Los Angeles is home to the largest Thai community outside of Thailand. This week, Thai-Americans are celebrating the traditional three-day water festival called Songkran to mark the new year. And many of them regularly shop at LA's landmark Bangkok Market, the first Thai food store in the U.S.
Here, you can buy temple bells and alms bowls for monks. But there's so much more. The aisles are stocked with rows of fresh Asian produce, noodles and fish sauce. There are coconut milks, curries and sriracha imported from Si Racha, Thailand. And there are astonishing varieties of rice: brown, black, purple, jasmine, even so-called "forbidden" rice — forbidden, explains chef Jet Tila, "because only the royalty in Asia could eat it." At Bangkok Market, you can buy a 5-pound bag of it for $4.
Tila shows us around the market he grew up working in, before he became a top chef. For four decades, his family's store has sold inexpensive ingredients that are key to Thai cuisine. He says many of California's best chefs have shopped there.
"This was the only place where they could get lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, curry paste, fish sauce, where they weren't getting gouged for it," he explains. "They knew their suppliers. And when I became a fine-dining chef, that was my in. Everyone was like, 'Oh, you're the kid who used to pack my groceries and deliver stuff to my restaurant.' "
Tila's parents opened Bangkok Market in 1972, having moved to Los Angeles with a wave of Thai immigrants in the 1960s.
"Usually we shopped at Chinatown, but they didn't have the ingredients the way Thais cook, " says Tila's mother, Marasri Tilakamonkul. "My husband saw the opportunity, so he decided that we should open the market right now."
Bangkok Market soon became a de facto community center and a trading post. In the early days, before they began importing items, the family asked friends immigrating here to bring cases of curry paste and fish sauce. They relied on California farms for produce that was only available in the spring and summer. Tila says his family began growing vegetables themselves in the warmer climate of Mexico.
"It was specifically two regions: Nayarit and Sinaloa," says Tila. "To this day, a majority of your Asian produce in the winter come from there. And nobody knows this. My dad literally hand-carried seed — I don't know how legal it was back in the day. But, uh ..."
Bangkok Market is in a windowless beige building in East Hollywood, an area once home to rival street gangs. Tila says that though the gangs all tried to claim territory, they left the market alone "because they shopped here, and their moms shopped here."
Tila says the market has survived where others did not. In April 1992, when he was a senior in high school, "The riots popped off. About 30 of us stayed here for three days straight — barricaded the doors with rice sacks, jumped on the roof with whatever guns we could bring just to defend our store."
Today, to get ingredients from around the world, all sorts of people shop at the market: Asians, Latinos, hipsters and exciting new chefs like Louis Tikaram — a Fijian-Chinese-Indian-Australian who moved here to open the hot new restaurant EP/LP.
Tikaram makes Southeast Asian dishes, with ingredients he buys at the Bangkok Market. "I walked in the door, and the intoxicating smell hit me of all the beautiful produce," Tikaram says. "And [I] walked down the aisles and I knew I could get everything: All of my jasmine rice from Thailand, yellow bean paste, palm sugar ... it was the saving grace of this restaurant. So you can thank Bangkok Market."
Like Tikaram's intriguing menus, Bangkok Market has come to represent some of the most diverse flavors of Los Angeles.