The saying goes that if you love something, you let it go — and if it comes back, it’s yours forever. So, when you say a family is unified in their “love” for a restaurant, it can be a throwaway line on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Conversely, it can be what the Asapahu family feels about Ayara Thai, the family’s Westchester Thai food institution.
Vanda Asapahu, eldest daughter of the founders of Ayara Thai, is shaping the succession plan of her family’s business, and alongside siblings Peter and Cathy, they might be the three best employees for the job.
The Asapahus are actually undergoing two transitions; one is the actual physical space of the restaurant during an upcoming three-month remodel, during which they’ll be running Ayara Luk, a pop-up out of the old Chalet Edelweiss space on Sepulveda. The other is the change of hands of ownership between first-generation immigrant parents Anna and Andy and their Thai-American children, Cathy, Peter and significantly, eldest daughter Vanda.
The menu at Ayara Luk pits Ayara Thai favorites alongside some exclusive experimental dishes. Each of the dishes has meaning behind the inclusion, but some dishes unlock a look into Ayara Thai’s past and present.
Part 1: Khao Soi
When Ayara Thai opened in 2004, khao soi was on the menu, but the idea of a curry noodle soup had yet to warm up to the palates of Angelenos. “Now it’s the replacement of pad thai,” Vanda explains. “But back then, it just didn’t move.”
The inclusion of khao soi was significant to Northern Thailand-native Anna Asapahu, the matriarch of the clan who toiled away in the kitchens for a shot at her children to have a better life.
The tale of how Anna and Andy Asapahu came to the States is your typical “immigrant family fulfills the American Dream” fairy tale. Andy took a leave of absence from his operations career at Thai Airways to visit the States. Sensing that better opportunities were available for his family stateside, he moved with Anna (a nutritionist also working at Thai Airways) and his children to Montebello. The Asapahu patriarch started out in janitorial services, cleaning gas station bathrooms and paying Vanda ten cents for every piece of gum she managed to scrape from the floors.
“He would save his Laguna Niguel routes for the weekend,” Vanda Asapahu recalls. “We took the van and we would sit on toilet paper boxes. My parents would clean the bathrooms. Then we’d take Thai beef jerky, sticky rice, and chili relish, and picnic by the beach, and that would be our weekend.”
When the Gulf War hit and gas station owners started locking their bathroom doors, Asapahu’s business slowed down and he traveled the States as a semi-professional golfer for a spell, before finding his footing back in food.
“He grew up in a very food-heavy family, and so cooking was always, well, ‘If there’s nothing else, you can do that,’” Vanda said.
And “that” it was. What is today Ayara Thai initially began as a catering business for the employees of Thai Airways in the mid 1990s. In an era before the internet had reached widespread commercial use, business was conducted by paper, fax, phone and cash, with couriers dropping off boxes of shrimp paste fried rice and grilled beef at the hotel rooms of homesick Thai Airways staff.
“By the time [crew members] get here, all of the restaurants are closed, so we filled a void. It was really scrappy, a weird job. Only immigrants would find a job like this,” Vanda says, laughing.
The catering business operated out of Marina Del Rey, while the family restaurant was in East Los Angeles. With the catering business gaining traction and the lease on the East L.A. restaurant storefront expiring, the family packed up and moved to make Westchester their permanent home.
Part 2: Chap Chai
Chap chai is a Thai-Chinese vegetable stew usually made with pork belly, and though its appearance on the Ayara Luk menu is sporadic, the pop-up’s version is a vegan-friendly soup of chunky, softened vegetables steeped in a savory mushroom-based broth. It tastes like the kind of food that makes you homesick — and it’s the food Vanda grew up on.
Vanda, by birthright, is permanently attuned to the family business. It’s a sentiment that’s only amplified by her responsibility as the oldest child in the family. It’s also something she cites as a challenge she faced growing up. Being a restaurant kid meant coming to the restaurant directly from school, finishing homework and immediately helping out with dinner shifts, and sleeping in makeshift boxes in the back room until closing time.
“You always had skin in the game, even if you resented it,” Vanda recalls. “From looking at tax papers at 10 years old, to calling for phone services, at a young age you learn and you get involved. I used to ask, ‘Why do Sally’s parents never make her learn any of this?’”
Helping her parents run a restaurant and catering company afforded Vanda a crash course in business. As for her formal education, Vanda attended UCLA for her degree in International Development.
