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A tale of Thai “pioneers” in America

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A young Jet with his parents and an aunt around 1979.
Jet Tila

To most people, Valentine’s Day brings thoughts of the romantic interludes and dates shared with loved ones past and present. But for me, Valentine’s Day bubbles up another weird and eclectic set of feelings and memories.

Growing up as a restaurant rat, Valentine’s always was a day I had to help out at the family restaurants. I remember throughout the years doing various duties depending on my age. When I was very young I would walk from school to the restaurant and pretend to do my homework via candlelight tucked away at a quiet corner of the Royal Thai Cuisine as couples enjoyed their romantic Thai dinner together. The smell of the food, the flickering dark dining room and the sounds of silverware and clinking flutes always will remind me of Valentine’s Days as a child in a Thai restaurant. My parents were some of the first to open Thai restaurants anywhere in the country.

Some of "the pioneers" sharing a Thai meal in June 1969.

The Thais call this first group “the pioneers.” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who was first, but we know the first group of Thais started to arrive around 1961-66. Both my parents are in this group.

These pioneers consisted of two types of youngsters:

Type A- Studious kids coming over from middle class to upper class families to study here, get their degrees and go back to run the country; i.e. my mom.

Type B- The get the hell out of Thailand or you won’t make it to your next birthday type; i.e. my father, son of Chinese food hawkers.

Back in the home country, these two groups would never be caught dead together, but these were new times in a new world! It was easy to feel empowered with people from the same place in a far away country. And these two groups became so intertwined and codependent that we actually have them to thank for what Thai food has become today in the U.S. 30 some years later.

The students (type A) were the rich kids; they relied on money wires from mom and dad and some part time jobs, but the other group — the poor kids (type B) — are the sons and daughters of culinary artisans. These were the kids of street hawkers, merchants, market owners, butchers and noodle makers. Far away from home, they missed mom’s cooking and the comfort foods that they grew up with. Chinatowns already existed from coast to coast, but for Thai immigrants, won tons, chow mein and dim sum were more like a consolation prize for what they really craved — hot, sour, salty and sweet, true Thai food!

It's all smiles celebrating the opening of the first Royal Thai Cuisine in 1979.

So it was time to get clever. The smart rich kids that had servants back home and didn’t know a cleaver from a wok shovel begged the poor kids that knew how to cook to make real Thai food. Please! They would fund the excursions to the Chinese markets, and would use their ingenuity to track down exotic ingredients that weren’t commercially available yet. It was the rich kids that figured out that certain universities and agriculture schools were bringing exotic plants like lemongrass, galangal and kaffir limes to try to cultivate and study. It was these kids that planned the excursions to “borrow” just a few plant, leaves or pickings to make stocks and curry pastes. That’s a true story, by the way.

These people really were pioneers. From this group, we get the first Thai markets and restaurants. These are the people that introduced America to Thai cuisine! The first Thai market in the U.S. was actually opened by my parents. It was, and still is, the Bangkok Market, started in 1972. The first Thai restaurant is debated, but most agree that it was opened in LA around the same time. My family opened the first Royal Thai Cuisine in 1979 and still has four locations in southern California.

We’ve certainly come a long way since my parents arrived here hungry for the flavors of home. A lot has changed since, but that’s another story for another time.

For now, if you’re enjoying your romantic meal this Valentine’s Day or anytime at an ethnic restaurant, take a second to think about the evolution of everything that culminates on your plate. And if you see a kid tucked away in a corner helping family, doing homework or just making trouble, smile and think of his story.

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