At immigrant-run celebrity hot spots, Tinseltown, Thai Town and Koreatown collide

A woman at left and a man, framed waist up, smile and look at the camera, both wearing white chef's coats.
Brother and sister chefs team Jazz Singsanong and Tui Sungkamee of Jitlada during the Los Angeles Times’ The Taste in 2016.
(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)

I don’t recognize a lot of the people on the wall of framed celebrities at Park’s BBQ. Though she doesn’t like to admit it, neither does Jenee Kim, the restaurant’s 69-year-old proprietor.

“I know she’s really famous,” Kim said, pointing at a picture of herself with “Iron Man” actor Gwyneth Paltrow.

She tells a story about Spider-Man eating at the restaurant. No, not Tobey Maguire. No, not Tom Holland either. Andrew Garfield?


“Maybe,” Kim said.

I start trying to explain Marvel movies but I’m losing her attention, so I give up. I recognize Paltrow and a few Korean American celebrities, but about half the faces are mysterious to me. And I find that’s often the case when I encounter these walls of fame across Los Angeles.

Celebrity is subjective. Everywhere I go, on every wall, there are usually plenty of famous, unfamiliar faces.

Each wall is a window into a different pop cultural universe, whether it’s Hollywood, Bollywood or Hallyuwood (the informal term for the South Korean entertainment industry).

A framed photo of former Dodgers pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu next to former teammate Juan Uribe might reveal that the proprietor is a member of the large Korean or Japanese diaspora in South America. It’s one of the ways Los Angeles reminds you how big the world is, and how little of it we know.

In a city where the wealthy and famous are so used to getting what they want, I like that there’s a place where even Hollywood has to bow to the will of an immigrant mom. In Tinseltown, the velvet ropes will part for celebrities, but in Thai Town and Koreatown, the challenge is getting recognized. People running restaurants 15 hours a day don’t have much time left to consume pop culture.

The Korean American comedian Bobby Lee found he wasn’t on the wall at Park’s, and joked about it on his podcast TigerBelly. A few days later, Kim looked at the wall and found that one of his fans had smuggled Lee’s portrait onto the wall. She thought it was so funny that she left the photo up, and added another she later took with Lee.


“Oh my god, it was so funny,” Kim said. “We’re good friends now.”

Kim said she doesn’t really watch a lot of movies. Her favorite actor is Richard Gere. She has the most respect for fellow chefs and early supporters of the restaurant. At Park’s, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is treated with roughly the same fanfare as South Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park, who ate at the restaurant almost every day when he played for the Dodgers.

Jazz Singsanong, proprietor of another celebrity favorite, the venerable Jitlada restaurant in Thai Town, has found her own celebrity over the years, known for her colorful glasses and disarming chattiness. Kim and Singsanong are good friends, and always find each other at industry food events to chat.

With a restaurant located so close to Hollywood, Singsanong has become fluent in the many languages of celebrity. When we met last week, she pointed out a customer who played Gandhi in a Bollywood film.

“So nice to see you again,” she beams at him. “How long will you stay this time?”

Singsanong started running the restaurant with her brother Tui Sungkamee in 2007. Sungkamee was the talented one, good-looking and beloved by everyone in their family. Singsanong was the protective, gossipy one who kept everyone in line. When celebrities came in, she was the one who teased and charmed them into coming back.

Hollywood played a major role in popularizing Thai food in Los Angeles starting in the 1980s. Thai restaurants and grocery stores located next to movie studios brought more visibility to the cuisine, which at the time was still relatively new to the United States, according to the book “Flavors of Empire” by Mark Padoongpatt, an Asian American studies professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Thai food even starred in “Star Trek,” standing in for Klingon cuisine.

Actor Ryan Gosling was an early supporter of her restaurant, and Singsanong quickly learned all of his favorites. Comedian Aziz Ansari and actor Kiernan Shipka became vocal proponents. And according to Singsanong, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis sought Jitlada’s help with delivering their overdue baby.


“We gave her a jungle curry and the baby was born the next day,” Singsanong said.

Singsanong has begun to appear on the Food Channel, and she even has her own IMDb page, with four credits.

Since her brother died in 2017, Singsanong has been preparing her niece Sugar Sungkamee to take over the restaurant. For an immigrant restaurateur, celebrity doesn’t bring an end to financial struggle. Singsanong and her niece are always stressing about the rent.

At the end of the day, catering to celebrities is not the job, Singsanong said. The restaurant has bills to pay.

They know how much each table spends, how many gallons of green curry they can sell, how much to make on Friday, their best day, and how much they need to make on Saturday if Friday’s business is not as strong.

On Singsanong‘s days off, she gardens, babysits her grandkids and goes to a temple to pray for those things every restaurant needs: foot traffic, good tips and returning customers.