Los Angeles is a proud melting pot where visitors can travel the world without a passport, simply by roaming from one officially designated ethnic enclave to the next. One such neighborhood is the world’s first and only Thai Town: a few blocks in East Hollywood where you can find authentic cuisine, get a massage, shop for silks and imported ingredients, and learn more about the Southeast Asian culture.
California is home to 28.5 percent of the total number of Thais living in the U.S. Compared to other Asian ethnicities, Thais started moving to America late in the game according to the Thai Community Development Center. The first wave didn’t arrive until the 1950s and a majority immigrated in the '80s and '90s. Now, the TCDC estimates that 100,000 Thais reside in Southern California, the largest population outside of Thailand. East Hollywood, and to a lesser degree the Northeast San Fernando Valley, became the typical starting points for most American journeys.
Chef Jet Tila’s parents, who came to America in the '60s, opened the first Thai-owned business in LA in 1972. The Bangkok Market — still selling palm sugar, fish sauce, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves on Melrose — was also the country’s first Thai food store. Prior to that, Thais had to make due with ingredients they could find in Chinatown. The market quickly became a “de facto community center and trading post,” according to NPR. As more immigrants came, they felt safe to settle nearby and other bilingual businesses sprang up as a result.
Finding Thai Town
The City of Los Angeles designated a small stretch along Hollywood Boulevard as the world’s first (and only) Thai Town on October 27, 1999. The official boundaries are Normandie and Western Avenues, just north of Little Armenia and Little Bangladesh, but the community bleeds out to surrounding side streets and down toward Santa Monica Boulevard. The east and west gateways are now marked by gilded statues of Apsonsi, a half-woman, half-lion guardian angel-like figure from Asian folklore. They were erected in 2013 as part of a beautification project that also included adding golden trumpet trees, decorative brick sidewalks, and lamp posts featuring golden Kinarras (a creature from Hindu mythology). The Metro Red Line’s Hollywood/Western subway station is conveniently located at the start of Thai Town.
What to Do
Today Thai Town is home to 60-plus Thai companies including bookstores, restaurants, and silk shops. As in Thailand, you can get reasonably priced reflexology or (under $90) deep-tissue Thai-style massages — some shops even walk out kinks with their feet while customers lay on a floor bed. Most practitioners are fairly spartan but clean like Nuad Royal Thai Spa, Siam Classic, or Leela Spa. Many stay open late and offer early bird specials on weekdays.
The East Hollywood Certified Farmers’ Market occurs every Monday and Thursday. Along with fresh produce, a few vendors sell jewelry, dreamcatchers, crafts, and tamales (it is still LA).
In the works is the Thai Town Marketplace and food hall, a 4,500-square-foot business incubator with open-air courtyard set above the Hollywood/Western Metro station.
Where to Eat
Filling your belly full of flambé prawns, catfish curry, and other Thai delicacies is the top reason to venture here. All spots are casual, most are affordable, and many don't have websites. Warning: spice levels are not for wusses. Jitlada has been around since 1971, but it rose to prominence when siblings Jazz Singsanong and Tui Sungkamee took over in 2006 and started tempting foodies with Southern Thai favorites like oxtail soup, coco mango salad, crying tiger, and turmeric curry with mullet fish and taro.
Traditional breakfast like savory rice porridge, condensed milk-dipped doughnuts, and pork blood soup can be found at Siam Sunset. Sapp Coffee Shop specializes in boat noodles with chunks of poultry or fish. Delicious noodles, as well as pad thai and stir-fried pork belly with broccoli, can also be found at Pa-Ord Noodle. Focusing on Northern regional food, Spicy BBQ serves exactly what the name implies. Pailin Thai Cuisine is a good place for folks new to the cuisine to start as they have a wide variety of dishes with varying levels of heat like larb balls, khao soi soup, herbaceous jackfruit salad, and Thai iced tea. Palms Thai is also good for beginners as they have all the basics and lunchtime deals. Head to Bhan Kanom Thai for a sweet treat like crispy crepes (kanom bueng), grilled coconut milk (krok), pandan dumplings, mango sticky rice, puddings, and fancy jellies.
Six Taste's three-hour walking tour takes participants to taste around 10 dishes at five or six restaurants/stalls including pork jerky and Thai omelets. They usually hit a hidden vendor hocking Thai tacos, which reflect the very common tendency to fuse food styles in LA.
Where to Drink
Not everything worth visiting in this part of town is Thailand related. It also happens to be home to some great drinking spots. Swanky sipping sessions, modern decor, and a stack of vinyl can be found on the edge of the neighborhood at The Know Where Bar. Harvard & Stone, a detailed theme bar from the Houston Brothers, was patterned after a WWII-era bomb factory, often features live bands or burlesque acts, and specializes in classic American potables in an industrial steampunk setting. Head back to the bar-within-the-bar, R&D, if you’re looking for more experimental drinks.
When to Visit
The neighborhood and it's attractions are open year round, but a few special events are not to be missed. The Songkran Festival, which celebrates Thai New Year, is held annually on the first Sunday in April. Thailand’s Ministry of Culture and TCDC sponsor a Buddhist monks alms ceremony, Thai dance demonstrations, Muay Thai boxing, parade and a Miss Thai Town U.S.A. contest. Thai Cultural Day at the Barnsdall Art Park is another annual event featuring all things art, music, food, and crafts.