Fit to Be Thai’d: Why Are There So Many Thai Restaurants in America?
March 30, 2018 6:59 AM   Subscribe

 
The origin of pad Thai is similarly inorganic.
posted by scratch at 7:04 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


The quickest way to a person's heart is through their stomach. This strategy actually makes a ton of sense and I'm not surprised other countries are following suite. As far as governments trying to influence other nations goes, doing so with delicious foods is by far the least upsetting avenue to take.
posted by GoblinHoney at 7:06 AM on March 30 [8 favorites]


I live in a somewhat isolated town of less than 10,000 people with a ton of diners, two Mexican restaurants, a Chinese-American restaurant, and...a Thai restaurant.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:14 AM on March 30 [7 favorites]


Well, it definitely works on me. I've never been particularly charmed by Thailand as a holiday destination. I'm not a beach person and scared of animals that live in jungles. But after having more and more delicious Thai food, I'm changing my mind.
posted by mumimor at 7:17 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


This sounds like that “Irish pub in a box” concept the Irish tourism board was pushing but with much more buy-in and organization.

(Also, see you can have a federally funded satisfy program, bring in the city automats and diners)
posted by The Whelk at 7:19 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]


The photograph that is hung higher than any other decorative object in your favorite Thai restaurant is, unsurprisingly, the King. After the death of their previous revered king a year and a half ago, the new king, a more controversial figure (I'll have to invoke the trope of the European playboy for shorthand here) took the throne. Stay tuned.

Thai food, Indian food, Vietnamese food, Mexican food...many Western countries are blessed with wonderful restaurants (although Mexican restaurants outside of the USA can be a bit dicey).
posted by kozad at 7:21 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


BRB, forwarding this article to the Ethiopian embassy...
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:23 AM on March 30 [50 favorites]


We have a lot of Thai restaurants near me, but my favorite (we were just there on Sunday) is housed in that most New Jerseyian of institutions, the stand-alone diner. This picture was taken from one end, about 2 booths in, and shows the whole place. It's so New Jersey, yet so, so tasty. If the Thai government sent them, I am very grateful.
posted by ceejaytee at 7:25 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]


Gastro-diplomacy is a wonderful idea. It also explains to me why even the worst Thai restaurant I've eaten at was at least passable, I don't think I've had a "never again here" meal ever at a Thai place. I wonder how much uniformity in the menus at Thai restaurants is from catering to the best know/most popular dishes and how much is "this is what was provided by the Thai government."
posted by Hactar at 7:27 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


Because Thai food is fucking delicious and not very expensive? If there's even a half-decent Thai restaraunt anywhere near my house, you can bet I'm going to be a regular. Sadly, there currently isn't one. So there's definitely room for more!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:29 AM on March 30


My favorite Thai (in spirit, if not necessarily in food quality), is the tiny Thai restaurant that is literally in a (purpose-built) pole barn next to a farmer's house in the middle of nowhere, SE Missouri. (About 4 miles from my grandfather's house, where I don't even get cell service.) We've eaten there a couple times, it's not great, but passable, and is truly the closest restaurant to his house by several miles.
The proprietor is a tiny Thai woman who is helped out by her husband (the farmer), and their kids, and it is absolutely clear it is a labor of love.
posted by jferg at 7:37 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


One of the very best things about our house is that we live ridiculously close to a very good Thai restaurant. The back of our properties actually abutt but we have to walk around the block to get in the front of the place.

It's not a complete exaggeration to say that the arrival of this restaurant kickstarted the revival of the little business district in my neighborhood. Before Nickie's the street was mostly boarded up with storefronts that hadn't been open in generations and since then we've gotten lots of new stores and businesses going in.
posted by octothorpe at 7:41 AM on March 30 [7 favorites]


(although Mexican restaurants outside of the USA can be a bit dicey)

They can be a bit dicey within the USA, depending on where you are!
posted by elsietheeel at 7:45 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


I'm currently cooped up with my in-laws in Greenville, Mississippi, which as anyone who has been here can tell you has a whole lot of nothing. I went google mapping and found that Thai has not reached here, sad to say. It has reached Oxford and Jackson (no surprise there) and also Natchez and a tiny town named Como, which I have yet to visit.

Good job on the restaurant in Como, Thai government, but you have a lot more territory to cover. I'd love to see me some Pad Thai in Indianola, Kosciusko and, yes, Greenville.

