Saturday, November 12, 2005

Jet Tila's history of Thai dining in L.A.

I found out about Thai food on my 17th birthday. At the time (I know, dating myself again), Thai food was pretty much unknown in L.A. I'm pretty sure hardly anyone in West L.A. had ever tasted pad thai or had a Thai ice tea, let alone the more unusual dishes. We were looking for somewhere different to go for my birthday and picked up one of those Underground Gourmet-type guides at a bookstore -- the type of thing Jonathan Gold would have written if he, too, hadn't still been in high school. We opened it randomly to a page for Tepparod Thai, located off of Vermont near where Fred 62 is now, and drove all the way up there from Santa Monica. Just walking into the restaurant, which was very atmospheric, was like taking a trip to Asia, and we were immediately seduced by the combination of sweet, spicy and sour flavors. I remember being repelled, however, by a chicken curry served with heart and other organs intact. Still, it was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with Thai food, mostly in L.A. -- all of this a prelude to the Society of Culinary Historians' program on the history of Thai food in L.A. at the Downtown library.
I took a Thai cooking class with Jet Tila, so I knew his family was one of the first families in the Thai food business in L.A. He talked about how his parents' Bangkok market started importing coconut milk, curry paste and other Thai ingredients for the first wave of Thai immigrants in the 1970s, about his dad's initiative to grow Asian vegetables in Mexico for year-round availability, and how irradiating fruit will soon make it possible to kill the bugs that prevent fruits like mangosteens, Thai bananas and Thai mangoes from being imported to L.A.
Jet's suggestions for Thai restaurants include Yai and Ruen Pair, which are also my two favorite Thai town places, Sunshine in North Hollywood, Sunset Thai on Sunset for Thai breakfasts, and Hollywood Thai, which I walked by last night and wondered about. He also recommended Ganda, in the same mini-mall as Ruen Pair, for Thai snacks and good steam table food -- I'll have to try that one. During the Q & A, Charles wondered why you don't see mee krob on menus that often anymore. Jet wasn't sure, but I was just wondering the same thing. It's certainly not the healthiest dish, but if anyone knows where to get a good one, let us know.

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