In 1969 Boon and Supa Kuntee opened Chao Krung, one of the first Thai restaurants in Los Angeles, paving the way for what would become Thai Town many years later. They diluted the menu and dishes of their homeland's exotic cuisine — unfamiliar to Americans — to attract customers in their newly adopted East Hollywood neighborhood.
It worked. In 1976 the restaurant relocated to Mid-City and reopened on Fairfax, just about the time The Carol Burnett Show was at the height of its popularity and filming across the street at CBS Television City. The family grew and so did the diverse and sophisticated tastes of L.A.
After decades of serving Americanized Thai food, daughters Katy Noochlaor and Amanda Kuntee have taken over the baton at Chao Krung to create a chef-driven, elevated menu that reflects their parents’ original offerings in what is now L.A.’s oldest Thai restaurant. They went to nearby Fairfax High School and learned the ins and outs of the kitchen while working at the restaurant after school.
“My sister and I have always been deeply connected to our Thai culture, our parents made sure of that,” Noochlaor tells L.A. Weekly in the remodeled dining room that pays homage to the family’s roots with hand-carved Thai antiques, artwork and ancestral photos.
“We went to Thai temple for Thai school and learned the traditional dances and language,” she adds. “We grew up in this restaurant and are proud to keep that tradition going.”
The second generation admits that the parents set the bar high. The sisters consult relatives in Thailand about family recipes and ingredients, many coming from aunts and grandmothers, and there are plenty of family dinners here to keep them on their game.
“I’m most passionate about my pork belly pad Thai and green curries,” Kuntee says. “Curry is the first dish I ever made. But the family is very critical and everybody wants to make the best dish that all will approve of — in a friendly competitive way. We’ve shared some amazing meals, and in the end our customers benefit from those family dinners.”
The curry selections at Chao Krung are plentiful and would make any grandmother proud. The kaeng hung-ley (braised pork belly curry) is prepared with Northern Thai sweet pork belly and pork shoulder, simmered with ginger, palm sugar, turmeric, tamarind, curry powder and pickled garlic. The Thai green curry is made in the spicy central Thai style with green chilies, kaffir lime, coconut milk, eggplant, jalapeños and sweet basil.
The menu is huge and may take a while to digest, but musts include “drinking food” small plates such as “Sister A’s” sour Isaan sausage, which is a divine mix of pork, lemongrass, garlic, sticky rice and coriander root. It’s served with fresh ginger, lime and bird’s eye chili. Another favorite is the hoi todd — crispy broken crepes with steamed fresh mussels, garlic, chives and bean sprouts, served with Sriracha.
Keeping with tradition, there’s a bounty of communal dishes, including a choice of two market-price deep-fried whole fishes, such as spicy catfish, topped with red curry paste and wild ginger (pla rad prik), and garlic fish with fried garlic and black pepper sauce (pla gra-taem). Be sure to order one of the many IPAs on tap or a traditional Pilsner to help take the heat off.
“It’s rare for kids to take over their parents’ restaurant businesses here,” Kuntee says. “But we needed to inherit this. Plus we want to keep eating this food until the day we die, we’re that hooked on our family food.”
Small plates range from $7 to $18; soups and curries are $7 to $18; and communal dishes range from $10 to $18.
Chao Krung, 111 N. Fairfax Ave., Beverly Grove; (323) 939-8361, chaokrungla.com.