Seriously, Thailand. This town needs a ray of rice noodle hope.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 7:47 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


I wonder whether Thai government standards can be credited for the oddly homogeneous style of lettering (looking a little like Zapf Chancery, in its use of flourishes) seen on many Thai restaurant façades. Is this part of a national gastronomic brand specified in official documents?
posted by acb at 7:50 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


I always see Papyrus, the font of Thai restaurants and day spas.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:52 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


This article raises more questions than it answers for me. What are the business terms of the subsidized restaurants? Are the menus designed centrally? Does that explain why you can only get the same five boring dishes at most Thai restaurants?

There's a lovely Thai restaurant near me in San Francisco that I've never understood how it stays in business. It's too cheap and seems empty a lot of the time. But has a very nicely decorated room, beautifully dressed staff remarkably polite and excellent at service. I wonder if a government subsidy is how they survive. Unfortunately the food is very bland and dumbed down, it is not good.
posted by Nelson at 7:58 AM on March 30


There are also quite a few otherwise quite ordinary pubs in both the UK and Australia which have Thai menus in their kitchens. There is an anecdotal explanation that this is, in some cases, due to the pub landlord having married a Thai woman, who moved to the country and brought in the menu. I wonder to what extent this is the cause, and if so, whether there could be any Thai government intervention there, seeking to pair locals trained in cookery with foreigners who own food-serving establishment, overtly or covertly.
posted by acb at 7:58 AM on March 30


The quickest way to a person's heart is through their stomach.

It's true that would get around the rib cage, but an underhand swing isn't very natural for most people. A well-placed downward stab through the ribs is the way to go.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:01 AM on March 30 [26 favorites]


I live in a town of 9,500, and we have at least three Thai restaurants. Maybe four. Only one of them really matters to me, though, and it's the cruddy-looking blue collar place that's decorated and furnished like a cheap donut shop.

One of the other Thai places in town features fancy cloth napkins, table clothes and real silverware.

Guess which of these two restaurants has the freshest veggies, the biggest portions, the spiciest chilies and the cheaper prices? Yep, it's the greasy blue collar place.

The place with the fancy cloth napkins tried to serve me lukewarm, sugary, flavorless noodles with a few measly grams of depressingly sad, canned veggies on top and absolutely no flavor, heat or texture. It was so bad I can't even remember if I had tofu or chicken as the protein. A packet of instant ramen would have been more appetizing and nutritious.

Back to the good, working class Thai joint - once a year or so they go on vacation and they have extended family come run the restaurant while they're gone, because if they actually closed for a week or two, half the town would freak out and/or starve.

But it's a pretty good system. The food remains pretty much identical and stays awesome. You just go in one day and the Thai family behind the counter and at the woks is totally different but just as friendly.

The first time I experienced this tripped me out really bad and I thought I was having some kind of problem or maybe went time traveling and forgot about it, because the guy I usually see at the counter was replaced by his cousin, and they look a lot a like except his cousin is a bit older and heavier.

I remember approaching the counter and feeling really surreal like I'd just walked into a David Lynch film and I was giving the guy behind the counter a whole bunch of sideeye because I was just that confused.
posted by loquacious at 8:02 AM on March 30 [30 favorites]


God bless government intervention.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:04 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


There are also quite a few otherwise quite ordinary pubs in both the UK and Australia which have Thai menus in their kitchens. There is an anecdotal explanation that this is, in some cases, due to the pub landlord having married a Thai woman, who moved to the country and brought in the menu. I wonder to what extent this is the cause, and if so, whether there could be any Thai government intervention there, seeking to pair locals trained in cookery with foreigners who own food-serving establishment, overtly or covertly.

In primary school, my daughter's best friend's mother was Thai. Her dad was a kind of weird person, who was a great dad. The thing was, he was disabled, and needed daily care. Anyway, this girl's mother was the second of three wives from Thailand. They were all quite cynical about it. He would go to Thailand to find a wife who was eager to immigrate. When they'd been married long enough for the wife to get permanent residence, she'd get a divorce, and he'd go back to Thailand for a new wife. The wives were good friends who helped each other, and all the children were a happy bunch. There was a whole network of aunties, too, and several of them had great restaurants. TBH, I don't think there was any government involvement in this. There was quite a bit of illegal stuff going on behind the scenes.
I'm writing this as if the whole family is gone, which they are not, but I haven't seen them for a while. My daughter has seen her friend, and it seems everything is fine.
posted by mumimor at 8:19 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


It’s nice to see what can happen when a government is even slightly functional, despite violent unrest and political upheaval.
posted by aramaic at 8:23 AM on March 30


Before Nickie's the street was mostly boarded up with storefronts that hadn't been open in generations and since then we've gotten lots of new stores and businesses going in.

