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The Decades-Long Evolution of Thai Cuisine in Los Angeles

Discover the flavors of Thai cuisine in Los Angeles on "The Migrant Kitchen" S3 E6: Louis & Jazz

While Los Angeles’ Thai Town may be diminutive in size, only occupying a half-mile stretch in East Hollywood, its existence has been symbolic and influential in Thai culture on a much grander scale, locally and transnationally. As the first officially recognized Thai Town in the nation, and located in a city with the largest Thai population outside of Thailand, this designated area has grown into a hub of culture.

Strongly embedded in that culture is one of Thailand’s most recognizable and commodifiable imports stateside: its cuisine. Over the last half-century, Thai food has spread to different neighborhoods in L.A. in waves, from immigrant chefs tweaking traditional recipes to navigate a new country to those daring to make the jump to cook more regional dishes. Most recently, young chefs have been pushing the envelope in how they approach Thai cuisine, with many of them nostalgically looking back to old-school practices, and others viewing their food through the lens of being second-generation Thai-Americans.

With L.A. serving as an incubator of creativity in Thai food, its influence has spread beyond this city, not only throughout America but also globally. But before we delve into that, let’s look back at the history of Thai people in L.A. and the culinary choices they’ve made in adapting to the city’s ever-changing palate.

The Thai restaurant boom in the 1970s and 1980s

In the second half of the 20th century, there were a growing number of Thai nationals immigrating to the United States, a byproduct of the U.S.’s intervention in Thailand in the Cold War and the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. “By the late 1970s, there was an estimated 100,000 Thai immigrants and Thai-Americans in the United States,” according to the book, "Food Across Borders" published by Rutgers University Press. The U.S. Census (.pdf) accounted for 237,583 Thais in 2010.

The Chao Krung family | Courtesy of Chao Krung
The Chao Krung family | Courtesy of Chao Krung

What set Thai immigrants apart from other Southeast Asians, like the Vietnamese, who would call the U.S. their new home during this period, was that they weren’t refugees fleeing their country over war or persecution. “The attraction of better opportunities and the desire to join relatives already established here were the primary reasons for immigrating to the United States. Therefore, Thais are considered economic immigrants” according to the book, "Thais in Los Angeles."

Education also played a major factor. Tens of thousands of middle-class Thai nationals acquired student visas to study at U.S. universities and colleges at the time and L.A. happened to have a robust number of schools that attracted these students.

The rise of Thai restaurants coincided with the influx of immigration and changes happening in L.A. at the time, posits Mark Padoongpatt, an associate professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of the recently published book, "Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America." He credits the Thai restaurant boom to larger structural changes in the city. During that period, the economy was shifting from being industrial-focused to service-based, particularly in the hotel and restaurant sectors. Americans were beginning to dine out more at restaurants. There was a shift in the American palate as folks became open to exploring Asian cuisines outside of Chinese food.

Padoongpatt says the opening of Bangkok Market, the U.S.’s first Thai grocery store, in 1972 was “really pivotal for the Thai food scene. Now you have a base for getting Southeast Asian and Thai ingredients, which then could fuel a thriving Thai restaurant industry.”

Though Bangkok Market was in Hollywood, the Thai restaurant boom primarily took place on the Westside. The owner of Bangkok Market, Pramorte “Pat” Tila, opened Royal Thai restaurant in 1978 along Pico Boulevard. He became one of the first to do so in the area, according to Padoongpatt. By 1980, there were over 50 Thai restaurants on the Westside, he says.

When Pramorte Tila first opened his restaurant, he came up with a plan to quickly build his clientele: by offering free food. He ran promotions where he would give free appetizers with ordered entrees. Since Royal Thai was located near Fox Studios, people working in the movie industry tried his dishes and “got hooked on it,” Padoongpatt says. After a few months of these promotions, the restaurant became a regular spot for Hollywood executives and stars for the next decade, last through the 1980s.

It wasn’t just Royal Thai getting attention. Siamese Princess, a Thai restaurant that opened in Beverly Grove in 1982, would attract celebrity customers like Madonna and Prince. “There’s this cool factor that musicians and Hollywood stars started to eat Thai food,” Padoongpatt explains. “I think it gave a trendy cultural cache that contributed to the boom.”

