A Family-Owned Thai Restaurant with a 43-Year History Is the Best Restaurant in America

There’s a reason the LA Lakers once bought out Anajak Thai for an event – it’s the hottest place in the country.

<p>Carter Hiyama</p>

Carter Hiyama

It’s a nippy Tuesday in Los Angeles, but even so, there is a line down the sidewalk in front of Anajak Thai. Guests are waiting to check in for tables at Thai Taco Tuesday (TTT), a weekly series owner and 2022 F&W Best New Chef Justin Pichetrungsi runs out of the alley of the restaurant, where he fuses Thai, Mexican, and global cooking. The weekly series has proven so popular, Pichetrungsi had to hire a security guard to ensure no one gets too rowdy while waiting for their kampachi tostadas and papaya salads. The heat lamp–lined alley is packed with enthusiastic diners, and a hip-hop playlist competes with the din of the crowd. Justin’s mom, Rattikorn, shakes her head with a reluctant acceptance. “I’m not too crazy about this music — we used to play classical music at the restaurant.”

Justin rolls his eyes with the kind of respectful annoyance that comes when you’re constantly blurring the lines between business and family. Minutes before, they were arguing about the grilled chicken wings Justin is thinking of putting on the menu. “The flavor isn’t as good as your dad’s version,” says Rattikorn, but Justin is trying to figure out a version that makes sense for Anajak in its present form: one that pays homage to his father’s flavors but with upgraded ingredients. It’s a common conversation between Justin and his parents ever since he took over the restaurant in 2019 after his father, Ricky, who opened Anajak in 1981, had a stroke. It’s in this tension between old and new, legacy and innovation, that you can find the magic of Anajak; it’s the ingredient that separates it from the hundreds of other Thai restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area.

“When I came into the business, there was $4,000 in the bank account,” recalls Justin. “It was very hard to pay the bills. And when I looked at this place, I understood that it was slightly broken, but a diamond in the rough. There’s a lot of arthritis here. But with that comes a beautiful sense of muscle memory.”

Justin set about creating new systems and implementing a number of changes, many of which his parents struggled to understand at first. The restaurant went from a staff of six to a team of 44. He introduced TTT and an omakase menu and expanded the wine program to include hundreds of bottles.

He also set about reworking the menu, trimming down the number of dishes, reducing the sweetness in many plates (his mom still pushes back on this: “Americans like things sweet!”), and focusing more on aesthetics. “He will take out his tweezers and move the edible flower this way and that way,” says Rattikorn, gently mocking his movements.

“I didn’t want [Justin] to change much,” says Rattikorn. “I don’t want him to change his dad’s recipes. We have to keep his legacy.” Though they may not always realize it, they both share the same goal. For Justin, honoring and preserving his father’s cooking sits at the heart of his approach. “I always say that no one’s better than dad, and no one’s better than nature. So I just try to follow the balance of flavors that dad has, but then paired with the best ingredients that I can find.”

It’s an approach that has served Justin and Anajak well. At just 37 years old, he has won basically every award in the culinary space: in 2022, he was crowned both a F&W Best New Chef and L.A. Times Restaurant of the Year, and in 2023, he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: California. Anajak Thai is now one of the toughest reservations in town, often booked out weeks in advance. It’s that rare restaurant that is frequented by locals, out-of-towners, and celebrities alike. Recently, the LA Lakers bought out the restaurant for an event.

Ricky and Rattikorn are the first to point out the improvements Justin has made. “We are very proud of him,” says Ricky. “He does it all with his heart, with all the effort he can, and he makes it amazing,” says Rattikorn, before turning to Justin to tell him to cover his ears, adding, with a laugh,  “I don’t want you to get a big head.”

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