Nicky's is the freaking best. We even *gasp* cross a river to go there sometimes, despite the many Thai restaurants near our house.

The rise of Thai food is just another boon to me as a vegetarian. The more tofu- and bean- based cuisines that are easily available to me, the better. It is so much easier to travel now than it used to be. I used to subsist on Subway cheese sandwiches when traversing interstates, but that's no longer really necessary.

So, thanks Thai government!
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:28 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


After the 2001 government initiative, the number of US Thai restaurants increased from 2,000 to 5,000, which means that before the initiative, Thai restaurants were already a factor of 4 more common in the US than Mexican restaurants, per capita. So it seems overly simplistic to give it sole credit.
posted by mubba at 8:33 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


One of the funniest combinations I ever encountered in regards to Thai was at a Pow Wow. The little stall was half First Nations food (mostly just bannock, Indian tacos, and fries) and the other half was sort of a Pad Thai meets chow mein noodle dish. The Thai lady served the noodles and the First Nations guy served the frybread. I doubt the Thai government had anything to do with that stall but if they did I applaud their initiative.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:39 AM on March 30 [7 favorites]


Doesn't explain why all the Thai restaurants near me also serve sushi. (I suppose because people like it.)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:40 AM on March 30


The quickest way to a person's heart is through their stomach.
It's true that would get around the rib cage, but an underhand swing isn't very natural for most people.


It's at this point in the conversation that I normally pull down my collar and show my scar from a subclavian central venous catheter. (Ironically for feeding me without going through my stomach at all.)
posted by ambrosen at 8:40 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


We have a decent amount of Thai restaurants, but our preferred one doesn't deliver to us. Pad Thai and Pad See Ew are good entry-level dishes, but my soul craves green curry sauce. so much green curry sauce.....
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 8:42 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


We have a lot of Thai restaurants near me, but my favorite (we were just there on Sunday) is housed in that most New Jerseyian of institutions, the stand-alone diner.

OMG! As soon I saw the reference to the stand-alone diner, I know exactly the restaurant. Hello, neighbor! I watched that one appear with interest, as it moved in after several failed Chinese buffets, and slowly went from being quiet, to always full at meal rushes. They're actually my second-favorite Thai restaurant in NJ though.

The photograph that is hung higher than any other decorative object in your favorite Thai restaurant is, unsurprisingly, the King.

The items hung highest in my actual favorite Thai restaurant are a bunch of coconut shell homunculi in a fishing net strung across the ceiling, and the walls are covered in classic album covers. I'm guessing that one isn't one of the ones funded by the tourism board.
posted by Karmakaze at 8:43 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


oh and larb. If you have not had chicken larb yet, get thee to a thai restaurant now! We don't have it as much since we're now a low-spice household, but man, the larb by the restaurant by my folks place, yum.
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 8:44 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]


I am currently sitting in a dentist's chair waiting for the final step in getting a crown on one of my teeth (we're waiting for the crown to cure and then he'll pop it in). After reading this, I know the first question I ask the dentist is going to be "do you think it'll be safe for me to have pad Thai for lunch when we're done here? "
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:52 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]


Give that cement a few hours to cure, at least. Unless, you want to go Indiana Jones-ing for that lost crown in the last place you want to dig through.

Conversely, “guess which of my teeth have been through my digestive system” is a great icebreaker at parties.
posted by dr_dank at 9:09 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


It's working on me. I'm in the very early stages of planning a possible SE Asia vacation, and having come to the inevitable conclusion that I cannot visit all of SE Asia in the time I have available, I'm at the point where I'm trying to narrow down which countries I want to visit. Thailand remains high on my list, in part because of my experience with Thai restaurants in the US.

OTOH, I've heard via word of mouth from multiple independent travelers that if I'm going to SE Asia and want good food, I should really go to Malaysia. But I've never encountered a Malaysian restaurant. I'm sure there are a few, somewhere, but the lack of gastrodiplomacy may be limiting the country's tourism potential.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:26 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


The Thai Restaurant has become such a meme that a decent number of them are not even, exactly, Thai. My Thai friends tell me that they frequently enter a "Thai Restaurant", and on trying to converse with the owners, discover that they are Lao or Cambodian, and are serving their own regional takes on the food. The owners just know that Americans are more likely to stop into a Thai restaurant than a Lao one.
posted by agentofselection at 9:47 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


> oh and larb.

