All Together Now

Words by
Dakota Kim
Images by
Yasara Gunawardena

When Justin Pichetrungsi stepped into his father’s shoes at Anajak Thai, his family’s beloved restaurant, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. He’s still figuring it out.

When the sommelier stops by your table at Anajak Thai, an intimate little joint in Sherman Oaks—a table, mind you, already heaped with dry-aged fish, Southern Thai fried chicken, and the best pad thai you’ve ever had—to suggest a sparkling pét-nat, you realize you’re in the midst of an experience like no other. That dinner party atmosphere is the masterwork of the Pichetrungsi family, who opened the restaurant in 1981, long before pad see ew and penang curry were mainstays of American diners.

Since 2019, the restaurant has been helmed by Justin Pichetrungsi, who took the reins after his father, Rick, had a stroke. Under Justin, it’s the same Anajak—his mother, Rattikorn, still runs the front of house—but also a very different one. He brought in Thai Taco Tuesdays to conquer slow nights, started pairing orange wine with pad thai, introduced an omakase menu, and made sashimi an appetizer staple alongside papaya salad. An art director for Disney before entering the family business, Justin has brought his artistic sensibility to Thai cuisine with a verve that has been luring discerning foodies over the hills and into the Valley.

All families are complicated; families in business together are really complicated. Having run a restaurant with my Korean family, I felt Justin and I have things in common, though comparing the places we operated to what he has created in Anajak is like contrasting Costco apples with Ojai pixie oranges. We recently met up to chat about generational expectations from immigrant parents, how to preserve restaurant legacies, and when to share the recipe for the house secret sauce.

The Anajak family

Justin Pichetrungsi

DAKOTA KIM: You work with your mom to run Anajak—and, until recently, with your dad, too. What is that like?

JUSTIN PICHETRUNGSI: Everyone wants to talk to me about how I was the second-generation operator who took over a mom-and-pop spot. Truth is, it’s not as romantic as it sounds. It’s as hard as opening up my own spot—but imagine that, on top of that, your partners are the most critical people in your entire life.

DK: Folks across L.A. and Sherman Oaks have known your parents for a long time and rely on you to be a place where they can gather, have a sense of community. What do you remember of growing up in the restaurant as a kid?

JP: Before taking over, I thought: When my parents are no longer here, what will happen to the restaurant? I grew up here. So many generations have come through here. I didn’t want to let go of those things, that smell of grease on my dad’s white collared shirt he’d wear every day. I’d give him a hug when he’d come home at night, and that smell is so iconic to me.

Justin mans the wok in Anajak’s kitchen.

DK: I ran a restaurant with my family too—with my mother and my father.

JP: What kind of business did you have?

DK: It was a diner that was mostly a burger spot. I ran it for a year, and it almost killed me. I did front of house for years in New York, but realized I don’t have the physical, mental, and psychological strength required to be an owner and cook. My parents didn’t have any other options, because they can’t write emails or cover letters with what’s considered proper American grammar, and, being Korean, no one would hire them in the racist 80s. So it was either do manual labor or somehow scrape together the money to buy your own business. But we survived. You know what? I think of our family as a success story. We’ve survived. We’re surviving.

JP: Yes, 100 percent.

DK: We second-generationers aren’t known for being grateful, but I think we really are. We just struggle with that cultural divide in expressing our gratitude, because I think a part of us feels so guilty that we didn’t struggle in the same way, and a part of us resents that we feel guilty and wants to be free of it. The guilt, the guilt!

JP: Mom and Dad, they’re working tirelessly for the restaurant. Dad’s at home. He can’t work anymore, but he’s still helping me make calls. He found a plumber for us recently. Mom, she’s working tirelessly on the books. She does the front of house, being the owner and talking to people. She’s great at that. The reason I came back to help—well, one, I love restaurants and I love Anajak—but I wanted to relieve my parents.

DK: So, what are the particular struggles between you and your folks?

JP: My mom and dad feel like I changed so much of the restaurant.

DK: And they resent that?

JP: Part of them understands, part of them enjoys that, part of them says it’s crazy how I created a following around it. But then, the way that it’s operated—they still want that to be the same.

