Making the unexpected right turn off Farrington Highway into a sloping red-gravel driveway is about as disorienting as stepping through a magic wardrobe into Narnia. A dusty, tropical, delicious Narnia. Where am I, even? If I disappear in this basin, will someone find me? Are there any parking stalls left? I'm positive you'll be asking yourself these questions upon your first visit, possibly even your second and third, like myself.
My friend Nat Bletter of Madre Chocolate is my unlikely Thai connection. Having lived and studied in Thailand, he's my foremost informant on delicious Southeast Asian eats around the island. This tip was no exception. I've found it difficult to find something better to do or eat for the last three Sundays; you'll probably find me here again.
The low-frequency om of the monks' chanting buzzes through your eardrums like a didgeridoo. Coversations in Thai and Lao confirm Google Maps has indeed brought you to the Thai Buddhist temple, known as Wat Pearl City, hidden between freeway onramps and the rail line. Men, women, children of all ages gather around tables with spreads from a smorgasbord of Thai delicacies, items more likely found at a family potluck than on a restaurant menu. This is the scene every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during phansa or Buddhist lent, which lasts for three lunar months during the Thai rainy season, usually late July to late October. During this time, monks remain at the wat to meditate and pray. Members of the temple bring food to sell mostly to the congregation, with many items between $5 and $8. Over the years it has grown to include legions of friends who have heard this is where to find real Thai and Lao street food.
Stepping out of the car, the aromas of garlic and tamarind mix with those of grilled pork and batter-crusted sweet bananas frying in hot oil. On the makai end, closer to the worship area, containers of coconutty white, vibrant green and golden-hued desserts are lined up for purchase.
On the Diamond Head end, you'll find woks bubbling with delectable gai tod fried chicken. You can have made-to-order som tum Laotian green papaya salad for $6 and creamy, heat-staving Thai iced tea for just $1. You'll want to peruse the curries and other entrees, which rotate weekly. Ask an auntie what's inside her pan and she may or may not give you a history lesson of its origins. Dishes can be enjoyed over rice or vermicelli noodles. One week it's khao soi, a chicken and coconut curry soup; the next week it's green curry and pork with bamboo shoots.
Khanom krok ($6), which Bletter affectionately refers to as "UFOs of deliciousness," are tiny glutinous rice pancakes grilled over an open flame in a special cast iron pan not unlike a takoyaki pan. The crispy edges give way to a gooey-chewy coconut and green onion center – tasty anytime, they're best enjoyed hot off the fire so ask nicely for a fresh batch.
Thai-style fried chicken wings are served with sticky rice. Equally juicy and crispy, they are downright addicting. I can't recall when there wasn't a person before or after me ordering five boxes to go. At $6 each, why wouldn't they?
An herbaceous crispy fried rice salad ($6) called naem khao tod is the kind of salad everyone can like with broken bits of fermented naem sausage, roasted chilis and bits of mint and kaffir lime leaves.
Moo ping pork skewers are served hot off the grill, 4 for $5.
Find a spot under a palm tree to enjoy a bowl of pork pho ($8) with thin rice vermicelli noodles, pork cracklins, slices of pork loin and a proper helping of herbs. Add your own fish sauce, sugar and Thai chilies if you need a kick in the mouth. Although ripping hot, it has been here every week and seems to be popular with those who need a contained meal. It may not be the most Thai dish, but it stands on its own.
The money goes to support the monks and the advancement of the temple, which seems to have risen out of the ground along with some structures, many tarps and tents. You might think you're in Southeast Asia – and with our latest wave of heat and humidity, you might as well be.
Thai Buddhist Temple of Hawaii
96-130 Farrington Hwy
Sundays, until late October
10 a.m. - 2 p.m. (most items sell out around noon)