“When I was at UCLA, my mom would bring food to drop off,” Vanda recalls. “[Chap chai] was a dish I always requested whenever I had major exams. It was my comfort food, and if there was a dish that’s responsible for the success in my studies, it’s the chap chai.”
Whatever was in the chap chai, it worked: Vanda graduated from UCLA and eventually from Yale with her Masters in Public Health. Afterward, she worked for the United Nations in Thailand, primarily with initiatives to improve women’s health. But it was in the small towns off the beaten paths that she fell in love again with the food of her parents’ home country. That, combined with some rumination on her roots, led her to think about returning home.
“[The restaurant] has fed the whole family, paid for our education and all the opportunities that we’ve had. To back away from that, for Thais, would be not being respectful,” Vanda said.
And so Vanda returned to Los Angeles to help out with Ayara Thai, against the advice of her friends, who considered it tantamount to career suicide.
Vanda’s homecoming wasn’t met with much fanfare. Her family’s business was facing potentially millions of dollars in fines from the State for allegedly exploiting immigrant labor and noncompliance with California State Labor law.
“It was a huge article in the LA Times, and I think the headline said something like ‘immigrants exploiting immigrants,’” Vanda recalled. “In reality, my parents were just giving some visiting Thai students a job to make some money.”
Vanda and her brother Peter toiled away logging time sheets and addressing as many of the violations as possible, ultimately cutting the fine by more than a million dollars. But the issue of noncompliance and the lack of organizational protocols stuck with Vanda, as she found herself caught between her parents’ culture and the legal strictures of operating a restaurant in the U.S. — much of which gets lost in the language barrier.
As a bilingual Thai-American with experience working in teams at the U.N., Vanda set out to create a work culture at Ayara Thai that was compliant with state laws. Seemingly small steps like establishing a bathroom cleaning schedule and coordinating breaks and lunch were both an effort to keep the staff accountable to one another, and to preserve the family business in the long term. It was the first in a series of generational shifts of business stewardship from parent-to-child, and Vanda was ready to answer the call.
“In adolescence you definitely feel resentment and bitterness,” says Vanda of her duties to the family business. “But eventually you get past that, and you fall in love.”
Part 3: When Tigers Cry Tomahawk
When Tigers Cry Tomahawk is a hulking marvel of a bone-in rib steak, gently marinated and wood-fired to a perfect medium rare. The marinade is subtle but accentuated by the smokiness of wood-firing, appealing to one’s basic carnivorous instinct. It’s another northeast Thai specialty, presented in a large format more familiar to diners in the U.S..
With Vanda’s mother Anna helming the kitchens at Ayara Thai and Andy flying to Thailand for months-long stretches to conduct research, Vanda is focused on planning the costs and other operations from the remodel (including Ayara Luk). The family now owns the building that houses the original Ayara, and the remodel is to ensure code compliance and usability for multiple generations into the future.
“I’m probably going to be in debt until I’m 60,” Vanda says, laughing — her easy laugh and youthfulness communicating to me that that’s a very, very long time from now. But then her father interjects.
“I know someone, we could just pay my friend to do it for much less money,” Vanda’s father says, disapprovingly in Thai. But Vanda looks at me, her smile unmoved by family conflict unfolding in front of a journalist on record.
“We can’t,” Vanda says. “We talked about this, dad. we have to do it the right way.”
The right way, in this case, is a cultural sticking point. In the laid-back, live-and-let-live culture of Thailand, her father’s proposal seems more convenient, less costly, and ultimately the wise decision. But Vanda knows that in the ceaselessly litigious culture of the U.S., legal grounding is foundational. Though they come at a considerable premium, licensed and bonded contractors are a must.
Vanda knows the path ahead, forged by the obstacles she’s already overcome. But the family has shared and toiled together, their adversities strengthening the core ethos of hard work and shared love that anchors one of the most successful Thai restaurants in Los Angeles. The remodeling process looms, and perhaps Andy Asapahu puts it best.
“Not having the restaurant for three months is a long time. When you love someone, not seeing them for even three days is difficult. Imagine three months without the one you love,” Andy Asapahu says in Thai.
Well, we know what happens when the one you love comes back.
Special thanks: Uracha Chaiyapinunt, translation
Photos: Wonho Frank Lee and Uracha Chaiyapinunt
Editor: Matthew Kang