Case in point, larb is more of a Lao dish. (And delicious!)
posted by Secretariat at 9:55 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


Quite some time ago, a group of us in NYC decided to go out for Thai food. But where? One girl in our party called the Thai embassy and asked for a recommendation. They had two ready recommendations. We went to the first and it was good. I guess she was on the right track with that instinct.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:55 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


that a decent number of them are not even, exactly, Thai.

That's what I see here in Canada more than actual Thai places. Which is too bad. I'd love to see more Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese restaurants.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:56 AM on March 30


I have seriously verbalized the idea that Mexico needs to set up a culinary school devoted to exporting cooks. I came up with this idea when I attempted to have something they called Mexican food in Belgium. It was expensive an inedible. I'm also sorely disappointed by the Mexican fare in Canada.

Honestly though, I'd probably be happier if the Texas embassy started supporting tex-mex restaurants around the world (starting in canada).
posted by el io at 10:23 AM on March 30 [5 favorites]


As the son of a five-star chef who had a chain of Thai restaurants in the Pacific Northwest for most of my childhood, this article is a bit surreal. :) My (American) Dad always talked about how when we started, in the mid 90s, there were no Thai restaurants to speak of in Portland. He mentioned that by the time we had to close down, sadly due to undeserved legal nonsense, they were all over. I don't believe my mom ever got Thai government help with our places ;)
posted by Alensin at 10:26 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


Oh, all you people who think that Thai food is God's gift to vegetarians. I'm sitting here in Bangkok right now. I lost 10 kilos in 7 weeks because I'm a vegetarian and it's so damn difficult to find actually vegetarian Thai food. Vegetables here are at best a condiment. (Chiang Mai is a bit easier for the vegetarian.)
posted by rednikki at 10:29 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


Laarb/laab is pretty Thai. I think the distinction is hard to make in those border regions. Anyway NE Thai Isaan cuisine crosses over with Laotian cuisine just like Isaan dialect does. Then there's Lanna-style laarb which is a whole different deal.
posted by Telf at 11:06 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


They're common here in NYC, and Ive never been to one that didn't put too much sugar in the food.
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:30 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


Liquidwolf while there are certainly a lot of middling to bad Thai places in NYC it's absolutely absurd to say there aren't any that do a good job. Off the top of my head I've had first rate food at Larb Ubol, somtum der, uncle Boons, zaab elee and sriprapai.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:18 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


There is an old question about Dublin in Ireland. Can you walk across Dublin without passing a pub? After I moved to San Francisco, I wondered if it was possible to walk across San Francisco without passing a Thai restaurant?
posted by njohnson23 at 1:57 PM on March 30


Thank God England isn't doing this. It would probably start a war.
posted by sexyrobot at 2:04 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


Thank God England isn't doing this. It would probably start a war.

I'd give anything for an Indian restaurant in my town.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:09 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


I judge by Drunken Noodles, and by how crispy they can fry the tofu.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 2:21 PM on March 30 [2 favorites]


The article is about the real Thai restaurants, but they are outnumbered by the fake ones. If there is no portrait of the King, not a real Thai place.
posted by w0mbat at 2:38 PM on March 30


Some Thai people are not actually down with the legally-mandated reverence for the royal family, you know. Especially when applied to the quite scuzzy current one. It's as if people are individuals!
posted by tavella at 3:33 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


My Thai friends tell me that they frequently enter a "Thai Restaurant", and on trying to converse with the owners, discover that they are Lao or Cambodian, and are serving their own regional takes on the food. The owners just know that Americans are more likely to stop into a Thai restaurant than a Lao one.

Yep, Keo's in Waikiki, pretty famous and the owner is Laotian.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:30 PM on March 30


My mom pointed out this afternoon that the problem with running a Thai restaurant that really wants to get things right is staffing. We found it hard to get Thai cooks and so forth into the country legally, and it remains a thorny problem for our current scaled-down circumstances. Sadly, government subsidies probably wouldn't help with that.
posted by Alensin at 5:28 PM on March 30


Doesn't that also happen with Japanese restaurants, with many being run by immigrants from China or elsewhere, presumably because Japanese food sells better/is more profitable?
posted by acb at 5:32 PM on March 30


WTF is a "real" vs "fake" Thai restaurant??? Like the noodles are actually made from rubber? SMH...
posted by xtine at 6:15 PM on March 30


Apropos of this thread, I just had a very tasty bowl of Tom Yum Noodle soup at Thai Rama in Festus, MO, which is about the next-to-last place I would expect to find a Thai restaurant (after the one I mentioned above).
posted by jferg at 6:50 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


