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Why we chose Anajak Thai as Restaurant of the Year

A man in a white T-shirt, glasses and a necklace walks between city buildings; one has a string of lights on it.
Anajak Thai chef and co-owner Justin Pichetrungsi walks in an alleyway that serves as outdoor dining space alongside his Sherman Oaks restaurant.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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“I feel like we’ve opened up a totally new restaurant,” says Justin Pichetrungsi, summing up the last three years since he took over the business his parents began in 1981 and continues to steer it through an ongoing pandemic.

In his hands, Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks straddles parallel worlds. The mainstay menu preserves the legacy of Ricky Pichetrungsi, Justin’s father, whose recipes coalesce his Thai upbringing and Cantonese heritage. Justin’s creative efforts — the Thai Taco Tuesday phenomenon he introduced in 2020, the omakase meals he serves that use a Japanese format to reexamine Southeast Asian flavors, a wine list that summarizes Angelenos’ disparate tastes — reframe the neighborhood institution as a seat of culinary innovation.

Anajak Thai is The Times’ 2022 Restaurant of the Year. The award has been given out annually since 2017, when Jonathan Gold established the tradition by honoring Locol in Watts.

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In the same year, The Times inaugurated the Gold Award; Laurie Ochoa, general manager of Food and Gold’s wife, has named Genet Agonafer’s wonderful, enduring Meals by Genet as this year’s recipient.

The choice to name Anajak as ROTY has been clear to me for months. On the one hand, a 41-year-old Thai restaurant that moonlights as a taqueria one night a week and serves mashup omakase dinners sounds like an L.A. parody. But if you dine at the restaurant, nothing comes off as caricature. The cooking, in whichever format you experience it, evinces skill and delight. Noodles heave with smoke from the wok, and the citrus sparkling over prawns or fish is practically bioluminescent. The Southern Thai-style fried chicken battered in rice flour will leave you grinning. This is a place with heart, run by people who have been nourishing their community for decades.

Justin grew up in the restaurant, and he left behind a career as an art director at Disney to return to the family business after Ricky had a stroke. Creatives need outlets. The few seats for Anajak’s weekend omakase meals are booked up through this summer; set your calendars for September. Last August, during the one time that I managed to snag an omakase reservation, I was as absorbed by Justin’s extemporizing as I was by the food.

Among the dishes he served: dry-aged steelhead in panang sauce, enriched further with swirls of coconut cream; a refashioned take on nigiri using striped jack, sweet rice and fish sauce rather than soy; and a tostada encircled with sweet Chinese sausage, laap-style seasonings, toasted sticky rice and chocolate.

Among the topics he covered: evolution and individualism. “Thai cuisine, as many great cuisines of the world, aren’t museums,” he said. “They are more like galleries with room for permanent collections. The omakase, for me, was to break away from what I felt I had to make, be it in my parents’ or guests’ eyes.

Close-up of a person's hands as they grate lime peel atop chunks of fish in several small dishes.
A sashimi-style course, part of Anajak Thai’s omakase menu by Justin Pichetrungsi.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“Mom didn’t understand what it meant that we were becoming more of an L.A. restaurant, as opposed to a Thai one. She used to fight me on the ingredients and techniques. ‘So we aren’t a Thai restaurant?’ I was bringing in carnitas and raw fish and Japanese coals. And she still stands for the preservation of my father’s amazing menu and palate. But she knows it’s an untamable beast now.”

During a later exchange, when talking about his father’s signature dishes, Justin discussed bu phat pong gari — stir-fried crab curry. “Dad gave me three different recipes. Each time, there was something different than the last. And each time it was a little off, almost like he didn’t want to give me the secret.

“But I realized it was him kind of teaching me through simpler recipes than more complex ones, through repetition. Like practicing scales.

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“Curry crab is the confluence of many cultures in Thailand. It’s Indian and Malaysian from the dried spices and the milk. It’s uniquely Thai from the seafood component. And Chinese, too, because it was popularized within Chinatowns in Bangkok and Thailand. It means a lot to the cuisine because it is a great portrait and proof that Thailand is one of the great intersections of the world’s Silk Road. But now, the Silk Road is not a place you can visit or even go to landmarks or heritage sites for. It’s in our minds. And I think the modern-day ‘Silk Road’ is here in L.A.”

The man has a lot on his plate … but he also plainly needs to make time to write a book. Read more about Anajak Thai and Meals by Genet. You’ll also find the articles in this Sunday’s print paper.

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Restaurant of the Year and Gold Award celebration dinners

To experience 2022 Restaurant of the Year winner Anajak Thai and the food of this year’s Gold Award honoree Genet Agonafer of Meals by Genet, attend one of the special celebration dinners being presented by City National Bank during The Times’ month-long Food Bowl. Two nights with two seatings of a special abbreviated omakase meal with chef Justin Pichetrungsi at Anajak Thai take place Sept. 2 and 3 at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., featuring six to 10 courses. Tickets cost $165 per person, tax and tip included. Beer or wine not included. And to celebrate 2022’s Gold Award winner, chef Agonafer, there will be two nights of in-restaurant dining Sept. 9 and 10 at Meals by Genet in L.A.’s Little Ethiopia. It’s a rare chance to eat inside the restaurant, which is currently used only for private events and takeout. Tickets for. the 7 p.m. family-style set meal cost $140 per person and include beer, wine and dessert.
Info and ticket links for the Restaurant of the Year and Gold Award dinners at LAFoodBowl.com.

— It’s always salad season in Los Angeles, but summer is the true glory moment. Jenn Harris has three recommendations, including one of the best tomato salads in the city and her evergreen favorite at an L.A. institution.

Irv’s Burgers, a West Hollywood landmark, reopened with new ownership after a four-year hiatus. Stephanie Breijo has the details, and she also shares fans’ memories of their first burgers at Irv’s.

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— In honor of Comic-Con returning to San Diego this weekend, I named 10 of my favorite restaurants in the city.

Two hands with painted nails hold a double cheeseburger.
A double burger at Irv’s Burgers.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Updates

9:26 p.m. July 25, 2022: This story has been updated to include information about the L.A. Times Food Bowl celebration dinners for Restaurant of the Year and the Gold Award.

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