LOS ANGELES — When two Nicaraguan Uber drivers told me that a Thai restaurant in Koreatown was their favorite restaurant in Los Angeles, I was curious.
Then a Salvadoran driver highly recommended the same restaurant. Then a driver from Guatemala told me the same thing.
That’s how I discovered Ocha Classic, a Thai restaurant popular with Central Americans, Mexicans and familiar Latinos in Koreatown. Since opening in 1985 in Koreatown, the restaurant has grown to seven locations thanks to a very loyal and almost entirely Latino clientele – although three locations were forced to close during the pandemic.
Although they never advertised or marketed, most locations have long lines and wait times of up to an hour. The restaurant is so successful that it has spawned dozens of imitators with various spellings of “Ocha”, a Thai word meaning delicious.
Ocha also hosts quinceañeras and weddings. The two busiest days of the year are Mother’s Day and Mexican Mother’s Day, El Dia de la Madre. You can tell which Central American soccer teams are doing well by counting the jerseys in the dining hall. And for many of its customers, Ocha Classic is the only Thai food they’ve ever had.
Among restaurant patrons and staff, theories abound as to how the connection was forged.
Dolly Porsawatdee, 30, who runs the restaurant with her family, thinks it’s probably a culinary fluke.
Poh Tak, a spicy and sour Thai seafood soup prepared with lemongrass, chicken broth and basil, tastes somewhat similar to caldo de siete mares, a seafood soup flavored with chicken broth , lime and epazote served throughout Mexico, Central America and South America.
One soup uses thai chilies and the other chile de árbol, but nobody seems to care about the difference.
At Ocha Classic, most customers order the soup with its Spanish name. It’s the most popular restaurant dish, thanks in large part to the camera-ready flames that shoot out from the center of each hot dish.
Stanley Cruz, 35, having dinner with his family on a recent weekday, says the restaurant’s seafood soup is a popular hangover remedy among Salvadorans.
“It’s like a rite of passage – that’s why I first came here,” Cruz said.
His wife, Sylvia, says it’s fast, efficient and affordable. People with busy schedules, especially immigrants, she said, like food to come out in minutes and still piping hot. Large portions also help.
Another theory posits that Central American immigrants found the restaurant because there was a popular Central American grocery store, Liborio Market, located across the street.
Miguel, who is visiting his family in New Mexico, is unsure how he found out about the restaurant. But he used to eat there all the time when he was driving a truck in Los Angeles over a decade ago and the food fills him with nostalgia. He and his family drove all the way from Downey and they had been waiting for 45 minutes.
“When he flew in, he said, first thing, I want to go fire soup,” said his niece, Lucy Cova.
Porsawatdee says the relationship between Ocha Classic and its customers really started after the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
When the looters arrived, homeless people stood outside the windows blocking bricks and bottles. People in the neighborhood helped stand guard and argued with the protesters. It was the only building on the block that did not burn down, Porsawatdee said.
It seemed like their way of saying thank you, Porsawatdee said. The restaurant has always fed the homeless and starving locals its leftovers, even after reprimands from city officials.
While the city burned, Ocha Classic remained open at all hours of the night and day, serving as a kind of crisis cafeteria for everyone. Looters, demonstrators and the homeless dined side by side with the National Guard and the police.
Having employees in the building helped protect it, said Pai, the owner, who asked to be known by her first name for privacy reasons. And they decided to feed everyone who would give them a chance.
“No one deserved to go without food, and my staff agreed that we had a responsibility to feed the community,” Pai said.
Since then, their customers have become almost entirely Latino. The restaurant has gradually taken over four adjoining storefronts and now spans almost half a block. It’s not that they haven’t tried to meet the needs of Thai people, Porsawatdee said. it’s just that they were thrilled to have the customers they had.
Some of the servers have been working there for over 40 years. Porsawatdee grew up in the restaurant and has also seen generations of customers grow up.
She wasn’t supposed to work here – her goal was to become a history teacher. But family is family, and eventually she was drawn into the business. She does payroll, acts as human resources and takes care of finances and logistics.
“I’m trying to take us from old school to new school,” Porsawatdee said.
Over the years, Thai specialties like egg abalone and angel wings (chicken wings stuffed with a mixture of prawns and spices) have disappeared from the menu. They added horchata, jamaica, Coronas and Modelos to the menu. Pickled jalapenos joined soy sauce and spiced garlic at every table. The waiters, mostly Thai, learned enough Spanish that people who didn’t speak English had no problem ordering.
And because customers liked having other types of Asian dishes with their seafood soup, they added Chinese-American classics like chow mein, beef broccoli, orange chicken and spring rolls. There’s also teriyaki, just in case.
Pai worked in an American restaurant and a Thai restaurant when she came to America in the 1960s to attend college. She liked the family dinner atmosphere. The Vermont restaurant features comfortable booths and checkerboard floors in the familiar rounded orange and beige tableware.
But it’s obviously a Thai restaurant. Portraits of past and present kings of Thailand line the walls. There are altars with food offerings, Buddha statues and the stand in front is kept empty every morning until 11am, reserved for the water spirit, a figure in Thai religious traditions. And I can personally attest that the medium spicy larb will make you cry as much as any place in Thai Town.
All of these theories about Ocha Classic’s notoriety in Latin Los Angeles sounded very plausible to me, and maybe they’re all true.
But on a recent weekday, I looked around the dining room and saw birthday parties for babies and grandmas, teenagers on the phone, and families pouring soup into bowls for others. I listened to the friendly hubbub of Thais, Spaniards and English people mingling in the dining room. Not everything needs an explanation, I decided.
It’s Los Angeles, and sometimes people from different cultures come together and hang out.