© Jenni Hwang

The vibes at Ayara Lūk and So Long, Hi may be laid-back, but the food is as serious as it gets—think congealed blood cubes over chicken fried rice.

April 03, 2017

The food at Ayara Lūk and So Long, Hi, two new hotspots that opened outside of L.A.’s Thai Town, is fierce and uncompromising. It's salty, spicy, sour, sweet, funky and all about what the proprietors themselves like to eat.

"We want to push more adventurous flavors," says chef Vanda Asapahu, who runs Ayara Lūk in Westchester near the LAX Airport and changes her menu about every two weeks. "This food is something we cook for ourselves and our staff all the time."

David Tewasart, the restaurant mogul who created the tightly-edited, 30-item menu at downtown's So Long, Hi, echoes the please-your-own-palate sentiment.

"We're trying to present food that the kitchen eats in the back, that we prepare for ourselves," he says. "It's not tailor-made for a particular audience. It's just straightforward, authentic, spicy Thai food."

There's another thing the two restaurants have in common that evokes what dining in Asia is often like: a relaxed vibe that encourages guests to linger as long as they want after they've eaten.

Adding even more impetus to linger? The fact that Ayara Lūk has Uno and Cards Against Humanity in its collection of games. There's also a big-screen TV for sporting events, Dancing with the Stars, nature shows, the news and the Monday movie nights Asapahu plans to start in April. She'll have some Thai films in the mix.

"It's our goal to have people stay," Asapahu says. "If you were to come to my house, I wouldn't just want you to eat and run. A lot of people mention our board games. They haven't played some of these games in ages. We want that. We want families to spend time together."

So Long, Hi, meanwhile, has a tropical-themed bar and $2 beers along with $5 pad Thai and $6 appetizers during its weekday 3 p.m.-to-7 p.m. and 10 p.m.-to-midnight happy hour. There's a pool table and a patio with benches, umbrellas and palm trees on AstroTurf.

"I wanted just a hangout vibe," says Bryan Sharafkhah-Sharp, who opened the restaurant with Tewasart on March 15. "I wanted to capture my experience in Thailand. It's very leisurely. That's why we went to counter service, too, just so people don't feel rushed by a server. They can hang out, they can play pool. If they need another beer, they can go up and grab a beer. We have a huge space, so we're not trying to rush people through."

In fact, Sharafkhah-Sharp plans to start a three-hour brunch (maybe $35) with buckets of beer on the tables and the kitchen sending out whatever food it feels like for family-style feasts.

"It would be a cool social thing and also a way for people to try new things that they wouldn't necessarily order if they had to make a choice," he says. "We want to get that going, and who does a Thai brunch? It's not a thing at all, so why not?"

Here's a deeper look at L.A.'s new Thai hotness, where the atmosphere is ultra-chill but the food is as serious as it gets.

 © Ayara Luk

Ayara Lūk

Ayara Lūk, a pop-up that chef Vanda Asapahu and her siblings Peter and Cathy are operating while their nearby Ayara Thai flagship is being renovated, opened in January. It's already on the sixth version of its menu.

A handful of popular dishes—like khao soi, the crying tiger rib eye, the whole singing branzino and pad Thai that can be topped with lobster and crab—are standouts, but Asapahu wants to make it clear that everything is subject to change. Ayara Lūk is a test kitchen and a place where Asapahu, who grew up in the neighborhood and has seen it grow from a sleepy aviation community into an area for Silicon Beach innovators and well-traveled families, wants to see if her Westside clientele will embrace bolder flavors.

She's been fortified by seeing customers happily gobbling up the cubes of congealed blood in her Northern Thai blood noodle soup, a resplendent tomato-based dish with spare ribs, minced pork, dried cotton flower and vermicelli. It's an iron-rich specialty based on a recipe from her mom, who welcomed Asapahu home from college and her travels by making a big batch of this comfort food that's usually found at street stalls. It's one of those rare dishes that Asapahu looks forward to eating for the rest of her life.

"The recipe is almost exactly the same as my mom's," Asapahu says. "I don't know if she can tell the difference. She may."

