The menu at Zen Yai Thai Restaurant offers a host of noodles and curries with careful English translations, but few in the Little Saigon restaurant actually order off it.
Recently, we walked in for a late lunch. A piece of paper taped to a back wall read "Boat Noodles, $2.50 each." This Thai specialty can make people squeamish because the broth is made with blood. If you can get over this, you'll thank yourself.
Most of the customers had two or three bowls in front of them, and we were eager to follow suit. In my best tonal Thai, I ordered guay tiew ruew ("guay tiew" means noodle, and "ruew" means boat.) It arrived with reddish-black broth covering the chewy rice noodles, and morning glory spinach, some strips of pork meat speckled with chile peppers, a mysterious white meatball, and pieces of pork rind in the broth.
I imitated my neighbors, who used the soup spoon to stir the bowl a bit and then, maneuvering a bit of broth, noodle and meat into the spoon, took a bite. The dish has something of the meatiness of pho, but is thicker and muskier. There's a hint of five-spice, and with each bite the flavor grows. I reached for a Thai iced tea when a spicy bite snuck up on me. If this is an acquired taste, the acquisition didn't take too long.
For the faint of heart in our group who refused to budge on their no-blood attitude, we ordered a few other dishes. Another little bowl of thin and slippery noodles, guay tiew yum, stole my heart again. "Yum" refers to a mix of sauces for a hot, sweet, and sour flavor. There is no broth; the noodles are meant to be stirred until the ground pork is mixed in and the noodles are coated with the emulsion of sauces.
A big sign with elaborate Thai lettering and no English translation hangs on another wall, advertising the johk, or rice porridge, only available Fridays and Saturdays from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. You can order your johk with pork, liver, and a variety of other meats. It is usually a breakfast food, but also a Thai late night snack served with a Chinese doughnut called pa tong go.
We did order a few menu items, but it's safe to say that mustering up your best Thai and straying from the menu is a must at Zen Yai.