Anajak has been quietly serving some of the most remarkable Thai food in the San Fernando Valley for almost four decades. There were only a handful of Thai restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area, and none in Sherman Oaks, when Rick Pichetrungsi opened Anajak in 1981 on Ventura Boulevard. “People were not familiar with Thai food and would come in asking for wonton soup,” remembers Pichetrungsi. “The first day we sold maybe $130, but we kept going. It was scary.”
Fast forward 38 years and with the help of Pichetrungsi’s son, Justin, Anajak is not only going strong but has become the most exciting Thai restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. When the younger Pichetrungsi came on board the family business nearly seven years ago, he suggested some changes. First, the menu needed to be pared down. “The menu was originally a trifold menu and it was double-sided,” he said.
“We had spicy basil chicken, spicy basil beef, spicy basil shrimp…then we combined them,” elaborates Rick Pichetrungsi. The current menu consists of items that not only sell well, but that he enjoys cooking too. In addition to the standard pad Thai and Penang curry, there’s also laab, a minced pork salad from northern Thailand, and kratong tong, a bite-sized snack of chicken and corn served in a crispy pastry cup.
But the most compelling dishes on the menu are the four monthly specials highlighting regional specialties. Depending on the whims of the kitchen, diners may find brisket in Massaman, a mild curry from southern Thailand with Muslim roots, or khanom jiin, a lesser-known fermented rice noodle dish from central Thailand, or perhaps even fried chicken from southern Thailand, where the family’s matriarch was born. An appetizer that makes a frequent appearance on the monthly specials is the laab tot, pork and herb meatballs served with a spicy and sour dipping sauce made of chili paste, tamarind, fish sauce, and lemongrass.
Sometimes there are nightly specials when Rick Pichetrungsi is tinkering with a recipe for the future specials, like the hor mok, a fish curry steamed in banana leaves. Hor mok is a Thai take on amok, a traditional Cambodian dish. A thick custard of coconut milk, galangal, curry , and fish, hor mok is one of the finest examples of the rich flavors of southeast Asian cooking.
The monthly menus are designed and illustrated by the younger Pichetrungsi, who graduated with a degree in design and continues to work as a conceptual artist in the entertainment industry. A penchant for the arts seems to run in the family. All the paintings hanging in the restaurant are created by different family members, including Justin Pichetrungsi’s sister and grandfather, who was a painter for the Royal Court of Thailand.
Anajak might also be the only Thai restaurant in the San Fernando Valley to exclusively pour natural wines from small vineyards. Justin Pichetrungsi is a fan-turned-friend of Everson Royce wine store in Pasadena, and he’s brought his love of wine to Anajak, converting the whole list to organic and biodynamic producers. The wine menu isn’t what one would expect to see at a Thai restaurant, much less the oldest one in Sherman Oaks. Some days there’s even a bottle of pinot from Milan Nestarec, the first organic wine producer from Croatia to have its wares imported into the U.S.
Justin refuses to put more predictable bottles of cabernet sauvignon or merlot on the wine list. “If I do, that’s all people will ever order,” Pichetrungsi said. He’s happy to pour a sample so that customers can find something different and interesting to drink. Anajak’s best-selling wine is the 2016 Francois Pinon Vouvray, a far cry from one of those more familiar New World wines.
While Anajak has not have received much press in the greater LA area, it has a loyal local following nevertheless. In its heyday, the restaurant was so busy that diners had to sit on beer boxes because there weren’t enough chairs. “We only had eight tables,” the elder Pichetrungsi remembers. Anajak later expanded into the space next door. Most of the regulars are either Sherman Oaks residents or employees of nearby entertainment studios. And sometimes they’re both, like Carla Jones Richard and Marlin Richard who have been coming to Anajak since the week they moved to Sherman Oaks.
“When we have out of town guests, this is where we come,” said Carla Richard. As Marlin Richard remembered it, “the first week we moved into our home, we walked the Boulevard and stopped in here randomly, and we were so excited about the food.” The couple have met the entire Pichetrungsi family over the years. As Carla Richard puts it, “it’s a place to go where you know everything will be fine, whether it’s the company or the meal. It’s home, in a sense.”
Anajak. 14704 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403