Los Angeles' Thai Town Evolves Through the Years
Southern California is home to the highest population of Thais outside of Thailand, and while Los Angeles might have a Spanish name, Bangkok’s Thai name also translates to “city of angels.” Coincidence? Perhaps, but it’s no accident that L.A. is home to America’s only designated Thai Town, a six-block zone in East Hollywood that boasts more than 60 Thai-owned businesses, primarily restaurants.
“When the first wave of Thai immigrants in L.A. decided to work for themselves, they thought about what they know how to do well, and the answer to that is cook,” says Chanchanit “Chancee” Martorell, founder/executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, an L.A. nonprofit that spearheaded the effort to officially designate Thai Town as such.
Thai immigration to California has occurred in three major waves. The first began in the late 1950s, consisting primarily of well-educated professionals who arrived in Los Angeles to complete advanced development degrees that they could bring back to Bangkok. They ended up in the Hollywood area thanks to the influence of U.S. soldiers based in Thailand during the Vietnam War, who entertained themselves with screenings of Hollywood movies. “The only thing Thais had heard of in the U.S. was the word ‘Hollywood,’ so that’s what they sought out when they first arrived,” Martorell explains.
The second wave of Thais arrived around 1965, when Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which increased the quotas of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. These Thais came here on student visas—some were on scholarship, but more were privately funding their education. The ones on scholarship eventually returned to Thailand, but many who had paid their own way ended up abandoning their studies and staying in Los Angeles to open their own businesses. Several of the restaurants in Thai Town today were founded by this generation of Thais, who at this point have largely settled into a comfortable middle-upper class lifestyle in Los Angeles.
The third wave, still in progress, is the mass migration stage, in which a large number of Thais from poorer provinces arrive in California after finding the Bangkok job market too saturated. They are largely non-English speakers and often end up working low-wage jobs in Thai Town and the surrounding areas.
The first iteration of Thai Town restaurants catered primarily to Thai diners missing a taste of home. Jet Tila’s parents arrived in California in 1966, and in 1972 opened Bangkok Market, one of the first Thai-owned businesses in Thai Town. “It was really a trading post—600 feet in a strip mall,” says Tila. “My dad stocked it by hook or by crook, begging friends to stuff their bags with fish sauce and canned goods on their trips home to Thailand.”
Eventually, the market expanded and became L.A.’s preeminent distributor of Southeast Asian ingredients, supplying not only the local Thai restaurants but many of the European and New American chefs who were interested in using Asian ingredients. “At the time, California cuisine and fusion cuisine were budding, so we had all these chefs from Spago coming to buy lemongrass and Thai basil,” says Tila. His decision to pursue a culinary career was largely the result of his family’s non-Asian customers begging him to explain how to cook the dishes he’d grown up with, such as his mother’s khao soi, a curry noodle soup (recipe).
“My mom was born in Lampang, northern Thailand, and khao soi was a dish my grandmother cooked for us growing up, so it has a special place in my heart,” Tila says. “It has a history shared among Burmese, Chinese and Thai cultures. I think the dish is perfect because it combines so many comfort classics into one bowl. The braised meat, spicy, creamy broth and noodles almost remind me of a tonkotsu ramen.
Technically speaking, Bangkok Market is a few blocks outside of the geographic bounds of Thai Town proper. In 1999, after over six years of research and campaigning led by Martorell, L.A.’s city council designated the six-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Normandie Avenues Thai Town. In reality, Thai Town sprawls beyond those six blocks, mingling with Armenian, Hispanic, and Korean-owned businesses and restaurants. Still, most of the restaurants in Thai Town serve traditional Thai food, prepared as it would be in the homeland. “This city is bulletproof to the hipster-ification of Thai food,” Tila says. “There are so many great, ultra-authentic restaurants here, and a market to support them. L.A. diners seek out this kind of food because it’s hard to find anywhere else.”
We serve celebrities, but all kinds of people run to us for authentic food,” she says. “We’re popular because we’re honest—we serve the real thing, the same stuff we eat at home. We never change our ingredients, we just put out the best, and serve a lot of traditional foods you can’t find anywhere else.
Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong, Jitlada, Los Angeles
Another family with deep roots in the area and a traditional way of doing things are the Komenkuls, who opened Rodded Restaurant in 1972. The restaurant is known for its Chinese-Thai food and in particular its stewed duck dishes, the recipe for which is a closely guarded family secret. Today, 30-year-old Danny Komenkul runs the restaurant with his mother, who emigrated from central Thailand in 1977. (The restaurant itself was founded by Komenkul’s uncle, who has since passed away.) The family continues to run the restaurant much as it has for generations, though the younger Komenkul is attempting to streamline some parts of the operation.
