When longtime video producer Bryan Sharp got an uncharacteristically lucrative gig that afforded him an opportunity to travel overseas, he typed “everywhere” into Skyscanner.com, a travel site that digs up bargain flights around the world. Four days later, he was on a plane to Bangkok, the cheapest international fare at the time, and he immediately dove into the city’s street-food scene. Six weeks later, Sharp set about re-creating his favorite dish, pad Thai, back in the United States.
“Simply showing my friends pictures wouldn’t do it,” he says. “I wanted them to experience what I had fallen in love with.” He bought a wok at Goodwill, started hosting dinner parties featuring pad Thai, and within a few months constructed a bike food cart that resembled Bangkok's rickshaws. White Guy Pad Thai, as Sharp dubbed his business, set up in front of Silver Lake’s Cafe Stella every Friday and Saturday night. Soon, Sharp was feeding concertgoers at festivals such as Made in America, Coachella, BottleRock Napa Valley and Ultra Music Festival in Miami. While on the festival circuit, he also brought on two partners: experienced caterer and chef Zac LaGrou, and longtime Intelligentsia barista Justin Hodgson, who handles operations. The trio soon reinvested their earnings in a sleek, white-and-red trailer, which they now tow behind a beat-up Ford truck.
During our visit, White Guy Pad Thai had a couple of yellow lawn chairs on Astroturf in front of the trailer. A gold Buddha statue was affixed to the right side of the trailer for good luck. A glass window revealed chefs cooking on two blazing-hot woks.
“We all have an inherent prejudice that makes us believe that if the person isn’t of the ethnicity of the food they are making, it must not be legitimate or authentic,” Sharp says. “When you order Thai food, you want to imagine a Thai grandmother making recipes that have been passed down in her family for generations, not some ethically ambiguous hipster kid.” Sharp says that when he was first starting out, he wondered, “'Why not turn it around? Why not challenge people while poking fun at that commonly harbored prejudice?' It also took a lot of the wind out of the sails of those who might have otherwise poked fun. Rather than being the butt of the joke, it made us all in on it together.”
That said, Sharp does strive for authenticity. While in Bangkok, he frequently asked street vendors to teach him how to make their dishes, including pad Thai. “Some were resistant,” he says. “Others got a kick out of watching me fail. But over the six weeks I was there, I learned many of the techniques and recipes the street vendors were using.”
Once Sharp returned home to Los Angeles, he tested pad Thai recipes and compared them with other L.A. versions. He uses coconut sugar instead of white sugar and fresh noodles rather than dry, and says the only big difference between his and many other version is that he uses baked tofu instead of fresh tofu, based purely on his preference. The trailer sells pad Thai plain or bolstered with chicken or shrimp. Expect springy rice noodles wok-fried with carrots, baked tofu, scallions, bean sprouts, egg and peanuts, dressed with a squeeze of lime and either Double Chicken brand Sriracha, sambal chile paste or chile flakes.
White Guy Pad Thai rotates in other dishes, depending on the time of day and as inspiration strikes. Those dishes include red, green and Panang curries; puffy Thai omelets served with a scoop of jasmine rice, snipped scallions and avocado (with the option to add fermented Thai sausage); and chicken and waffles with Sriracha maple syrup. Sharp says the popular curry noodle soup khao soi might surface in the future. In the meantime, Sharp and his partners are still working on the perfect pad Thai.