Tasting Notes: How this L.A. chef made Thai Taco Tuesday a thing

Back in June, Justin Pichetrungsi decided to indulge his inner taquero.

The 33-year-old chef and second-generation owner of Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks had spent the early months of the pandemic grinding away in the kitchen, working long hours and focusing on takeout business in order to keep his family’s restaurant afloat.

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“I was making a staff meal that day and I wanted to do something different, be a little creative,” Pichetrungsi said. “Most of our cooks come from Oaxaca or Mexico City, so I figured maybe I’ll impress them with tacos.”

It so happened that one of Anajak’s regulars — an Instagram-famous nail artist — stopped in at the right time and, after sampling Pichetrungsi’s ad hoc antojitos, gave them a resounding endorsement.

“She told me, ‘You should do taco Tuesday!’” he recalls. “It seemed like a genius idea, but there was also part of me that thought, c’mon, who’s coming to a Thai restaurant for tacos?”

As it turns out, a lot of people.

I’m Garrett Snyder, a writer in the Food section, and this week I’m filling in for our food critics, who are immersed in the production of our upcoming restaurant guide, which will publish online on Dec. 7 and appear in print Dec. 13.

Over the last five months, Thai Taco Tuesday — which Pichetrungsi hosts outside in a narrow alley next to his restaurant — has become a weekly fixture at Anajak, drawing an eclectic crowd of longtime regulars, street food fans and restaurant workers unwinding on their night off.

Take note: This is a bootstrap operation. Diners queue up to a front counter to order food and sometimes a bottle of natural wine from the restaurant’s robust beverage list, and then grab a seat at one of the physically distanced plywood tables.

Alongside a curated selection of Anajak’s classic Thai specialties — fried chicken, crispy larb meatballs, pad siew — is a rotating list of tacos, which Pichetrungsi cobbles together each week with his sous chef Eugenio Gasca, a former Otium line cook and Mexico City transplant.

The list almost always includes carnitas: pork shoulder from Peads & Barnett, slow fried in lard until it turns rich and supple, and later heaped onto warm tortillas from Boyle Heights tortilleria La Princesita. As a demonstration of Thai-Mexican duality, these tacos are served in pairs: one dressed with tangy green papaya salad and the other crowned with habanero salsa, creamy serrano sauce and a handful of diced onions and cilantro.

There’s usually a seared fish taco too, made using dry-aged fish sourced from Liwei Liao, the chef and owner of nearby seafood shop the Joint. Pichetrungsi tops the crisp filet with a tuft of shaved cabbage, house-made mayo and a spoonful of zesty Boon Sauce, an umami-rich chile oil created by former Nightshade chef Max Boonthanakit.

Also consider the ceviche tostada, a sushi-meets-mariscos sensation that recently featured sashimi-thin slices of albacore layered with avocado and (if you’re willing to upgrade) fresh uni and marinated ikura. Pichetrungsi caps off the deluxe package with a side of nam jim seafood, an explosively flavorful Thai condiment made from pounded chiles, lime and fish sauce.

More selections from Thai Taco Tuesday at Anajak Thai.

More selections from Thai Taco Tuesday at Anajak Thai.

(Justin Pichetrungsi)

Special guest chefs have become a regular occurrence at Thai Taco Tuesday as well. Back in October, Johnny Lee of Pearl River Delta dropped by to cook yakitori, and just last week Dan Rabilwongse, head chef at Tartine Sycamore, was serving grilled duck nam tok and tostadas topped with naem, a tangy fermented sausage that the chef prepared using a recipe his mother made famous selling at local Thai markets in the 1980s.

“The food isn’t straight up Thai-Mexican fusion necessarily; it’s more about using flavors and ingredients that we love and working with people we love and want to support,” Pichetrungsi said. “It’s very L.A. in that way.”

Pichetrungsi, who left his job as a concept artist at Disney two years ago to take over the restaurant his father opened in 1981, said that the biggest success of the event thus far has been the spark of energy and enthusiasm it has generated amid a culinary scene that has been immeasurably disrupted by the pandemic.

“I’m lucky to have many amazing friends in the industry and the support that they’ve shown has really helped us get through this year,” he said.

“When you’re focused on surviving and just getting by for so long, the idea of doing something artistically fulfilling or fun gets pushed aside. I think that was the goal with this whole thing, just to have a space where we could cook in in a creative way and enjoy what we do.”

Thai Taco Tuesday runs from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays at Anajak Thai, 14704 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 501-4201 anajakthai.com

Next up in the Los Angeles Times Dinner Series

The dinner series returns Nov. 22 with a takeout dinner from chef Jeremy Fox (Rustic Canyon, Birdie G’s). The multicourse menu will include cucumber half-sours with kimchi miso; beet, apple and pecan “charoset”; noodle kugel with pumpkin butter and sage; flatiron steak; and chocolate malted cake. The event also features stars of “Fargo’s” fourth season. Showrunner Noah Hawley and actors Jason Schwartzman, Timothy Olyphant and Glynn Turman will participate in a conversation while diners enjoy their meals. Tickets are $95 per person, and dinners will be available for pickup on the day of the event. Get more info here, and get tickets here.

In anticipation of Thanksgiving

— If you’re thinking about cooking at home, columnist Ben Mims has created a feast (with 11 recipes!) to remember. “If ever there’s a time to throw tradition out the window — renouncing the expected in favor of something unusual and intriguing — it’s this year,” he writes. “For this year’s holiday menu, I decided to give you the classic flavors you want but in new forms that will hopefully excite you enough to make them a part of your Thanksgiving table in years to come.”

— Ben even offers a grocery list and plan of attack to get it all on the table at the same time.

— If you don’t already, get his newsletter for recipes in your inbox every week.

— If all that cooking sounds a little ambitious, let Jenn Harris be your guide to where to order your takeout Thanksgiving dinner.

A table spread of turkey, bay leaf yeast rolls, yams with rosemary-maple walnuts and mashed potatoes with fried sage skins.

Ben Mims’ butter-crisped turkey with gizzard gravy and roasted bread salad, bay leaf-butter yeast rolls, slow-roasted yams with rosemary-maple walnuts, cranberry-clementine membrillo, dry-fried green beans and mashed potatoes with fried sage skins.

(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)