How Thai food became so popular in the US

In the time that Anajak Thai opened in 1981 when it opened, the majority of those who visited this Los Angeles restaurant needed to become more familiar with Thai food. They assumed it was Chinese food, explained Justin Pichetrungsi, the restaurant’s current chef-in-chief and owner.

There was a Sherman Oaks eatery, started by the father of Pichetrungsi, Rick Pichetrungsi, one of the first Thai eateries that opened in L.A., according to Pichetrungsi. The restaurant’s first multi-page menu from the 1980s featured more than 60 dishes, for example, pad thai panang curry and pad see-ew, which introduced American customers to the flavors of Thailand but remained affluent.

Forty years later, Anajak — and Thai food in the U.S. has made significant strides.

“Our diasporic cuisine became part of the rotation of American takeout,” Pichetrungsi declared.

Thai is currently one of the country’s most sought-after dishes and has nearly 10,000 Thai restaurants throughout Thailand in the U.S., despite Thai people comprising around 0.1 percent of the total number of peopleStill, Thai food has struggled to eliminate the stigma of a takeaway restaurant that isn’t expensive, which Pichetrungsi has been trying to change since 2019 when he quit his position in the art department at Disney to run Anajak full-time. In the last couple of years, he’s redesigned the menu and turned Anajak into an upscale popular restaurant for foodies.

Anajak’s transition from a tucked-away restaurant to a foodie’s paradise has been a decade-long process. It’s also the history of Thai food in the U.S.

How Thai food made its way to the U.S.

To comprehend the reasons Thai restaurants came to be so popular across the U.S., You must look back before U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia during the Cold War, said Mark Padoongpatt th,e associate professor for Asian American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of “Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America.”

The U.S. developed a strategic alliance with Thailand in the early 1960s when it sought to stop the propagation of communism across the region. An expansion of the American presence in Thailand allowed ordinary Americans to go to Thailand and sample its food setting, the scene for an eventual interest in Thai cuisine in the United States, Padoongpatt said. In a particular instance, detailed in his book, a White woman named Marie Wilson accompanied her husband during a time in Thailand teaching English and published a recipe book, “Siamese Cookery,” upon her return.

“Food became the place where a lot of Americans came to understand Thai people for the first time,” Padoongpatt explained. “So when (Thai people) come to the United States, they then have to navigate their identity in relation to food.”

Thai people began migrating to Thailand and the U.S. around the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many were students on visas that limited their work opportunities, and they ended up working in kitchens of restaurants and other food-related businesses, according to Padoongpatt.

Rick Pichetrungsi opened Anajak Thai in Los Angeles in 1981 and was the manager until 2019, when his son Justin was appointed the new owner.

Courtesy Justin Pichetrungsi

One such person was the father of Pichetrungsi. Rick Pichetrungsi, born in Thailand to an ethnically diverse Cantonese family, emigrated to the U.S. at 18 and spent over ten years working in different Los Angeles restaurants before deciding to open his restaurant, Pichetrungsi said. Anajak Thai, like other Thai establishments of the time, was primarily a place to serve curries and stir-fries from Central Thailand, along with Chinese dishes such as wonton soup, to lure those who could have been more adventurous.

Despite what appears to be standard fare, operating a Thai restaurant in the early days required imagination and ingenuity. Many critical Thai ingredients were not readily accessible in the U.S., which meant that chefs needed to substitute ingredients that altered the taste of specific recipes. For instance, when making the northern Thai sauce for dipping Nam Jim, Pichetrungsi said his father utilized jalapeno as a substitute for Thai chilis and white sugar in place of palm sugar.

“A lot of those flavors were somewhat more assimilated flavors,” Pichetrungsi stated. “They were him trying to find the analogue of this or that or this in order to make that flavor for himself.”

A few chefs attempted to go beyond pad Thai.

In the following years, Anajak Thai became a popular neighborhood restaurant with a loyal clientele. Other Thai immigrants set up similar eateries nationwide to establish their place throughout the U.S.