Southern-Thai fried chicken.

DK: It’s difficult to replicate something exactly. Why not try something new?

JP: Now, looking back at old menus, I see that dad did the same. Dad also tried a bunch of different dishes. He also had Japanese influence in his food. It just takes some time for them to come around to understanding it. Before, I used to pitch them ideas. Now I just say, “This is what we’re doing.” They have no choice now. It took them some time to realize: he’s in the driver’s seat. But they’re always going to be my backseat drivers. I’m okay with that. I just really miss them as parents, you know? Even though I see them every day.

DK: On my side, the ironic thing is, my parents didn’t come here so I can bust my ass forever, but then they also get seemingly upset when I’m not doing so. They want me to work harder, do more, make more money. So I’m confused. It’s like they can’t let go of that work ethic.

JP: My parents do the exact same thing. They think that I’m not doing everything that I can. They compare me to Dad. My dad and mom compare me to what my dad was like at my age, running the restaurant. We both started at age 33.

DK: There’s this feeling that if they could do it all, because they pushed down their regret and trauma about life and just stomached all the pain to work hard, that we should be able to replicate that level of work exactly.

JP: They always say, “We made it work like this: discipline, discipline, discipline.” They say I’m making the staff soft. I say the times are different. The labor and economy are different. The way people want to work is different. Restaurants bear the weight of needing to make the most change, because everyone above us has made changes already. But no one wants to do the things like make company culture a priority, make health a priority for the workers—or for the people owning and operating the place.

DK: What else unnerves them about what you’re doing at the restaurant?

JP: My mom says simple things like, “You have other people making the sauces—you need to be making the sauces.” And it goes further, into the creation of a new sauce. She says, “You let other people create the new sauce?” I say, “Yes, because it’s still our sauce.” We’re still editing it, buying ingredients for it, composing the dish, but if other people want to have a little ownership into the end product, that actually helps in many ways.

DK: But her feeling is you guys need to have ownership over everything?

JP: I mean, I understand. There’s a fear of losing something, and after so many years, the cooks already know how to make stuff. It’s not like the recipes for penang and green curry aren’t available.

DK: My mom is like that too—she wouldn’t share our teriyaki sauce recipe with anyone else at our restaurant. It was top-secret. She used pineapple juice and peels, or something.

JP: You’ve said too much already!

DK: Let somebody else make it, Mom! So, are you an only?

JP: I have a younger sister and an older brother.

DK: What’s their participation in the restaurant?

JP: They’re smart—they come as diners.

DK: They weaseled their way out of it! Do you ever call them to vent, because they’re the only people who understand your parents?

JP: Yeah, of course.

Digging into the dry-aged grilled fish.

DK: For me, the tough thing was the little stressors—those could send my folks into overdrive. Little crises automatically drove them into emergency and panic mode, and that was what was tough about working with them.

JP: You’re always in firefighting mode, so you’re high-strung and ready. What’s good is that you can fire-fight very easily, but what’s bad is that you’re always in an anxious orientation. My parents endured a lot of stress over a lot of time. Dad stood on the line until he was 71-years-old at this restaurant, for 38 years.

DK: Oh my god.

JP: I don’t exist with the same types of fear that they have. My fear is to not survive long enough to do this for the rest of my life. My fear is not having sustainability. My fear is dying on the line. My fear is having a stroke when I’m 71 like Dad did. My fear is not taking care of my body for so many years because you had to hold your station. My fear is to not be able to provide for my cooks and restore some balance to them too, and I still haven’t figured that out. I lose sleep over it, because cooks are like athletes—you have to stretch and eat well.

DK: Have you noticed that immigrant parents never want to tell their kids their whole life stories? I’ve asked my parents about their lives before restaurants, and they say, “Why would you want to dredge up all those old painful memories?”

