Emporium Thai Brings Southern Thai Spice to LA’s Culinary Melting Pot

Thai Emporium is THE most coveted Thai Restaurant in Los Angeles.

With a thriving Thai community gracing the city, Los Angeles enjoys an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Thai cuisine. It renders choosing the best Thai restaurant Los Angeles offers a daunting task verging on the impossible. But many of those who have sampled the Southern Thai stylings of Emporium Thai think the answer’s obvious. Those patrons range from Thai cuisine connoisseurs and foodies to casual diners and celebrities. Yet, the Westwood staple started as far away from the glitter and glamor of LA’s westside as possible. 

Golden Years in the Land of Smiles

John Sungkamee grew up in the town of Nakhon Si Thammarat near the Gulf of Thailand’s coast. While the home that he shared with his parents and 11 siblings was relatively small, it offered a generously sized yard. And the Sungkamee family used that land well. 

On a typical day in Sungkamee’s youth, his parents would disappear into the yard for 45 minutes only to return with their hands full of rich ingredients for the evening’s meal. “It was truly farm to table,” he smiles, eyes wistful with nostalgia. “Super organic. Zero carbon footprint.” 

The fertile South Thailand earth produced a variety of ingredients the Sungkamees used to create their own spin on Southern Thai cuisine. Trees strained under the weight of fresh coconuts and mangoes. Thai basil and chilis reached from the bountiful earth to the smiling skies above. A coop of chickens reliably laid eggs while overlooking a pond where fish weaved languidly. 

As a child, it was easy for John to take it all for granted. He’d witnessed a reliable kindness in the welcoming land. Looking back on those golden years, he now recognizes how fortunate he was to enjoy such a nurturing bounty from a young age. And he harbors a deep gratitude and respect, not just to his parents and siblings that sowed, harvested, and prepared the food, but to the land that made it possible. 

Exiting Eden

It’s difficult to imagine leaving such an earthbound Eden behind. But when John was just 10-years-old, his parents picked up stakes and moved 500 miles north to the teeming city of Bangkok. Removed from the farm life, John was free to explore his studious side. 

Then, in 1990, his mother obtained a rare opportunity. Against the odds, she won a green card lottery, allowing her family’s passage to the U.S. After spending a decade in Bangkok, John decided to join his parents in their immigration. 

Upon arriving in America in the 1990s, he learned English as quickly as possible. Then, he enrolled in college. During this time, some of his older, culinary-gifted siblings began to move over as well. 

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the Sungkamee family was blessed with another rare opportunity. John’s older sister had been working at a Westwood restaurant that was being listed for sale. Amidst financial struggle and deep feelings of homesickness, John decided to take the plunge. 

Emporium Thai Makes an Enormous Entrance

Now, he needed a name for his restaurant. But how could he encompass something as massive as his childhood feelings and impressions in a name? After much deliberation, he chose a word that felt as colossal as the size to which his heart swelled when he remembered those youthful days. 

Yet, it was also a word distinct from any other Thai restaurant in the world. To reinforce the enormity of his vision, he chose an equally enormous sacred animal for his logo. And thus, heralded by the trumpeting of its iconic elephant, Emporium Thai came into being. 

The Crossroads Between Passion and Security

But all of the ingredients for success didn’t fall together quite as easily as the ingredients in those family recipes. At the time, John didn’t know much about running a busy Westwood restaurant. The internet was still in its infancy compared to today, limiting marketing opportunities. With widely available GPS still down the road a few years, delivery efforts were navigated with paper maps. 

Meanwhile, John was making ends meet, including those at Emporium Thai, by working as a software engineer. Yet, when a six month contract turned into 14 years, he found himself at a difficult crossroads. He could continue working his keyboard magic. Or he could pour all of his efforts into his dream of taking Emporium Thai to the heights he knew it could achieve. 

About a decade ago, John chose full devotion to Emporium Thai. And 23 years, a few recessions, and one global pandemic later, the popular Westwood Thai spot is still going strong. 

Every Home Needs a Family

“I feel very blessed to be able to work with my family,” admits John. The togetherness of the vast Sungkamee family seems to permeate every aspect of the Emporium Thai experience. Even as he speaks to the JohnHart Media team, John sits within feet of a framed photograph of his smiling mother that hangs in a place of honor in Emporium Thai. 

He credits her with installing in him and his siblings a strong reverence for the culinary arts. His father, also a talented cook, sadly passed away in 1996 before Emporium Thai was a fully formed concept. Fortunately, John and his siblings were paying close attention in the kitchen. 

Since day one, John’s older sister Gina has been serving as the executive chef at Emporium Thai. Many of their recipes are taken from secret family recipes passed down through the generations. But having attended culinary school, Gina has also artfully created her own popular signature dishes. “The kitchen is her playground,” smiles John with clear admiration. 

His brother Joe also serves as a chef at Emporium Thai. And not too long ago, another of John’s brothers retired after several years of service to the restaurant. 

Relation to an L.A. Legend

The majority of the Sungkamee siblings were gifted with culinary clout including those not affiliated with Emporium Thai. Easily the most famous example is John’s older brother Chef Tui Sungkamee, a legend amongst LA’s Southern Thai connoisseurs. 

