I’m not sure I remember the first time I ever set foot in Siam Sunset. Did I even set foot? Or was I carried in—a tiny version of myself—back in the early ‘90s, when my family and I immigrated to America? The hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant, located in a run-down motel on a small patch of East Hollywood, is unassuming, but fills a cultural role for LA’s expatriate Thai community that belies its humble look.
My mom has always told me that Siam Sunset was one of the first places she went to consistently—to retain the memory of the life she left behind in Thailand. And it’s no wonder my mom found Siam Sunset to be a comfort; the small restaurant exudes Thainess in every corner. There’s a whiteboard menu scribbled with Thai specials; everyone’s watching the TV, tuned to the latest Thai drama; Thai newspapers and magazines lay scattered, available for all the aunties and uncles that make their way over for their morning coffee, breakfast, and gossip; and the walls are adorned with portraits of the late, revered Thai king, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej. It’s hard to describe, but the place even smells like Bangkok to me—a melody of grilled pork, fresh jasmine rice, and steamy, bubbling soups with a splash of vinegar. Jonathan Gold called it the "Thaiest Thai in Thai Town" years ago, and I don't think he was wrong.
We moved here when I was only a baby, strapped to my mother’s chest while she gripped my eldest brother’s arm in one hand and pushed my other brother’s baby stroller with the other. She arrived frazzled—as one might be, flying across the world alone, with three small children, to an unknown place—and sought out comfort in a bowl of jok, a Thai rice porridge that’s equally thick as it is comforting.
Jok is a cure for almost anything. Heartbroken? Seek reprieve in a bowl of jok. Feeling under the weather? A hearty dose of jok will warm you right back up. At least that’s what I was conditioned to believe as we adapted to our new lives in Southern California. Whenever I felt down, my mom assured me that happiness was just a steaming bowl of jok away. And lucky for us, Siam Sunset makes what I would argue is some of the best jok in the world, and was a mere twenty-five minute drive from our house.
As a kid, we would make our way to Siam Sunset every weekend before attending Thai school at the local Thai temple in North Hollywood. Jok was always on the menu, and we’d pair it with fried Chinese-style donuts, pa-jong-ko as we call them in Thai, dunked in gleaming pools of condensed milk. Some days we’d switch it up, ordering a plate of shrimp paste fried rice (khao kruk kapit) or Thai-style barbecue pork with rice (khao moo dang), but jok always remained a staple. There’s just something about the fresh sliced ginger, or the floating chunks of pepper-y ground pork balls, that translates into a warm hug—comforting, gentle, and substantial.
Coming to America was not easy for my family, especially my mom, who didn’t speak a word of English and was already overwhelmed taking care of three kids on her own. I can distinctly remember the first time I witnessed a racist act against her—”Go back to China!” a man had snarled at her while she was pumping gas. My brothers and I all peered out the window of our minivan at him, the three of us exchanging confused glances. “But we’re from Thailand,” I’d whispered at them, not yet recognizing the weight of his words and how common his attitude was.
This is why spaces like Siam Sunset hold so much significance to me, my mom, and to other immigrants within our community. Regardless of what we looked like, the dialect we spoke, or the things we chose to eat, we were always accepted and welcomed like family. Being at Siam Sunset made my mom feel closer to all that she had left behind, while simultaneously making her feel further from the isolation and violence directed at her by an often cold and unwelcoming America.
The sense of belonging that Siam Sunset provided tasted even better than anything their menu could offer. Even if the escape was brief, it was meaningful—giving her the strength to continue raising us, exposing us to our Thai heritage, and shielding us from the unkind and ignorant comments that, unfortunately, became routine.
These days, I head to Siam Sunset to get a dose of Thai culture, feel reconnected to my roots, and have a bowl of $4.95 noodle soup—the closest price I can find to the actual noodle stalls situated in Thailand. It’s a joy to speak Thai to someone other than my mom and practice reading the language—carefully sounding out each letter and tone of the Thai menu hanging on a board against the wall. I eavesdrop on Thai-speaking patrons complaining about the brutal Los Angeles traffic, which feels like a wonderful mish-mash that reflects my own biracial identity. The servers almost always refer to me as luk, or child, and praise the Thai I’m able to speak thanks to my mom’s strength and perseverance. And whenever I’m feeling down or disconnected, insecure about my status as an immigrant in America’s current political climate, I know I can rely on Siam Sunset to slide over a steaming bowl of jok to melt my fears away.