JP: Dad and I would go to Vegas a lot on these road trips. One time, we went just me and him. And I was like, “Dad, tell me your story. How did you get into all this stuff?” He worked in hostess bars in Thailand as a 13-year-old, worked in clubs and cooked noodles on the street. When he came here, he worked at Jack in the Box, was driving a truck, slicing cabbage at a deli. And then he was a tempura cook at this sushi spot called Miyako, and he worked his way up from a cook all the way to sushi chef, while still working at Jack in the Box on the side. He’d bring fish from the Japanese restaurant, cook it on the plancha at Jack in the Box. At the sushi restaurant, he’d cook Thai family meals, like Thai-style Hainan chicken. His coworkers said, “Hey Rick, you should open your own spot.” So he asked the owner and then he found this spot in Sherman Oaks. It was a grocery store before. In Sherman Oaks, there was no other Thai restaurant.

“When I change the menu, my mom will say, ‘Tacos, what do you mean tacos? So suddenly we’re a Mexican restaurant?’ And then she’ll be like, ‘You’re serving bluefin; now we’re a Japanese restaurant?’ We’ll put ginger in a sauce, and she’s like, ‘Wait, we’re a Chinese restaurant now?’ She’s the guardian of tradition.”

DK: Do you think all that struggle is why they’re so tough on you?

JP: My folks were really, really hard with me and really, really hard for me at the same time.

DK: I feel that. Like, so loyal, but also your worst critic.

JP: Like when I change the menu, my mom will say, “Tacos, what do you mean tacos? So suddenly we’re a Mexican restaurant?” And then she’ll be like, “You’re serving bluefin; now we’re a Japanese restaurant?” We’ll put ginger in a sauce, and she’s like, “Wait, we’re a Chinese restaurant now?” She’s the guardian of tradition.

DK: That often falls on the woman, on the mother, to keep the small cultural things alive, that aren’t really small.

JP: She’s like, “You never pray, your dad prayed all the time and set the offerings.” They’re Buddhist. I’m like, “Mom, that’s 45 minutes out of the day. And what are you praying for?”

DK: Prosperity?

JP: I say I could spend 45 minutes actually making money. She says I don’t have the same culture. I say I’m still a Buddhist, but I think maybe when I get a sous chef then I’ll be more of one.

Meals at Anajak are a dinner party.

DK: Do you ever catch her in a soft moment? Sometimes I catch my mom giving me a loving look, but it’s on the DL. She doesn’t want me to know.

JP: When we receive some kind of accolade or something nice is written about us, she’ll be like, “Good job,” and then yell at my dad, “See, you ran this for so long and you never had them write about you. What were you doing?” I say, “Mom, don’t say that. They’re writing about dad now.”

DK: I have regrets about not carrying on my parents’ legacy—in a lot of ways, they were very creative and intelligent business owners, and my mom is an incredible chef. On the flip side, you studied to be an artist—do you have any regrets that you’re no longer making art full-time?

JP: My friends are like, “I guess you’re not coming back to art anymore.” I was teaching at Art Center for the first couple years, but my mind was exploding. I hate compartmentalizing. I still think like a visual artist and like a painter in the end.

DK: You’re enacting praxis—food like yours is art, but it’s functional.

JP: Running a business can also be an art. I’m not saying I’m doing it that way—far from it. But friends who are really good restaurateurs—they’re doing it to the level of an art. They make it look good and look fun, and I really aspire to that.

DK: Do you ever go into the walk-in fridge and scream?

JP: We don’t have a walk-in. I can scream into the wine fridge.

DK: There’s a tenderness about running a family business, too, at least when you have a brief moment to step back and look at it all. How do you want to preserve Anajak’s legacy?

JP: When I was in film school, I was studying film and photography, shooting a lot of pictures of chefs around town. I have pictures of all the people we know and love. Maynard cooking with Corey on the line at Bestia. Evan Funke cooking at Bucato. Chef Kaz for Kotoratu. I collected all these pictures and put together a book of chef portraits around town—these Mexican ladies at taco stands, ladies at dumpling shops in the San Gabriel Valley. It’s this kaleidoscopic, Cubist look at L.A. dining, and the book began and ended with my parents.

DK: I do find talking about some of this stuff about my parents painful. Do you?

JP: It’s not painful to talk about it. It’s painful to go through it. It’s helpful to talk about it.

DK: Consider this your free therapy session.

JP: Ha—thank you. I appreciate that.

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