Before Jitlada became the darling of the Thai cuisine scene, and prior to Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market culinary coup d’etat on tired Thai food in Los Angeles, an off-the-radar restaurant named Ayara Thai Cuisine in Westchester was quietly pushing boundaries in a neighborhood that wasn’t quite ready for adventurous Thai flavors.
10 years ago, when mother and daughter chef team, Anna and Vanda Asapahu introduced Thai relishes like shrimp paste nam prik, the fermented delicacy’s pungency proved strong enough to motivate some guests to change tables if the diners next to them ordered it.
This trepidation was also evident when Ayara offered the curry dish called khao soi, which was rare in the U.S. but very popular in Northern Thailand. It’s essentially a noodle soup brimming with a coconut cream, curry broth, egg noodles, and an animal protein. The problem? Well, it seems many diners were weirded out by the coupling of curry and noodles. “The customers didn’t want curry and noodles together. They said it was strange,” recalls chef Anna. Needless to say, these items didn’t stay long on the menu and returned to the kitchen for family meals. That is until now.
Ayara’s khao soi is back. I recently discovered it as a culinary judge at the Center for the Pacific Asian Family’s (CPAF) 36th Anniversary Gala where several restaurants—including heavyweights like Sotto, Faith & Flower, and Chaya—competed in a friendly cook-off. I and most of the judges voted Ayara’s khao soi for top dish. It’s a winner.
The soup has roots in Myanmar (Burma) but is also thought of as a Northern Thai specialty from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Depending on where you eat khao soi, you may find egg noodles (north) or rice noodles (east). Khao soi translates as “chopping rice,” which is a loose concept of converting rice into noodles. Muslim khao soi incorporates beef whereas Hindu variations might have chicken instead.
Ayara’s khao soi is a yellow and red curry blend made from a family recipe which includes wet and dried chiles, custom curry pastes, roasted chiles, and coconut cream that has been blended to a frothy consistency. A pair of hefty, skin-on, bone-in chicken drumsticks poke out of the bowl, moist and tender as can be. The mound of boiled wheat noodles is topped with crunchy, fried noodles for texture contrast. To keep the taste genuine: lime, dried chiles, preserved mustard greens, and raw shallots stand by as flavor enhancers.
Now whenever khao soi or other specialty plates appear on Araya’s menu or as specials, they sell out fast. When asked what has changed between today and 10 years ago, chef Vanda explains, “Now it’s a badge of foodie honor to have tasted a special dish like this.”
If you’d like to add khao soi to your foodie badge collection, this curry noodle bowl will be the newest addition on Ayara’s regular menu starting today.
Ayara Thai Cuisine, 6245 W. 87th St., Westchester, 310-410-8848