Because this is a pop-up, Asapahu is buying ingredients in smaller batches than she did at Ayara Thai, which originally opened in 2004. This means farmers-market produce and premium antibiotic-free meats. She plans her menus months in advance and has already mapped out the next two rounds of changes.

She remembers how Ayara Thai put khao soi on the menu more than a decade ago.

"It wasn't well-received," says Asapahu, who laughs when she thinks about how "trendy and hipster" the curry noodle soup has become. "Now it's having a moment. In the Westside, things run a little slower, people are a little bit more conservative on taste."

She's seen people walk into Ayara Lūk, look at the less-than-20-item menu and then leave because there isn't any chicken fried rice.

"I think doing anything new will spark people's interest," Asapahu says. "It's not always going to be positive, but I think the community needs it, and we want to stand by our food."

And anyway, Ayara Thai will be a bigger restaurant, where Asapahu can give customers the more typical dishes they want while continuing to push the boundaries. She's got a five-year lease on the Ayara Lūk space and is considering turning it into a different concept.

Change is the point, after all.

"I don't want you to be comfortable and think it will be here next time," Asapahu says of the dishes on the menu at Ayara Lūk. "Nothing is safe, anything can be changed out."

 © Jenni Hwang

So Long, Hi

"It's this particular meal that you really can't find in L.A.," David Tewasart says of what he wants to serve at So Long, Hi. "There's a grilled meat, there's a salad, there's a soup, there's a fried dish, and it's all served with sticky rice. That combination is very difficult to find in L.A., and it's something I've always enjoyed eating and have always wanted to serve. This is the perfect venue for that."

Tewasart (Sticky Rice, Side Chick, Matcha Matcha, Monkey Bar and the forthcoming RBTA) and Bryan Sharafkhah-Sharp (White Guy Pad Thai) know a few things about bringing Thai street food to the masses in L.A. In addition to his popular Grand Central Market stand and his growing restaurant collection, Tewasart has a mobile-food operation that has regularly shown up at major culinary events like Smorgasburg. Sharafkhah-Sharp's buzzworthy food trailer has also made frequent appearances at Smorgasburg.

Now at So Long, Hi, Sharafkhah-Sharp's brick-and-mortar debut, dishes include iced vegetables with a green chili dip that's pure fire. The tom saap gadook mu is a clear broth that's intensely sour, pleasantly spicy and delightfully hearty with spare ribs. The restaurant doesn't offer spice levels or substitutions, and it's already mischievously printed and posted a negative Yelp review from somebody who preferred the more typical Thai restaurant (Soi7) that previously occupied this address.

"We're both passionate about making, like, the anti-Thai restaurant menu," says Sharafkhah-Sharp, who joked that his food might not be spicy enough when he noticed a guest nursing a beer on the night we visited. "Instead of 100 items, we wanted to curate it. We're both into curating the experience rather than making every dollar you can by selling people whatever they want."

The goal of So Long, Hi is to transport diners.

"You totally forget where you are," Tewasart says of what's it like to hang out on the patio.

At least temporarily, the din of downtown L.A. is nonexistent, and the experience resembles what it's like when you're eating noodles on the streets of Thailand and don't even notice the cars zipping by or the elephant behind you that's about to brush against your back. (That thing with the elephant actually happened to Tewasart.)

"You're in another world; you forget about this life," Sharafkhah-Sharp says.

Adding to the mellowing experience is that fact that some of Sharafkhah-Sharp's favorite dishes, like Thai jerky, sweet-and-sour wings and salted fried ribs, are on the happy-hour menu. And soon, Chimney Coffee, a Thai coffee brand with an outpost in Bangkok along with its existing L.A. location in Chinatown, will open within the same address and offer treats like Thai iced tea soft-serve.

"We really like our happy-hour options: the $5 pad Thai, the no-nonsense beer we're serving," says Tewasart, who's proudly offering Sapporo, Singha, Chang, Leo and PBR (along with soju cocktails) instead of focusing on craft beer. "We want it to be buzzing all day long."

And they want their customers to try new things, so they've sent out extra items to guests who came in and just ordered pad Thai. They have plans to add dishes like khao soi to the menu. Expect it to be spicy.