Temple tradition bows to neighbors’ pressure
Rumors were sweeping the Los Angeles food blogging world.
“Wat Thai Temple -- food court closing?” asked the entry on Chowhound.com.
“Noooo.... " another writer moaned minutes later.
Ethnic food aficionados are aghast at the prospect of a future without such delicacies as hot green papaya salad, tangy fish cakes and little coconut pastries that some call the best Thai food in America -- or at least in Los Angeles.
The regular weekend food fair at Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood has grown over decades into a “must” event for Asian-food lovers. But the fair went on temporary hiatus as of Sunday because its popularity has outstripped available parking spaces, temple and city officials say.
Nearby residents have grown irritated at the hordes of gourmands from throughout the region who descend on Saturdays and Sundays, seeking chicken skewers and sweet sticky rice with mango. They complain that visitors park their cars on narrow residential streets, creating severe parking problems.
“Our quality of life is horrible on weekends,” said Corrie Wysner, who recently had a car towed from her driveway. “It’s unfair on us -- people honking horns, blocking driveways.”
In response, temple officials have closed the fair while they work toward a solution, said temple legal advisor Rosalyn Patamakanthin, a Los Angeles attorney. Some ideas being considered are closer parking supervision and shuttles from outlying lots.
Fans learned the news this weekend as they lingered over noodle soup with duck and soothing coconut milk at tables next to the dozen food booths on the temple grounds.
“I was so sad. Really, I can’t believe it,” said Susan Deocales, 56, who said she came to the fair every week and that the food reminded her of her native Philippines.
Some wonder why the fair could not have stayed open while parking problems are resolved. Surapol Roajphlastien, a fan from North Hollywood, is collecting signatures on a petition asking the city to keep the food fair open, reporting 2,000 signatures as of Sunday night.
“It’s not fair for us, to shut it down like that,” he said.
No reopening date has been set, which unnerves fans who fear that the mom-and-pop vendors will move elsewhere and the food court will fade away like so many other Angeleno traditions.
Temple officials reached the decision at an Aug. 1 meeting with neighbors, a city planning representative and a field deputy to Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, Patamakanthin said.
“The city has recommended that we put a temporary moratorium on the sale of food,” she said. She added that the temple fully intends to reopen the fair, held on the grounds of the largest Theravada Buddhist temple in the United States.
City officials call the fair a victim of its own success.
“Recently, it’s kind of exploded in terms of the numbers of people,” said Nell Abernathy, a spokeswoman for Greuel. “We’re talking about what basically has become a citywide food festival.”
The food fair’s fans say that’s exactly the point.
“This isn’t like going to your local Thai restaurant. This is the real thing,” said Thailand-born Tony Walker, who runs an insurance brokerage nearby. “If you’re a working stiff, and you can’t afford to travel anywhere around the world except to Tijuana on weekends, this is like going to Thailand, and you didn’t have to pay that round-trip fare.”
Food-savvy critics agree.
The fair rates as one of the “99 Essential L.A. Restaurants,” Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold reported in the L.A. Weekly last year, writing that “the air around the temple almost throbs with the smells of Thai cooking.”
The Christian Science Monitor raved that “for a few dollars a meal, you can feast on dishes you won’t find in restaurants -- at least, not prepared like this.”
The food is sold at booths on the grounds of the ornate red and gold Wat Thai Temple. Much of the food is cooked by Thai families who have passed down the recipes for generations, say some in the Thai community.
“It really takes you back, transports you to the streets of Bangkok. Because in Thailand, when you buy food or snacks off the streets, that’s exactly how it tastes,” said Bangkok-born Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, a nonprofit group. The city needs events like this that promote integration, she said, and the food fair’s closure “would be a terrible loss for the city of L.A.”
The fair is operating under a city permit issued in the early 1980s, with parking requirements designed for a much smaller event.
A 1984 zoning document, for instance, limits the temple to four special events annually, drawing no more than 160 people at a time, but the fair had been attracting as much as two or three times that many.
Wysner, the resident who had a visitor’s car towed, said she learned about the old zoning permit from a neighbor. Residents gave a copy to Joaquin Macias, a field deputy to Greuel.
Normally, the city Planning Department deals with permit violations in what can be a lengthy legal process. In this case, Macias said, Greuel’s office held meetings with temple officials in the last three months.
“We wanted to avoid the city citing them. Everyone wants this to stay cooperative,” said Abernathy, the Greuel spokeswoman.
The temple responded to neighbors’ concerns by arranging for monitors to watch for parking infractions and hiring a firm to clean up after the vendors.
But residents continued to complain, and some patrons ignored the parking monitors’ instructions.
So at the Aug. 1 meeting, when temple representatives asked if the fair should close, the city said yes, Macias said.
Temple officials will apply for a new permit, said Patamakanthin, their legal advisor. Although they wanted the food fair to stay open, she said, “At the same time, we have to look at the big picture. We just have to find a solution to this excessive traffic.”
This weekend, some workers serving sticky rice and noodle soup said they were worried about losing the pay they earn from fair vendors. “I worry, because no job. So quickly. We were surprised,” said one worker who would not give her name.
“This is like going to church on Sundays. This is what we do on weekends,” explained Janet Hunpadongrat, 21, who lives near the temple. “We don’t have enough parking because everyone loves this community.”