Finding a True Thai Night Market—in Hollywood

Opened in late 2023, atSiam night market brings Bangkok to Los Angeles.

Person wearing a hat grilling skewers at night at a street market

atSiam comes alive Friday through Sunday from 5 to 11 p.m.

Photo by Pier Nirandara

My first time visiting atSiam, the sight of a buzzing Thai night market beside a CVS and a sign for Hollywood Boulevard threw me off. In the softening glow of a California sunset, the sky the color of Thai tea, I wandered the aisles, equal parts homesick and hungry. There were northern khao soi noodles, southern hat yai fried chicken, and crispy roti drizzled with condensed milk; rare bloody cockles and river prawns, a dish so synonymous with Thailand’s former capital of Ayutthaya, I’ve never seen it abroad. Taking in the clang of woks and the scent of stir-fry, I could have been in Bangkok. Instead, I was on the other side of the world. Feeling the pressing paradox of choice, I ordered a smorgasbord of items: jok (a breakfast rice porridge served with balls of minced pork and garnished with ginger and spring onion), kao neow moo ping (marinated pork skewers grilled over coals and served with sticky rice), and decadent stewed pork ribs, the citrus and herbs perfectly balancing out the rich umami of the meat. After scarfing down my fill of savory dishes, I searched for something sweet, locating the fan-favorite creamy coconut pancakes known as khanom krok, and khanom babin, fragrant discs made from young coconut meat that’s popular in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Founded in late 2023, atSiam Night Market is the first of its kind in Southern California, situated a couple blocks away from Hollywood’s Avenue of the Stars and a stone’s throw from the only officially recognized Thai Town in the United States. Save for the sight of visitors dressed in winter jackets instead of summer T-shirts and sandals, atSiam embodies everything a true Thai night market should: It’s extraordinarily colorful and chaotic, rich with intense flavors and aromas, and features a dizzying array of street food—Thailand’s favorite form of democracy, and a uniting force for people across class lines and cultural divides.

More than 12 years ago, I emigrated from Bangkok, known in Thai as Khrung Thep, to the City of Angels. In the same way that food trucks are synonymous with L.A.’s cultural identity, street food remains an undeniable component of Thailand’s heritage and history. Outdoor markets are the beating hearts of the community and a core facet of everyday life, where goods and gossip are traded and where countless people come to eke out a living. Many markets in Thailand trace their roots back to the mid-20th century, when cities were still dependent upon them for the redistribution of fresh produce; each market served as a central nervous system pumping produce into distant corners of the city. Oftentimes, the markets come to life at night, the turning of the guard resulting in a change of pace and vendors. It had taken leaving Bangkok for me to see the ubiquitous market with different eyes—to appreciate the stalls crowding every street and multigenerational vendors cooking away all hours of the night. I missed tucking into street food on nondescript alleyways, an experience I never thought I’d find in California—until now.

meat dish with fresh herbs and peanuts, portrait of a smiling woman wearing a hat

There are nearly 30 vendors at the market on any given night.

Photos by Pier Nirandara

When I first meet Los Angeles transplant Pongphaka Pongsamart (colloquially known as Auntie Pong), founder and mother of atSiam, the conversation opens with the phrase, “Gin kao rue yung?” instead of “How are you?” The Thai greeting roughly translates to “Have you eaten?” When I tell her that my Thai name is derived from the term for “spring rolls,” she laughs and replies, “We have spring rolls for sale at the market too!” Her warmth immediately makes me feel at home.

AtSiam leans on this ethos to cultivate a sense of belonging and community abroad. “We wanted this to be a place where Thais come when they miss home,” Pongsamart says. “With authentic flavors that haven’t been adapted for Western palates.” A former civil servant, Pongsamart immigrated to the United States as a care provider for her mother. Drawing experience from a brief stint at a culinary academy in Thailand, she used her free time to cook as a way of remembering her homeland and introducing others to Thai food. Her first attempt to open a stall was promptly shut down by officials—this wasn’t Thailand, and permits were necessary. Fortuitously, her brother, Pornlert Pongsamart, was part of the Thai Community Development Center, a nonprofit NGO that works to elevate the visibility of Thais abroad, which backed the formation of atSiam. He forged the link with the organization and located the plot of land that now houses the market of more than 30 vendors every Friday to Sunday year-round.

“Our love for night markets has absolutely crossed the Pacific; the whole ambiance is very transporting,” says Chanchanit “Chancee” Martorell, the founder and executive director of the Thai CDC. Through its Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Collaborative, the center provides business and linguistic counseling to immigrant entrepreneurs; it aids in developing business plans, accessing capital, and helping with loans and focuses on businesses that are culturally connected, community-driven, and narrative-changing. “[With atSiam], we wanted to create a space for social interactions,” Martorell explains. “While we make communities whole, we also make people whole.”

