The Tasting Panel magazine

August 2018

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Page 32 of 132

Sisters Katy Noochlaor and Amanda Kuntee revamped their family's L.A. Thai restaurant, Chao Krung Fairfax, to feature fresh, traditional dishes like pad gra tiem: whole fish stir-fried with garlic and black pepper. CHEW on this A t some recent point in time, we as a society—and by society, I mean food lovers in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, or any city with a number of highly rated restaurants— decided we were fine paying $30 for a bowl of pasta. I'm OK with this, as I understand the razor-thin margins restaurants work with (fresh pasta topped with salty Parmesan Reggiano also happens to be one of the most sublime things in exis- tence). What I'm not OK with, though, is that the same deference is often not applied to Asian noodle dishes. The same people who will fork over an entire meal's worth of cash for one plate of cacio e pepe will complain about any bowl of ramen or pho costing more than $10, no matter how time- and ingredient-intensive the dashi, tare, stock, and hand-pulled noodles are. Krishendu Ray, an associ- ate professor of food studies at New York University, has his own hypothesis regarding this hypocrisy: "The shortest answer would be cultural prestige, [or] some notion of an evaluation of another culture's reputation." A lot of this reticence toward paying higher prices for Asian food outside of sushi and other Japanese cuisine comes from its reputation as take-out or "strip-mall" food. Katy Noochlaor, co-owner of the recently revamped restaurant Chao Krung Fairfax in Los Angeles, describes how Thai immigrants brought their regional cuisine to the city: "When Thai people came over, they were not a wealthy population," she explains. "They tried to keep the same prices they had in Thailand, but when you're using the same produce and same products as everyone else and they have higher prices, it doesn't balance. Asian food suffers under this misunderstanding that it has be priced lower because that's all the consumer knows." Noochlaor and her sister Amanda Kuntee faced some pushback from regulars when they took over their family restaurant, transforming the Americanized Thai food to a celebra- tion of more traditional regional dishes. Despite the initial qualms, Noochlaor says people have come around to the higher prices and the new menu, which features dishes like charcoal-grilled Crying Tiger beef made with New York steak or a whole fish stir-fry with garlic and black pepper. "We hear people saying, 'This is tasting better and fresher,'" Noochlaor adds. "We didn't go to culinary school, but we cook with passion and we make everything from scratch from our curry paste to our sausages, and I think it shows." As chefs and restaurateurs aspire to give Asian food a more elevated spotlight at long last, customers will hopefully recognize the range of prices and quality Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesia, Chinese, and other cuisines of the continent offer. I'm starting to see more contemporary Asian res- taurants opening, like the wonderful Kasih, a hip Indonesian eatery in L.A.'s Little Tokyo district, or modern Korean restaurant Noted Tribeca in New York. It builds hope for a future in which Asian noodles finally get the respect they deserve. I could also vent my frustration on how an entire continent's cuisine gets lumped into one category, but I unfortunately don't have space for an entire novel here. Fortunately, we'll be able to dive a little deeper into the topic in next month's issue with help from Chef Angela Hernandez of Fine China in Dallas. Until then, respect your ramen! The Hypocrisy of Noodles by Jesse Hom-Dawson 32  /  the tasting panel  /  august 2018 PHOTO COURTESY OF CHAO KRUNG

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