The Surprising Reason that There Are So Many Thai Restaurants in America (2023)

During my three years in New York City, Thai food was my default takeout and delivery order. This was a matter of both convenience and taste—there was a Thai spot on practically every block, and furthermore, I love the stuff. Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up with Thai cuisine, to the extent that Massaman curry and tom kha soup are among my comfort foods.

Thai restaurants are everywhere in America. Mexican and Chinese restaurants might be more plentiful, but there are demographic reasons that explain the proliferation of these cuisines. With over 36 million Mexican-Americans and around five million Chinese-Americans, it's no surprise that these populations' cuisines have become woven into America's cultural fabric. Comparatively, according to a representative from the Royal Thai Embassy in DC, there are just 300,000 Thai-Americans—less than 1 percent the size of the the Mexican-American population. Yet there are an estimated 5,342 Thai restaurants in the United States, compared to around 54,000 Mexican restaurants; that’s ten times the population-to-restaurant ratio. So, why are there so many Thai restaurants in the US?

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I’m not the first to wonder about the ubiquity of Thai restaurants in American cities and suburbs, and most seemingly informed and lay analysts have suggested that it’s simply because Thai food tastes good, or happens to hit the American palate in just the right way.

But as it turns out, there is a much simpler answer: The Thai government paid for it.

The Surprising Reason that There Are So Many Thai Restaurants in America (1)

Photo via Flickr user pabo76

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Using a tactic now known as gastrodiplomacy or culinary diplomacy, the government of Thailand has intentionally bolstered the presence of Thai cuisine outside of Thailand to increase its export and tourism revenues, as well as its prominence on the cultural and diplomatic stages. In 2001, the Thai government established the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd., in an effort to establish at least 3,000 Thai restaurants worldwide. At the time, Thai deputy commerce minister Goanpot Asvinvichit told the Wall Street Journal that the government hoped the chain would be “like the McDonald’s of Thai food.” Apparently, the government had been training chefs at its culinary training facilities to send abroad for the previous decade, but this project formalized and enhanced these efforts significantly.

The McDonald’s of Thai food never quite materialized as a government-operated megachain, but the broader goal of a government-supported increase in the number of Thai restaurants abroad has. The Thai government has continued earmarking funds for the global proliferation of galangal root and fish sauce, and it’s paid off.

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The strategies for achieving this increase were manifold, run in parallel by various departments of the government. The Ministry of Commerce’s Department of Export Promotion, most likely run by bureaucrats rather than restaurateurs, drew up prototypes for three different “master restaurants,” which investors could choose as a sort of prefabricated restaurant plan, from aesthetic to menu offerings. Elephant Jump would be the fast casual option, at $5 to $15 per person; Cool Basil would be the mid-priced option at $15 to $25 a head; and the Golden Leaf prototype would cost diners $25 to $30, with décor featuring “authentic Thai fabrics and objets d’art.” (Does your favorite Thai spot have objets d’art? The restaurant may have been built from a government prototype.)

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The Department of Export Promotion also matched and set up meetings between Thai and foreign business people, conducted market research on local tastes around the world, and sent representatives from Thai cooking institutes abroad to train chefs at foreign restaurants.

Meanwhile, the Export-Import Bank of Thailand offered loans to Thai nationals hoping to open restaurants abroad, and the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Bank of Thailand set up an infrastructure for loans of up to $3 million for enterprise in the food industry, including foreign Thai restaurants.

The Public Health Ministry published a book in 2002 called A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad, which provided information about recruitment, training, and even the tastes of foreigners.

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The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Industry, the Thailand National Food Institute, the public Kasetsart University, and the Ministry of Agriculture were all involved in the push to bolster Thai food abroad, from training chefs to inspecting exports to researching new recipes to appeal to foreign tastes. A special visa was even established in New Zealand specifically for Thai chefs.

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It worked. At the time of the Global Thai program’s launch, there were about 5,500 Thai restaurants beyond Thailand’s borders; today there are over 15,000. The number in the US increased from around 2,000 to over 5,000.

The Surprising Reason that There Are So Many Thai Restaurants in America (3)

Photo via Flickr user Chris Pinyo

Now that the restaurants are opened, the government is concerned with maintaining their quality and their value as export channels. As of August 2017, 413 Thai restaurants in the US have been awarded “Thai Select” certificates by the Thai Ministry of Commerce to denote quality and authenticity. Thai restaurants in locales as far as Mexico and Nigeria have been recognized. (A list of Thai Select restaurants is available here, though it appears that it hasn’t been updated in years.)

“They have a Thai Commerce Ambassador who is located in Washington, DC, and he happened to be in my restaurant one night,” said Tao Wudhapitak, owner of Thai Ghang Waan in Springfield, Virginia. “And he asked to talk to either the manager or owner in charge that night, so my wife went over to the table and he started asking if we had heard about Thai Select. And he said as the ambassador, he wants us to receive it.”