Yum Mamuang (Mango Salad) from Chao Krung | Courtesy of Chao Krung
Yum Mamuang (Mango Salad) from Chao Krung | Courtesy of Chao Krung

The importance of Bangkok Market

“As the first Thai grocery store in the United States, the Bangkok Market grocery store appeared to serve as a magnet for Thai migration to and within Los Angeles,” according to “Food Across Borders.” “Within a few years of its opening, a majority of the city’s Thai population moved to the mid-Wilshire and East Hollywood area, near the intersections of Wilshire and Olympic Boulevards and Hollywood and Western Boulevards.”

Thai businesses, many of which included restaurants, began popping up around Bangkok Market. The market was influential in many ways, including how it created accessibility to Thai ingredients.

“L.A. has always been the leader [in the evolution of Thai food] because of the availability of ingredients,” says Pramorte Tila’s son, Jet Tila. “The Central Valley is integral to the evolution of Thai food because all the ingredients are grown right here in California.”

Jet Tila, a TV celebrity chef whom the Royal Thai Consul General in Los Angeles appointed as the first Culinary Ambassador of Thai Cuisine in 2013, thinks back to how his father trailblazed growing Thai produce in Mexico and herbs in Hawaii during the Central Valley’s off-season winter months.

He recalls his father bringing jackfruit to the area. “I remember being 10 years old and [my father] would take jackfruit seedlings and implant them into citrus root stalks,” Jet Tila says. “He grew them to a foot or two high and then there were hundreds of them in our backyard, and I remember him driving them down deep into Mexico … Jackfruit is a thing [there] because of my father.”

Dishes from Noree Thai | Noree Thai on Beverly
Dishes from Noree Thai | Noree Thai on Beverly

Adapting Thai tastes to L.A. palates

Amanda Kuntee, whose family opened Chao Krung, one of the first Thai restaurants in L.A., in 1969, says they had to cater to American tastes early on because the general public didn’t understand the difference between Thai and Chinese food at the time. “When we said ‘Thai food,’ they didn’t understand, and they’d say, ‘Thai food like Taiwan?’” Kuntee says. “Back in the day, Thailand was called ‘Siam,’ so if we said ‘Siamese food,’ they’d understand [that].”

To entice customers to come in, Kuntee’s mother had to include Chinese dishes like chow mein on the menu, and then would slowly introduce curries and tom yum soup to them. Kuntee remembers the dishes they served as being blander, sweeter and not as spicy compared to what they prepare today at their last-standing Chao Krung location on Fairfax Avenue. (The family previously ran three Chao Krung outposts.)

Kuntee says in those early days, her mom would have to buy canned Thai and frozen Asian vegetables to make her dishes. For some restaurants, green bell peppers replaced Thai chilies and sugar was a stand-in to quell the heat of spicy food. Jet Tila remembers that Thais would use citrus rinds as a stand-in for Thai kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass.

“I think my parents were the first to blend American barbecue sauce with canned pineapples to make Thai barbecue to create something close to sweet chili sauce,” Jet Tila says. “This was 40 years ago.”

He believes there wasn’t an appreciation for spicy or very sour food in the 1970s and 1980s. “I don’t think people were ready for heat [yet],” Jet Tila says. “That has evolved a lot over the last 30 years.”

Besides a lack of accessibility to ingredients and catering to American tastes, Padoongpatt feels there were more reasons why Thai chefs were adapting traditional recipes during that time. “I think there’s a deeper layer there, where Thai restauranteurs were also thinking about how this was a reflection of their own identity as a Thai immigrant in the United States,” he says. “[They were thinking,] ‘Do I want to highlight my immigrant-ness even more by serving the most authentic Thai food or do I want to at least show that I’m sort of cognizant of being a Thai-American or becoming an American?’”

Pla Gra-taem (Garlic Fish) from Chao Krung | Courtesy of Chao Krung
Pla Gra-taem (Garlic Fish) from Chao Krung | Courtesy of Chao Krung

 

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Moving towards regional Thai food

Padoongpatt says in the 1980s, most Thai restaurants were serving what Angelenos consider “Central Thai food,” dishes that are ubiquitous on L.A. menus even today, like pad thai, curries and stir-fried dishes. Later that decade and in the 1990s, there was a shift in which restauranteurs began offering Northern Thai dishes, like larb, papaya salads, sticky rice and really spicy food.