“We’re a mom-and-pop shop, literally, and everything is old-school. The recipes have remained the same for 30 years, and a lot of labor goes into the food,” he says. “For a while, we only had one guy who knew how to bone duck—he learned it from my grandma and had been doing it for 35 years. Right now, though, it’s just me and my mom in the kitchen. My goal is to learn how to do everything so that we can start hiring locally, and I can train new people.” Komenkul sees how other Thai restaurants in the area have modernized their operations (if not necessarily their menus), and he hopes to shift the menu so that some of their dishes—like duck soup, roasted ham hock and Hainanese chicken—take center stage, though he plans to maintain staples such as ka pow duck over rice ($6.25, recipe), a spicy stir-fry with duck, Thai basil and a fried egg. “Ka pow is amazingly simple,” Komenkul says. “You don’t need a lot of ingredients, and you can use almost any type of meat or fish as a substitute. We have it on our menu because it’s a staple Thai dish.”
Many of the longstanding Thai Town establishments have witnessed changes in the area. Pailin Thai Cuisine was started by Kobkaew Field’s family in 1994. They developed a menu focused around traditional central and northern Thai dishes, and the restaurant became a favorite among other Thai immigrants, Thai Consulate employees, and, eventually, American and Latino customers who pack the space these days. Today, it’s still family-run, and 18-year-old Jerry Markkern (Field’s nephew), who was born in L.A. and grew up in the restaurant, says he sees more tourists visiting Thai Town to try their food.
They come for northern favorites like sai oua, a tangy pork sausage; khanom jeen, a fermented rice noodle soup; and Ayutthaya-style pad Thai ($7.99, recipe). Named after the ancient Thai city, this version of the takeout staple has an extra dose of tangy tamarind sauce (as opposed to the standard fish sauce, vinegar and sugar), along with chilies and chives. “People know when they come to our restaurant, we do the real thing,” says Field. “We get Thai ingredients from Thai markets, and what we serve is the same as what you would get in Thailand.”
As Thai Town continued to grow through the 1990s, so too did the variety of Thai foods available. Bhan Kanom Thai, a no-frills storefront, is one of a handful of dessert shops in Thai Town importing sweets from Thailand and making more on-site. They’re well loved for their kanom krok—miniature coconut milk-and-rice flour pancakes, griddled in an indented griddle to form their round shape. “When we first arrived, we noticed there weren’t a lot of Thai desserts in Thai Town,” said manager Alvin Petcha, whose parents emigrated from Bangkok in 1998. “We wanted to remind people of home and introduce the community to Thai sweets.”
One of the best-known restaurants in the area is Jitlada, which opened in the late ’70s but rose to popularity under the ownership of Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong and her brother, Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee, who took over the space in 2006. The sprawling, 300-dishes-plus menu features the southern Thai specialties the siblings grew up with and has attained cult-like status among the Chowhound crowd and followers of food critic Jonathan Gold, who called it “the most exciting new Thai restaurant of the year” in 2007.
“We’re popular because we’re honest—we serve the real thing, the same stuff we eat at home,” Singsanong says. “We never change our ingredients; we just put out the best, and serve traditional foods you can’t find anywhere else.” One such dish is khao yam, a Malaysian-influenced rice salad with herbs, vegetables and dried shrimp, dressed with a fermented fish sauce called budu ($12.95, recipe). “I was born with this recipe,” she says. “In homes across southern Thailand, this is breakfast and lunch food.”
As traditional as many of the restaurants in Thai Town are, there is still room for newcomers. Somruthai “Fern” Kaewtathip and Noree “Pla” Burapapituk grew up in Phuket, in southern Thailand, and moved to L.A. eight years ago. Kaewtathip came to finish her MBA but ended up with a culinary degree from the Cordon Bleu instead. Burapapituk’s father is a chef in Thailand. They teamed up to open Luv2Eat Thai Bistro, with a menu that focuses on fiery southern Thai specialties the chefs grew up with. They’ve made a name for their crab curry and fried chicken, but Kaewtathip’s favorite homemade dish is tai pla curry with khanom jeen ($10, recipe). “I grew up with my mom’s tai pla curry,” she says. “It has a unique taste—fishy, salty and aromatic from Thai herbs. It tastes totally different from other Thai curries.”
And so the traditions of Thai Town carry on beyond the borders of the enclave itself, enthralling a new generation of chefs and diners across Los Angeles.
Jamie Feldmar is a New York City-based writer.