Thai food was so popular with Americans and Americans that even the Thai government could take note. At the beginning of 2000, it introduced an initiative to educate Thai chefs and then send them to start Thai restaurants in hopes of promoting travel in Thailand, Padoongpatt said. During this initiative, Thailand’s government tried to establish a standard for Thai restaurants and menus, aiming to make dishes such as pad thai more common to Thai tradition, like the Big Mac is with McDonald’s.

As the Thai government attempted to standardize the food served in restaurants, however, certain Thai restaurateurs began to explore a different side of the typical menu that Americans used to identify with Thai food. In 1999, for example, the now famous chef Saipin Chutima and her husband Bill opened Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, introducing diners to northern Thai recipes that had been in her family for generations.

Saipin Chutima and her husband Bill established Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas in 1999 to provide customers with food from Northern Thailand.

Another attempt at diversifying Thai food in the U.S. originated from Andy Ricker, the founder and chef of the now-defunct restaurant chain Pok Pok. Ricker is a White American who frequently traveled and resided in Thailand for many years. He has told CNN that he launched Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, in 2005 after he could not find the Thai food he enjoyed in Chiang Mai and Bangkok U.S. eateries. The business gained fame serving local staples such as Kai Yaang and the khao soi and expanded to other cities before Ricker was forced to close in 2020.

Padoongpatt, who regards Ricker as a friend, credits Ricker for developing regional Thai food and street food to the forefront across the U.S. and opening the market to a new wave of Thai American chefs. However, he points out that Thai immigrants weren’t necessarily lacking imagination, but they had to think about how serving food items unfamiliar to many Americans could impact business.

“I think it tells you something about race and food in America — that it took someone like Andy Ricker to break that door open,” Padoongpatt told the press.

Muu Paa Kham Waan Muu paa kham waan, one of the Thai dishes featuring boar collars, served during lunchtime at Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, until it was shut down in 2020.

However, there were plenty of Thai chefs who pushed the boundaries. In 2011, Chiang Mai native Hong Thaimee opened Ngam (later changed to Thaimee Table), located in NYC’s East Village, which she described as “modern Thai comfort food.” Instead of serving what Thai food she was used to eating as a child, she stayed faithful to traditional Thai flavors while adjusting certain dishes to suit a Western palette.

“If I put sai-ua (northern Thai sausage) on the menu, it might be too early or too soon,” Thaimee She, who is currently working on an upcoming Thai food podcast titled “Sabai Talk,” said. “But I made that in the form of a Thai burger, and it was a hit.”

As there was a shift in the Thai dining scene in Thailand was beginning to shift towards the late 2000s, some chefs considered that they must be cautious.

The food writer and cookbook writer Leela Punyaratabandhu recalls how Thai restaurants in Chicago at the time featured hidden menus that Thai and more adventurous American customers could choose from. The menus were more adventurous and less popular dishes that the people working behind the restaurant counter were more likely to consume. In time, as Americans gained more knowledge about different cuisines, they began paying attention to hidden menus, encouraging Thai chefs to prepare the type of food they desired.

“Fast forward 20 some years, the secret menus are the regular menus now,” said Punyaratabandhu, the creator of “Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand,” as well as the monthly newsletter “The Epistle.

Thai cuisine in the U.S. has reached new levels.

The Thai food scene that is taking place in the U.S. is the most exciting it’s ever been.

More and more restaurants are catering to specific, regional Thai cuisines, be it the spicy and savory flavors of Isan in the northeast or the Malaysian- and Indonesian-influenced curries of the south. Also, Thai American chefs such as Pichetrungsi continue defying the stereotypes and misconceptions of Thai food. One recent night on July 1 were items like southern Thai crispy chicken and haw mok, a steamed custard made from fish curry.

“We’ve gone beyond what the common staples within our cuisine are, like pad thai and pad see ew,” Pichetrungsi told the BBC. “People are really diving a lot deeper.”

Additionally, in addition to its ever-changing seasonal menu of dinners, Anajak under Pichetrungsi boasts Thai Taco Tuesdays and monthly Thai Omakase dinners, which have received acclaim from critics. It was noted that the Los Angeles Times listed the Anajak as the best restaurant in Los Angeles for 2022. Pichetrungsi was recently awarded a James Beard Award for being the best restaurant chef in California.


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