When late L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold began writing about Northern Thai food in Northridge, it was a signal that a shift towards regional food was happening. One of Gold’s favorite restaurants, Jitlada, is popularly known for its regional dishes. When Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong and her late brother Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee took over ownership of Jitlada in East Hollywood in 2006, they brought with them recipes of the Southern Thai dishes that they grew up eating, which included seafood and heavier curries that were more Indian-influenced, according to Padoongpatt.

For Jet Tila, he sees a correlation between the rise of regional Thai cuisine and the growing popularity of food TV, specifically travel shows with chefs like the late Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern at the helm. They led Americans to accept more “exotic” or “authentic” cuisines, Jet Tila says. “I think social media and TV have played a role in making Americans more comfortable trying new foods and flavors.”

Crispy Chicken in Lime Sauce from Noree Thai | Noree Thai on Beverly
Crispy Chicken in Lime Sauce from Noree Thai | Noree Thai on Beverly

The formation of L.A.’s Thai Town

Thai Town occupies six blocks along Hollywood Boulevard, between Western and Normandie avenues, and is lined with Thai restaurants, shops, and markets. Since the 1970s, there has been a Thai community within this area. However, it wasn’t until the Thai Community Development Center built a campaign around officially recognizing the neighborhood as Thai Town that the city of L.A. dubbed it so. In 1999, it became the first Thai Town in the world.

“It’s also important and unique because it’s in a way recognized by the Thai government and people in Thailand,” Padoongpatt says. “Thai people in Thailand refer to Thai Town as the 77th province of Thailand. At the time, Thailand had 76 provinces.”

Jet Tila says, “It’s nice to plant an official flag here and to be recognized like Chinatown, Little Saigon and Little Tokyo. I think some of the best Thai food in America is here in Thai Town.”

There are other Thai ethnic enclaves in cities like Chicago and Sydney, Australia, but L.A.’s Thai Town holds the most significance for being the first established one. Padoongpatt and Jet Tila both point out that Thai Town is unique because it isn’t a place where many Thai people live anymore. While there are Thai businesses in the area, the residents are mostly working-class Latinos and Armenians.

Padoongpatt explains that by 1990, a majority of L.A.’s Thai population moved out to San Fernando Valley. In 1979, the Wat Thai temple, the first Thai temple in the United States, opened in North Hollywood and attracted a lot of Thais to the area. “By 1990, it surpassed Thai Town [for being] the neighborhood with the most Thais in L.A.,” he says.

A new generation of Thai chefs

Chefs Fern Kaewtathip and Noree Pla | Noree Thai on Beverly
Chefs Fern Kaewtathip and Noree Pla | Noree Thai on Beverly

Kuntee and her sister Katy Noochlaor, who own Same Same, a modern Thai restaurant and wine bar in Silver Lake, recently revamped their parents’ remaining Chao Krung restaurant on Fairfax Avenue with a remodel and menu change. Kuntee nostalgically recalls that, in the 1980s, there would be a line

out the door of customers waiting to taste their pad thai and curry dishes.

When her family opened their third location on Hollywood Boulevard in the mid-1970s, it was a revolutionary act for them. They approached this particular outpost differently from their other Chao Krung spots. It was the first time they owned a restaurant that offered dishes, which didn’t cater to American tastes; they were serving traditional Thai dishes they made with their Thai community in mind.

Kuntee wanted to bring back that feeling when she was planning the revamp of her family’s last Chao Krung location. She had learned to cook Thai food at a young age from her grandmother, who used to prepare dishes for the royal family in Thailand, and is now bringing those recipes back to the family restaurant. Without any barriers today in acquiring Thai ingredients, Kuntee’s focus is now on making her food as “authentic” as possible, she says.

Even though it’s a laborious process, Kuntee makes all her curry pastes, from green to red and Khao Soi, from scratch. Her Isaan sausage, a grilled sour pork encased with sticky rice and lemongrass, is lovingly made by hand as well. Influenced by the street vendors she’s visited in Thailand, she makes her pad thai with tamarind instead of lime juice, and palm sugar instead of white sugar.

Kuntee’s not afraid to make her dishes spicy either, though it makes her mother a little nervous. “[My mom’s] still scared, like, ‘Wait, Amanda, that’s too spicy,’ [but I tell her], ‘Don’t worry. We’ve got to be real and we’ve got to cook like how we did with our third location in order to be different.’”