The Thai CDC is even doing its part to keep alive a tradition that is under threat back home. In recent years, the Thai military government has cracked down on street vendors in Bangkok, a move met with much protest. Under a campaign to clear city streets, the government began evicting hawkers regardless of their license, claiming obstruction of traffic and hygiene standards. Yet street markets find a way to survive—even across the Pacific. Against this backdrop, and after its own L.A. County–enforced shutdowns and false starts, atSiam is more than a market. It’s a community space, a small-businesses incubator, and a bulwark against cultural erosion; a site where Thais far from home come together, and a tangible celebration of the entrepreneurial immigrant spirit. “[Night markets] are very important to us,” notes Narinchot “Bruno” Pattamatananun, founder of Songkran Thai Street Food, one of atSiam’s popular vendors. He stressed their abundance and accessibility to the working class. “It’s not just about the food.”

Display case of sweets shaped like flowers and fruit

AtSiam is located just west of Thai Town.

Photo by Pier Nirandara

Like separating the art from the artist, it would be difficult to distinguish a Thai market without discussing its food. Thai cuisine can be unpacked through its history and is layered in that regard: Think of the spice trade, multiple waves of immigration, and Thailand’s close escapes from colonization (it’s the only country in Southeast Asia to remain independent). Even pad thai—Auntie Pong’s favorite dish to make—has its origin story. “Everyone has a different version of it, but proper pad thai isn’t overly sweet,” she says, lowering her voice as if letting me in on a secret. “It’s fragrant, with a balanced mix of flavors, and doesn’t need additional seasoning when served.” While there are disputes about its history, one theory attributes its invention to former Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram during a rice shortage in World War II. Capitalizing on the abundance of local produce thanks to Thailand’s verdant soil and year-round sunshine, pad thai combined noodles and a distinct blend of eggs, bean sprouts, garlic, fish sauce, and chives. The move inadvertently created one of the country’s most beloved national dishes and, thanks to its policies of gastronomic diplomacy, indisputably its most renowned.

While Thais will proudly announce that we have never been colonized, the influence of various cultures and peoples passing through—Portuguese, Chinese, Malay—have left an indelible imprint on our cuisine. Our ancient capital city of Ayutthaya served as a massive trading hub, and modern Thai food is as rich in flavor as it is in history. The classic Thai dessert, foi tong, is a remnant of the Portuguese, who brought over their technique of mixing egg yolk and sugar that’s responsible for the bright-orange hue of the dish.

The vendors of atSiam take this a step further. As third-culture Thais living in the United States, they incorporate elements of their multicultural roots into their cooking, paying homage to the old while reinventing the new. At Songkran Thai Street Food, the chicken is fried using tempura batter mixed with lemongrass, inspired by Chef Bruno’s time working in Japanese restaurants when he first immigrated to the United States. Nearby, Bangkok Bun blends classic Thai flavors of citrusy pork laab and crispy shrimp within the comforting bites of a sticky rice burger. There’s also Thai-Lao fusion at YaYa Lao Thai Kitchen, and I discover that Leng Saap, whose flavors are so authentically Thai, is run by Korean American chefs who were inspired by a visit to a night market in Bangkok. At Siritong Foods, Thai American Kat Thongnoppakun whips up imaginative Thai Mexican fusion, featuring tacos with ingredients like carne asada with fish sauce, chicken satay garnished with cilantro and peanut sauce, and Thai BBQ pork. The tortillas are inspired by Thai roti in terms of texture and taste, and the menu draws inspiration from Thongnoppakun’s Asian heritage combined with his upbringing near the Latinx community. A corporate engineer by trade, Thongnoppakun left his former career to pursue food entrepreneurship. “You might be wondering what the heck even is Thai Tacos,” he says on an Instagram post explaining his style of cooking. “Well, they’re my own creation and a representation me and my culture and where I grew up.”

On my most recent visit to atSiam, I wandered over to a final stall at the end of the night: Songkran Thai Street Food, named after the Thai New Year. Chef Bruno shoots me a warm smile. “Gin kao rue yung?”

I ordered tom yum soup with minced pork. While he prepared the dish, I asked about his journey to food. “I’ve done everything from working as a masseuse and a plumber to fixing glasses,” he told me. “But food makes me happy, and I couldn’t get away from it. I want to give people joy and a sense of belonging and home. That makes it all worth it.”

He handed over a steaming bowl. The heat warmed my hands, tendrils of heat curling into the air. It was an unusually cold winter in Los Angeles. I waited for the soup to cool before slurping down a spoonful. The broth was tangy and flavored to perfection, the acidity bursting against my tongue. He was right—it tasted just like home.

Pier Nirandara is an award-winning author, travel writer, film producer, and underwater photographer. She began her career as Thailand’s youngest English-writing author of three #1 national bestselling novels, multiple graphic novels, and short stories with more than 200,000 copies sold in multiple languages. Pier is also a PADI AmbassaDiver and the founder of Immersiv Expeditions, leading trips to swim with marine wildlife.
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