The nearest Thai restaurant to me has ok food (solid middling-to-good) but ridiculously bad service. I avoid going there except for work lunches since it is a pain dealing with such cranky employees. It's a pity, because even so-so Thai food is usually tasty.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:06 PM on March 30


Regarding Malaysian food mentioned above: Each year, on weekends in July, there is the Singapore Food Festival. Nothing better than sitting out in the evening, in Clifford Square or wherever, drinking Tiger beer, and sampling Malaysian, Indo, Thai, Vietnamese, etc, etc. And, as noted above, the Malaysian food just blows the Thai offerings out of the water. Last time we were there, a number of booths featured chefs from Penang - just fantastic (or maybe it was the beer). Next time we go back, we’re going straight to Penang.

Until then, it’s local Thai shops. There’s probably 10 within 5 miles with basically the same menu. Just remember, order it ‘Thai spicy.’
posted by sudogeek at 7:37 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


There are also quite a few otherwise quite ordinary pubs in both the UK and Australia which have Thai menus in their kitchens.

For a while the best Thai food in London, the place that made you really think yes, I'm back in Thailand with the fire and freshness you find there and not at all over-sweetened bog standard UK/Thai food, was at a grotty little pub. The pub was more Trainspotting than ye olde Englande, and reliably full of middle-aged men with shaved heads watching football, but if you went downstairs to the basement there was a dark, gloomy karaoke bar and, yes, excellent and genuinely authentic Thai food. Fantastic stuff. I never quite understood how it came about.
posted by tavegyl at 8:20 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


If you’re in the SF Bay Area and want to compare Thai Larb and Laos Style Larb, check out Champa Garden in Oakland, they have both on their menu. All their Laotian dishes are amazing. (Speaking of gastro-diplomacy, before I discovered that restaurant, I didn’t even know that Laos *existed* as a country...)
posted by The Toad at 8:55 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


I actually wrote one of the previous blog posts on this question linked in the article, so it's neat to see an answer (to be fair, I hadn't really put much effort into the "why?" so much as the "is the number of Thai restaurants really as disproportionate as it seems to me?" question).
posted by retrograde at 9:18 PM on March 30


DevilsAdvocate if I'm going to SE Asia and want good food, I should really go to Malaysia

Malaysian food tends to be more of a mosaic (as opposed to melting pot) that leads to much greater variety of tastes/textures/aromas. You get a little bit of all of SE Asia in Malaysian food.
posted by porpoise at 10:15 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


I think it’s interesting that the goal is to promote Thai culture and tourism. I assumed Thai food was like “Chinese food” in that it was invented to appeal to Americans and had nothing to do with what people actually ate there. But it seemed from the article that that is still somewhat true.

Anyway I used to be a big fan of Thai food on the east coast and the Midwest and I figured the lack of good Thai food here in the bay area was part of the same recognized problem of west coast Chinese food not tasting good to east coasters.
posted by bleep at 12:42 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


i'm truly sorry i wasn't in here earlier to promote malaysian food, but it does seem i don't need to do much any more. (um, come by! if you're in KL, drop me a line.) if you're planning your trip to be soonish, second half of may is a good time as any. it'll be ramadan then, so in malaysia and singapore, there will be ramadan food bazaars in the late afternoons for people to buy food for breaking fasts. it's a good time to find regional foods too.

but ehhh just come by whenever tbh, no stress. there's always something to eat.
posted by cendawanita at 9:11 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


Also, the Malaysian restaurants you can find overseas aren't really as well-delineated as Thai, most probably because of our racial mix. What tend to happen is that (like in London and NYC), you can find Malaysian Malay ones (which will probably co-relate to Indonesian and Singaporean Malay dishes), Malaysian Chinese ones (which will either have more Southern Chinese-related stuff or Nyonya stuff, and so then it can co-relate with HK dishes or not), and Malaysian Indian ones (the rarest of the lot. we just go to a Southern Indian/Tamilian restaurant and suffer their versions of prata etc), or the East Malaysian indigenous restaurants, like Iban or Kadazan ones.
posted by cendawanita at 9:15 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


Give that cement a few hours to cure, at least. Unless, you want to go Indiana Jones-ing for that lost crown in the last place you want to dig through.

Apparently my dentist uses really good cement becuase when I asked him if there was any kind of aftercare I needed to follow ("how long before I can eat normally, is there any food I should avoid the rest of the day") he said "I wouldn't eat rocks, but other than that you're good to go right away."

So I was able to have pad thai for lunch after a dentist trip and then I took a nap because of the anesthesia wearing off, the end.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:47 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


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