Jet Tila | Courtesy of Jet Tila
Jet Tila | Courtesy of Jet Tila

Padoongpatt says he’s been seeing a new wave of second-generation Thai-Americans, some of whom grew up in their parents’ restaurants, now making their own versions of Thai food. “It’s not quite fusion. They’re doing Thai street food and they’re doing more Pan-Asian and Southeast Asian themes that incorporate some Thai dishes,” he says.

Another young Thai-American chef who followed in his parents’ footsteps is Chef Kris Yenbamroong, who owns three Night + Market restaurants in L.A. He grew up learning how to cook in his family’s Talesai restaurant in West Hollywood, and eventually focused his attention on creating something that was uniquely his own. Yenbamroong concentrated on Thai street food and bar snacks. He was not afraid of creating atomically spicy food and didn’t shy away from adding ingredients like pork blood in his luu suk soup.

Chefs and longtime friends Noree Pla and Fern Kaewtathip of Luv2Eat Thai Bistro, Noree Thai on Beverly and Crying Tiger are also not afraid to go against the grain when it comes to Thai food. Both hailing from Phuket, the duo has brought their unique Southern Thai dishes to the forefront at their restaurants without holding back on spice.

The duo were once minor owners of Hollywood’s Hoy Ka restaurant and also helped develop recipes there. Kaewtathip studied cooking from Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and worked at Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Pla learned her skills from her parents: Her father was a chef at a five-star hotel in Thailand and her mother owned a restaurant in Phuket.

“I wanted to make something different from what we have right now in L.A.,” Pla says. “I just wanted to have authentic Thai food [and] dishes that nobody [has] tried before. I know in L.A. [restaurants] have pad thai and pad see ew, but I don’t want to [make those dishes]. I want to make food unique and taste good.”

At Luv2Eat, their unforgivingly hot Phuket-style crab curry can scorch the tongue. Pla says they serve it just as spicy as locals in their hometown do. However, when they first put the dish on their menu, they were careful to give customers the option to order the dish with a milder spice level.

Pla is proud to offer dishes that are hard to find anywhere else in L.A., like their chicken ko-lae at Noree Thai. The grilled chicken quarters are marinated in herbs and coconut sugar with turmeric serving as the main spice. As part of an effort to keep adding new Southern Thai specialties to their menu, the team is featuring its latest addition: coconut soup with banana blossoms.

Thai Government Steps in to Standardize Thai Cuisine

Unlike the French, who have long documented and standardized their cuisine’s recipes, Thai recipes weren’t recorded until much later, according to Jet Tila. While there are hospitality schools in Thailand, like the respected Dusit Thani College, that teach the basics of Thai cooking, there is still a long tradition of street food hawkers in Thailand who only pass down recipes to family members.

“A popular hawker stall [owner] is not going to write a cookbook about one dish because they don’t want to share their secrets,” Tila says. “I think that holds true for a lot of Southeast Asian food. We go to certain restaurants for specific dishes, and there’s nowhere you can find that version of that dish in a recipe book. You can find a basic version, but you’re not going to find that specific version.”

The Thai government saw that Thai food could be utilized as a form of economic development and embarked on a project in 2003 called “Thai Kitchen to the World” to grow the popularity of it globally, according to Padoongpatt.

“Part of what that entails is defining what is authentic Thai food and what are authentic Thai ingredients,” Padoongpatt says. “There was a growing concern among the Thai government that Thai food has been bastardized — for lack of a better word — overseas and what they needed to do if they really wanted to embark on this national development project was to standardize the taste of Thai cuisine and Thai dishes so that every part of the world where there is a Thai restaurant, there would be an ‘accurate’ reflection of what Thai food culture is.”

He believes that the robust Thai food scene in L.A. and certain figures like TV personality and chef Tommy Tang, who was a key figure in introducing Thai cuisine to a national audience, played a role in influencing the Thai government’s decision to focus on expanding its cuisine’s presence globally.

In a general sense, Jet Tila also feels that Thai food in L.A. has influenced the cuisine throughout America and around the world by way of celebrity chefs. “I think the most recognized chefs in America come to L.A. to eat the best Thai food,” he says. “Let’s say anyone from Thomas Keller to Roy Choi to Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain — I’ve taken half of those names dining through L.A.’s Thai Town. That influences their food, which they take around the world. [In that way,] I think the Thai flavors in L.A. have influenced the flavors around the world.”

Top Image: Dishes from Chao Krung | Courtesy of Chao Krung 

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