treated us to a mango with sticky rice dessert plate that was to die for. The juicy mangos, at the peak of their season right now, were bursting with spring sweetness.
This is the type of restaurant that Si Laa is, where despite the upscale decor and fine food, diners can bond over their mutual love of Ben and her family and become instant friends. Where Ben and her mother periodically come out from the kitchen to give you a hug and chat with you. Where you can feel like you’re relaxing at home. Where mingling and laughter is encouraged. Where you can count on excellent and satisfying food, whether for a date, a casual night out with friends or a private party.
It’s been a long time since I met a chef and a restaurant that I enjoyed this much. The food, authentic in flavor and concept, is served with elegance, grace and beauty, just like the 3 generations of women who work here. If you want to try the excellent tuna tartare and crab cakes, just call ahead of time and Ben will be more than happy to prepare these for you.
I mentioned in the beginning that certain special people come into our lives for a reason. I already know the immediate benefits of my new friendship with Ben on my end- my photos are enough proof of that. There must be a deeper meaning to my fated encounter with her. Only time will tell, and I’m excited to see what life has in store for us. In the meantime, I’ll just keep enjoying the fantastic food and company at Si Laa.
1128 S. Robertson Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Random trivia: Do you know anybody who is allergic to mango peels? I bet you do, because it’s quite common. The contact dermatitis that certain people get (they’ll usually give you a history of breaking out in a red itchy rash around the mouth after consuming mango) is due to the chemical urushiol, which is also present in poison ivy and poison sumac.