Justin Pichetrungsi knows Thai food. The current second-generation head chef and owner of Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks grew up on the cuisine, watching from behind his father’s apron as he sent out plates of pad thai, tom yum, and crispy garden rolls. But when his dad, Rick Pichetrungsi, first opened the restaurant in 1981, it was a very different time. There were only a handful of other Thai spots in Los Angeles, and many diners were unfamiliar with the cuisine. “People didn’t know what Thai food was,” laughs Justin. “They all thought it was, like, spicy Chinese.”
Obviously, a lot has changed since then, and great Thai food has become as synonymous with Los Angeles as the Hollywood sign. Justin describes it as “a combination of two things people really want in cuisine – comfort and adventure.” From neighborhood spots he grew up eating in, to restaurants that are “secretly” Thai, here are The Best Thai Restaurants in LA, according to Justin Pichetrungsi.
“To me, Ayara is such a personal story. Vanda [Asapahu], the chef/owner there now, used to work for the United Nations in Thailand. Her parents are the ones who started [the restaurant]. So, like me, she’s in her second career – we both had to leave certain roles in order to come back to our families. But before that, her parents were cooking out of their home for Thai Airway flight attendants landing in LA. The captain would phone in their orders, so by the time they landed and made their way to their hotel room, the deliveries would be ready.
My mom was a Thai Airway flight attendant, so that was how I had all these traditional Thai dishes for the first time. But I had no idea that they were from Ayara. So, when Vanda told me that while I was interviewing her for a story, I freaked out. ‘I’ve been eating your parent’s food forever!’ I yelled. “My parents have been eating your food forever.” That really brought me back.
She made a few of those dishes for me that day, like pad kra pao, or chicken stir-fry flavored with holy basil, and another dish that’s not on the menu anymore, which is like a yellow curry with fish balls and bamboo shoots. I love bamboo shoots. I brought them back for my mom, but didn’t tell her where it was from, or what I was doing that day. She was like, “Oh, cool. Thanks.” Then I asked, ‘What does this remind you of?’ She’s thinking about it, thinking about it. Then goes, ‘Thai Airways?’”
“The most nondescript name ever, right? Spicy BBQ. But they actually did laab tot way before us. I had always wanted to make a laab tot, and then I had theirs and was like, ‘This is so f*cking good.’ Theirs is so herby. I don’t know how they do it, it’s almost hard to eat. But I really love their pork neck, grilled pork neck.”
“My folks and I have been going to Sapp since I was a kid. I’m so sad that they changed their dining room, because it’s been that way ever since I was a child. I always get the fish balls with egg noodles, dry. That’s the one my dad always orders too. Then my mom would get the sen chan pad bo, which is like jade pad thai, but with a very clear-style noodle, and served with a lettuce cup underneath. It’s super sweet and topped with crab meat. Sapp is really my favorite. And we would always go to Bangluck Market across the street, then Obet & Del’s is right down the way…”
“You know what I do at Otus? Late night French toasts. You go to Sapp in the morning, then Otus Thai for French toast at night.”
“Do you know what’s secretly a Thai restaurant? Tartine Sycamore. It’s run by chef Dan [Rabilwongse], my Thai brother. He’s a fancy French chef, but all these little things finally crept onto his menu after he left Bouchon. I was like, “This is so exciting, dude.” Their fried chicken sandwich has a lacto-fermented papaya salad on it, and it’s marinated with all Thai spices, so it tastes Thai. There’s also a porridge, a jook! Very Thai-style. And a nam salad, which is based off his mother’s recipe. She put nam on the map in Thailand, and even sold it in Bangkok Market at one point. Now he’s making it out of Tartine.”