Chef Tui is recognized for revolutionizing Thai street food, achieving acclaim amongst certain circles as the country’s best Thai chef. While Chef Tui unfortunately passed away in 2017, his surviving siblings learned from the same culinary masters: their parents. 

Emporium Thai: The Home Away from Home

Today, when John walks into Emporium Thai, he can look past the portrait of his smiling mother to see his siblings, hands full of fresh ingredients for the day’s hundreds of meals. He’ll regularly find his 84-year-old mother-in-law peeling vegetables or assisting with the mango sticky rice. Honeybee, his niece, mans the bar with its imported Thai beers, sake, and signature cocktails, some of which she’s invented. 

John recalls how Emporium Thai once served as safe harbor for his immigrating family members; a welcome landing pad to a new world. In a way, it’s still very much his sanctuary. With its very essence inspired by childhood memories, generations of family recipes, and a shared love for Southern Thai cuisine, John built a new home for the times he couldn’t make it back to his old one. And he wants the surrounding community to feel just as comfortable in it as he does. 

Doing “Small Things With Great Love”

To ensure this familiarity, John and his staff adhere to the principle “we do small things with great love.” It’s what compels them to use locally sourced, fresh, authentic ingredients from Asian suppliers. Or to create vegetarian and vegan takes on their dishes, so new vistas of flavor can be explored by all. 

It’s also one of the many reasons you’ll always find John and his staff smiling. “If you learn about Thailand, you’ll find it’s called ‘The Land of Smiles’”, he points out. “So, our staff never forgets to smile.” And perhaps this is why, 23 years later, one of Emporium Thai’s regular customers who walked into the establishment on their very first day continues to come back. 

Starpower Behind Emporium Thai

And that pioneering customer is in good company. Glancing at the Emporium Thai menu, you’ll see dishes like the Cardi B Mango Sticky Rice or Akon Salad. These dishes actually earned their monikers by being the favored selections of their celebrity patrons. Cardi B has even shared her love of Emporium Thai on her Instagram. 

During the pandemic, actress Jennifer Love Hewitt was instrumental in blowing up Emporium Thai’s charitable “Feed the Frontline” initiative. When restaurants were closed to dining in, Feed the Frontline prompted charitable citizens to donate boxed lunches to first responders, firefighters, doctors and police officers. Thanks to some social media sharing from Love Hewitt and media coverage from KTLA-5, Emporium Thai managed to serve their community with over 3,500 boxed lunches. 

The buzz surrounding the Southern Thai specialty restaurant has even permeated big corporations. In a year when catering orders have tripled, Emporium Thai has catered corporate events for Buzzfeed, Apple, Netflix, and Amazon just to name a few. John is particularly proud of partnering with the Asian World Film Festival. It doesn’t hurt that he met Angelina Jolie while catering one of their red carpet events. 

Awards and Accolades for Emporium Thai

Critics also seem to adore Emporium Thai, showering the Westwood restaurant with a variety of awards and accolades. These include:

  • Most Favorite Thai Restaurant (2015) – Los Angeles Travel Magazine
  • LA’s 14 Best Thai Restaurants Not in Thai Town (2015) – Thrillist
  • 6 Unmissable Restaurants in Westwood, Los Angeles (2020) – Culture Trip
  • Reader’s Choice: Best Internationally Inspired Restaurant (2021) – Los Angeles Travel Magazine

But the award that John seems the most excited to discuss is the Thai SELECT Award. This honor, presented by the Royal Thai Government, recognizes restaurants outside of Thailand that use authentic Thai ingredients. 

Emporium Thai was even the first Thai restaurant in the entire world to partner with Uber Eats. They’ve come a long way from reading paper maps by dome lights!  

Finding the Traditional and the Unique in Southern Thai Cuisine

But at the end of the day, it isn’t the heart, or the celebrities, or even the awards that keep people coming back to Emporium Thai. It’s the food. “Tradition is in the ingredients,” John clarifies. 

But tradition can be a fluid thing in Thailand. There, families put their own unique spins on classic recipes. The Sungkamee family grew up eating several Southern Thai classics: dishes like deep-fried whole fish and Thai basil with seafood. But one family doesn’t prepare it quite like the next. 

Therefore, John holds the utmost respect for owners that brought those flavors and unique recipes from their native Thailand. And he’s proud to join them in spreading those traditional flavors in true Sungkamee style.

Emporium Thai Menu Highlights

Fittingly, it’s a three-generation recipe that endures as a solid favorite with Emporium Thai’s regulars. You won’t find the Southern Curry at any other Thai restaurant in the world. John describes it as a curry crafted from multiple exotic herbs; a bit salty, but not too sweet. And, as with any of their dishes, spiciness can be altered to the guest’s preference. 

Another crowd favorite, the Crying Tiger Beef, tantalizes tastebuds with thin strips of premium beef, marinated to tender perfection. Lettuce leaves are provided so that guests can eat it in the style of a wrap. 

John recommends starting a meal with their number one appetizer: the Phuket Wings. Eater LA obviously agrees, having once chosen the appetizer as their dish of the week. And for dessert? Cardi B knows what she’s talking about with the mango sticky rice. 

Whether you’re looking for community or just an authentic Southern Thai dining experience, Emporium Thai delivers with a smile. In the meantime, let our latest Community Spotlight video serve as your amuse-bouche! 

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