In the 1950s, America was the land of dreams. American culture was in the ascendancy, but to many around the world still reeling from the impact of the second world war, its prosperity, optimism and glamour must have seemed so out of reach as to be unimaginable.
Not all countries had this problem though, with ties between the US and Thailand thriving.
The US flooded Thailand with capital and development expertise, hoping to strengthen an ally it saw as a democratic bulwark in the region. It opened its doors to members of Thailand’s elite and academics, welcoming technocrats and development workers to study for advanced degrees and to learn skills they could apply when they returned home.
For Thais with the opportunity to relocate to America, there was only one place to go, dreamland itself: they were headed to Hollywood.
Today the Thai population in Southern California has swollen to more than 100,000 people. It is the largest population of Thais outside of Thailand, and most of them still settle in East Hollywood, an area which in 1999 was officially designated “Thai Town”.
Thai Town is a dining destination, a paradise for Thai cooks and people who love to eat authentic Thai food. East Hollywood markets boast a bounty of fresh produce and ingredients unrivalled anywhere west of Chiang Mai.
It’s the kind of town where Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong, the proprietor of Jitlada – one of America’s first southern Thai restaurants, and considered by many to be the best Thai restaurant in the country – can find everything she needs. Here she can find the stink beans, fish maw, silk worms and rice paddy crabs that she remembers from her childhood.
Well, not everything.
“In southern Thailand they have two kinds of worm that are better than what we can get here. The worms we have here,” Singsanong says disdainfully, “are from northern Thailand. The ones we grew up with are softer and grew under coconut trees. My god, those are the ones I dream of.”
In southern Thailand they have two kinds of worm that are better than what we can get here ... My god, those are the ones I dream of.
There are, though, bigger challenges facing Thai Town than the provenance of worms; 69 per cent of the Thai community have no access to health care and 35 per cent of residents live below the poverty line. Still, in the nearly 70 years since Thais started settling here, Thai Town has become a vital, dynamic and beloved part of the fabric of Los Angeles; this year’s Thai New Year celebration drew more than 400,000 people.
The community hopes to leverage its greatest strength, its food, to combat some of its most daunting challenges. The Thai Town Marketplace food hall, is slated to open in November in the plaza surrounding the Hollywood/Western metro station.
The marketplace will host18 micro-businesses: six retail kiosks and 12 indoor food stalls. As well as serving visitors, it will help the community by providing affordable food for low-income residents, assisting residents to start their own businesses, and giving opportunities to the community’s dispossessed, including victims of human trafficking.
Thai Town Marketplace is the latest initiative of the Thai Community Development Center (TCDC), and the passion project of the centre’s founder, community activist and indomitable force-to-be-reckoned-with Chanchanit Martorell.
“It’s a full social enterprise,” says Martorell. “It will act as a business incubator that will provide low-cost entry points for low-income entrepreneurs to start their first businesses. We will incubate them for three to five years, in which time they will receive free business counselling until they are sustainable and viable.”
The hope is that stalls will eventually become bricks-and-mortar restaurants, and permanent parts of the community.
Until they are ready to transition to their own spaces, “all they pay for is their lease”, says Martorell. “We pay for all utilities: electricity, water. We will handle marketing. We’ll have an office space that they can use with internet, fax and phones all paid for by Thai Community Development Center.”
The food in Thai Town is still authentic, and regional restaurants turn out pitch-perfect renditions of Thai specialities that would be unheard of elsewhere in the country. But the marketplace also represents a chance for culinary experimentation and innovation. With low overheads and the support of the TCDC, cooks can take risks.
One innovator is Rotchana Sussman, who personifies the marketplace’s social mission and its willingness to push the envelope on food. Sussman was a victim of modern slavery – one of the between 14,500 and 17,500 people illegally trafficked to the United States every year.
While working as a seamstress at a swimwear company in Bangkok, Sussman was told of an amazing opportunity to work in America. “I thought, ‘Oh! I’m going to get two thousand US dollars a month’,” she recalls, “but when we came out it wasn’t like that.” For 17 months, she says, she was “held hostage, working 16- to 18-hour days”.
In 1995, she was rescued and joined a government programme as a witness. Today, happily married with three children, she considers herself as much an Angeleno as she does a Thai; she makes dishes with authentic Thai flavours but with an emphasis on healthy eating that is synonymous with Southern California cuisine.
A dedicated vegan, her goal is to “recapture the taste of food in Thailand” and make it better and more healthy.
“You’ve never experienced food like this before. It’s extremely healthy. You eat my food and you won’t feel drowsy or tired and there’s nothing in there that will poison your system,” she says.
She believes that Thai food does not even need to be spicy. “When you think about Thai food you think about heavily spiced things, but you’ve never seen this style. My food is very simple. Just one pinch of salt, one pinch of pepper,” Sussman explains.
Her vegan takes on Thai classics require ingenuity and creative substitution. She is even found a way to recreate Thailand’s ubiquitous fish sauce using a combination of three kinds of mushrooms. “It’s almost exactly the same taste,” she assures sceptical foodies. “You can’t even tell the difference.”
Where to eat in Los Angeles’ Thai Town
5757 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028, tel: +1 323 462 0292
Yai’s pad Thai will blow your mind. Much subtler than the typical over-sugary American concoction, its pad Thai Khon Kaen is also spicier, and so much better for it. Its crispy pork dishes are also not to be missed.
5257 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027, tel: +1 323 466 0153
Famous for its salads – the papaya with blue crab and the beef waterfall salad are among the best – and late hours. Nothing hits the spot after a big night out like their turnip omelette, basil clams and maybe a few more beers.
Pa Ord Noodle
5301 Sunset Blvd #8, Los Angeles, CA 90027, tel: +1 323 461 3945
Pa Ord is the destination for Thai soup noodles. The tom yum with spare ribs and the boat noodles are justifiably famous, but the noodles with bitter melon and stewed duck, less well known, are even more revelatory.
5623 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028, tel: +1 323 962 8382
As far as we’re concerned, Rodded only makes one dish: stewed duck noodle soup. Luckily it is one of the best dishes in Los Angeles County. This is comfort food for those deeply in need of solace.
Pailin Thai Cuisine
5621 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028, tel: +1 323 467 7715
Pailin specialises in northern Thai cuisine, and its khao soi is among the best you can find outside of Chiang Mai. The menu is full of delicious surprises such as the deeply savoury fried larb.
Spicy Thai BBQ
5101 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90029, tel: +1 323 663 4211
Popular with the Thai community for special occasions, Spicy Thai BBQ serves up heaps of perfectly grilled meat with sticky rice and seriously addictive fiery dipping sauce.
5233 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027, tel: +1 323 667 9809
The most famous Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, it is not for the faint of heart. You’ll leave wondering why southern Thailand’s spicy, funky, herbaceous flavours haven’t caught on nationwide.
If you want to party with your dinner head to Palms Thai. The Elvis impersonator might have retired, but that does not mean the good times have ended. If in season, the morning glory is a must to order, as is the beef jerky. Great for diners who like to drink.