In the upcoming weeks, Ayara Thai will temporarily close for four months so the restaurant can embark on a construction project that will see it double in size and add a full-service bar. While Ayara is undergoing renovations, Westchester siblings Vanda, Peter and Cathy Asapahu will be filling the neighborhood’s culinary gap with their pop-up restaurant, Ayara Luk. Not ones to be stagnant, the close-knit trio are using this opportunity to create a restaurant that serves dishes inspired by their “experiences as first generation Thai-American,” and seeks to push the boundaries of what people have come to expect from Thai Food.
Head Chef Vanda explains that when most people think of Thai food, they think of dishes from the central part of the country–think Pad Thai or Pad See-Ew–leaving many exciting, complex dishes from across the country largely unknown to most Americans.
Peter, Cathy and Vanda Asapahu.
“What’s on the menu at most restaurants is just a sliver of what we eat at home,” explains Vanda, who spent four years living and working in Thailand. “I think the community is ready to accept some new dishes. Food should never be stagnant.”
Food and cooking have always been an integral part of the Asapahu siblings’ lives. Their paternal grandmother was well known for her curries and home restaurant in Bangkok. When their parents, Andy and Anna, emigrated to the U.S., the self-taught chefs opened a restaurant in the Pomona area, before moving to Westchester to start a catering company that served the Thai Airways crew, who were looking for a home-cooked meal served on Bangkok time. The siblings reflect fondly on the days they spent after school helping their parents prepare the meals for the crew, even enlisting their neighborhood friends to help in the endeavor.
“It was like a Westchester after school club,” joked Cathy.
While having two parents that worked full-time to achieve the American dream wasn’t without its sacrifices, it helped instill a strong work ethic in the siblings and helped bond the family. The experience also gave them hands-on cooking experience, where their parents taught them about the complexity of Thai food and the importance of achieving balance in a dish.
“They would always make us taste everything,” said Vanda. “They wanted us to know the balance of flavors and then season accordingly. My dad taught us that ‘you always need to taste before you season.’”
Andy and Anna opened Ayara Thai in 2004 in the Westchester Triangle and Vanda joined the family business in 2010, to help with the administrative and legal aspects of running a restaurant. She soon joined her parents in the kitchen, however. In the seven years since Vanda has come on board, they’ve been able to triple their staff and their revenue. Andy is now retired, but Vanda still works in the kitchen with her mother, who serves as head chef. Cathy, who has trained with a Michelin-starred chef, works in the kitchen and in procurement and Peter helps with finances and the back end.
While Vanda describes Ayara’s dishes as “home-cooked Thai food that most people can relate to,” Ayara Luk, located at the former site of Chalet Edelweiss, is allowing her and her siblings to create, explore and expand what people think of Thai food. It also ensures that the restaurant’s team of almost 50 people, who the siblings say are like family, get to keep working during the construction.
“For 13 years, the menu at Ayara hasn’t changed,” said Vanda. “Here we saw the opportunity to try something new. It would be easy to do what my parents do. I could just do the most popular dishes from Ayara, if I didn’t want to work hard. We want to change the way people eat in the community. We want to see people taste new things and expand their palates.”
The small menu at Ayara Luk is carefully curated to include these complex, new dishes with an emphasis on eco-conscious ingredients (as well as include some Ayara Thai classics like Muay Thai Wings and souped-up Pad Thai). Sisters Cathy and Vanda are excited to see what their diners’ reactions will be when they put one of their favorite dishes, Northern Thai Pork Blood Noodle Soup, on the menu.
While they acknowledge the pop-up’s menu is a little bit of risk, it’s one they’re willing to take to stay inspired and passionate about food. They’re also happy to serve as “guinea pigs” to see if a less-traditional restaurant can thrive in a notoriously chain heavy neighborhood.
“It’s easy to be complacent, but challenging ourselves to keep learning keeps us much sharper,” said Vanda. “Westchester is ready for it.”
Ayara Luk is located at 8740 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Westchester and is currently open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. The pop-up is hosting a Super Bowl Viewing Party on Sunday, February 5 starting at 3 p.m. The cost to attend is $60 presale and includes unlimited food and drink, tailgate games, halftime raffles and more. Tickets can be purchased at ayaragamedayparty.eventbrite.com. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Emerson Avenue Garden.