Critic Bill Addison explains why Justin Pichetrungsi’s Anajak Thai became one of the most eye-opening meals to have in Los Angeles.
Waiting in line for tacos is a truism of life in Los Angeles. Trailing down a busy commercial block of Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, a queue that forms once a week has been growing notably longer every month for the last two years. People begin to camp out in the late afternoon; soon their straggling forms stretch down the sidewalk in front of the Sun Spa tanning salon and a billiards hall, and sometimes nearly reach a two-story strip mall that houses an outpost of Barry’s Bootcamp.
The line originates at the door of Anajak Thai, a restaurant that opened in 1981 and has thrillingly transformed itself over the last several years. Everyone is here for Thai Taco Tuesday.
On a recent July night, patient souls found their reward in Ora King salmon tacos. The fish was folded into midnight-blue tortillas and dressed with wavy ribbons of purple cabbage, a slick of mayo, chili crisp, nam jim and pickled shallots. Every bite crunched and yielded a little differently. The fish sauce in the limey nam jim gave oomph to the flavor of the salmon, which was dry-aged by the Joint Seafood nearby to give it a denser, silkier texture.
There was plenty more on the weekly-changing menu. Among the options: tostadas overlaid with rounds of lap cheong, brightened with mint or lobes of kanpachi dotted with salmon roe; soft-shell shrimp grilled on skewers and drunken noodles perfumed with smoke from the wok; and a newer restaurant staple, chicken fried in rice-flour batter and scattered with fried shallots. The bird is prepared in the style of Nakhon Si Thammarat, a city in southern Thailand where chef-owner Justin Pichetrungsi has family on his mother’s side.
Pichetrungsi is the architect of Thai Taco Tuesday, or #TTT as he tags it on Instagram, a pandemic experiment that he started in the alley next to the restaurant while indoor dining was on hold. It blossomed into a phenomenon as he brought in chefs like Johnny Lee of Pearl River Deli, Charles Namba of Tsubaki and Ototo and Sheldon Simeon of Maui’s Tin Roof. They’d cook whatever brought them joy — the owners of Milkfarm showed up once to melt gobs of raclette over fried chicken — while Pichetrungsi and his team kept cranking out tacos, tostadas and noodles.
The triumph of #TTT also made Pichetrungsi’s story one of the most repeated restaurant narratives in recent Los Angeles history. His father, Ricky, born in Thailand to a family of Cantonese heritage, immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. He worked at various restaurants, including a sushi bar, until he saved enough to open his own place; Pichetrungsi’s mother, Rattikorn, ran the dining room. In the early 1980s, before Los Angeles became a feast of regional Thai restaurants, the couple were among the first businesses to serve Thai food in the San Fernando Valley.
When his father had a stroke in 2019, Pichetrungsi made the life-changing decision to leave a successful career as an art director in Disney’s Imagineering department and take over running the restaurant full-time. He’d never really left the business into which he was born — he’d started tinkering with the wine program, leaning heavily into natural wines, before his father’s health declined — but to thrive, he had to build onto Anajak’s decades-old bedrock with his own creative expansions.
As can happen in crises, the pandemic spurred his innovations. The Tuesday pop-ups were born from taco experiments he pulled together for his Oaxacan line cooks for staff meals. He also began cooking omakase dinners for a handful of guests in the alley on weekends, using the Japanese multicourse form to stretch notions of Southeast Asian flavors. He had been pondering bigger questions about the origins of preserved fish and rice, wondering how sushi culture might have developed if it had first proliferated in Thailand rather than Japan.
Omakase reservations are currently sold out until September. I was lucky enough to score seats last summer. In a progression that included shima-aji nigiri fashioned from sweet rice and fish sauce; scallops in cold coconut soup; dry-aged steelhead trout in nutty, nose-tingling panang sauce; and one glorious stalk of baby corn grilled with chile jam, it was among the most mind-opening meals I’ve had in Los Angeles.
All the while, the restaurant’s primary menu is tighter, truer, stronger. Fried chicken wings have a tauter sour-sweet edge in the tamarind glaze; Massaman brisket curry — lush and aromatic — comforts profoundly. Rattikorn is on hand to make her dessert specialty, slices of ripe mango over sweet rice simmered in coconut milk.
Wine geeks number among Anajak’s broad fan base these days. Pichetrungsi hired a wine director, John Cerasulo, who tips the list toward stellar Rieslings and other Old World standard-bearers while still spotlighting small-scale, low-intervention vintners.
The quest to find balance underpins the restaurant’s series of metamorphoses. It’s the gift and curse of human nature: When do we know to let well enough alone and when do we shake off inertia for change, even if changing is painful?
Perfection is impossible, and so many questions about the restaurant industry remain unanswered: food costs, labor shortages, rents, broken hierarchies, sustainability. Yet Pichetrungsi models poise in evolution. So do his parents. As owners they may have expressed occasional doubts about the restaurant’s new directions, but they’ve also been unwaveringly supportive of their son; Rattikorn continues to share the role of general manager with him.
Their risks reap delicious, uplifting results. The lines don’t lie. Anajak Thai is the L.A. Times’ Restaurant of the Year for 2022.
14704 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 501-4201, anajakthai.com
Restaurant of the Year celebration dinners
Two nights with two seatings of a special abbreviated omakase meal with Chef Justin Pichetrungsi at Anajak Thai, featuring six to 10 courses presented by City National Bank during the L.A. Times’ month-long Food Bowl. Tax and tip included. Beer or wine not included.
Dates: Sept. 2 and 3
Time: 6 and 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $165 per person
Info and ticket link: LAFoodBowl.com
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