In addition to doubling as taste testers, Thai diplomats in the US have been charged with supporting Thai restaurants in both logistics and strategy. “When we received the award, the Ministry of Thai Trade actually came to my restaurant and we discussed about how we can promote more and how they will support us in getting more products from Thailand,” said John Sungkamee of Emporium Thai in LA. “She suggested I should look into promoting the Thai rice berry. She also recommended the suppliers to obtain them from.” Sungkamee told me that he and other Thai restaurant owners across the country maintain a group chat, and the now-former Thai Consul General in LA has been an active member.

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Now that large markets like the United States have been firmly established as lovers of coconut milk and peanut sauce, the Thai government has been making a push to increase the presence of Thai cuisine in new regions, especially the Middle East. Becoming one of the top five exporters of halal food by 2020 is a stated goal in its governmental five-year plan.

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The story of Thai gastrodiplomacy seems to be a happy one, at least for me, since it’s meant more Thai food in my mouth. But to those concerned that their local food offerings might be the result of intentional and targeted infiltration by foreign governments: You may be more right than you know. Though Thailand’s efforts may have been the most extensive and successful, this initiative to gain soft power through food has been utilized by other governments as well. Inspired by Thailand’s success, South Korea, for example, has earmarked tens of millions of dollars beginning in 2009 for its Korean Cuisine to the World campaign. Taiwan has followed suit, as has Peru with its Cocina Peruana Para el Mundo (“Peruvian Cuisine for the World;” quite creative) initiative, as well as Malaysia (“Malaysia Kitchen for the World 2010”—clearly there’s a pattern here).

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Even the North Korean government has recognized food’s diplomatic power, and has maintained an international chain of over 100 restaurants called Pyongyang, featuring North Korean staples as well as musical performances by a purportedly captive North Korean staff. The phenomenon of escaping and defecting waitresses may have put a damper on the North Koreans’ enthusiasm for this project.

Perhaps it’s time to submit to foreign governments’ influence over our local restaurant landscapes. If that’s what’s bolstered access to tom kha, lomo saltado, and bulgogi, then it’s not such a bad thing. That is, until Iceland initiates a Fermented Shark for the World campaign. Then it’s time for revolution.

FAQs

Why are there so many Thai restaurants in the United States? ›

In the past 15 years the Thai population in America has doubled in size, and it's a community that opens a lot of restaurants. In fact, if you're just looking at the ratio to a community's population, there are ten times more Thai than Mexican restaurants in the United States.

When did Thai food become popular in America? ›

Thai food started being popular in the late '60s, with Americans thinking 'They are an exotic country, they are our allies'." The history of Thai food in the US began as a product of cultural colonisation.

Why are there so many Thai restaurants in Seattle? ›

So what's the story? Turns out, it was a plan cooked up by the Thai government. It doesn't just affect Seattle, but countries all over the world. In 2001, the Thai government embarked on an economic development plan called “Thai Kitchen To The World” to ramp up tourism and popularize Thai exports.

How many Thai restaurants are there in the US? ›

Thai restaurants are big business—America alone has around 5,000 Thai restaurants.

Why are Thai restaurants everywhere? ›

However the real reason for the spread of Thai restaurants is that the government of Thailand launched its “Global Thai” campaign in 2002. The purpose of the campaign was increase the number of Thai restaurants around the world and to make dishes like Pad Thai and Pad See Ew internationally recognizable.

Why do Americans love Thai food? ›

Quicker than take away. Another reason people LOVE Thai food is that it's so easy to make. Once you have all the Thai ingredients, spices and sauces, it's just a matter of waking them all in the wok. The style is simple, quick but packed with exotic flavor.

Why does Thai food become popular? ›

It Has a Wide Range of Flavors

People love the tasty flavors that Thai cuisine has to offer. The authentic Thai cuisine combines many different ingredients to create unique combinations. You'll find fresh vegetables, bold spices, savory flavors like peanuts, and even sweet flavors like coconut.

What is the most popular Thai food in America? ›

The most popular Thai dishes in America are Pad Thai, Tom Kha Khai, and Thai Fried Rice. Not only do these dishes taste divine but also provide a warm and homely feeling. Various types of Thai curry are also loved in the US, allowing you to eat a new dish every day of the week.

Which country has the biggest influence on Thai cuisine? ›

It is believed that the birthplace of Thai street food was in the Thai Chinatown district, better known as 'Yaowarat', due to its prime location of Yaowarat Road. The vast bulk of Thai street food is influenced by Chinese immigrants.

Why is Seattle called Rat city? ›

Seattle has long had a 'healthy' population of rats but is used to be far more confined. The fishing and early shipping port of Seattle had rats brought in from afar—originally the rats came from Europe. And long before that these rat species—Norway rat and Roof rat—came from Mongolia and northern China.

Why is there so much Thai food in Alaska? ›

In the 1980s a hundred or so Thais made a sojourn all the way to Alaska to work in the gold mines, and a few stayed. Of those few, a handful decided that gold mining wasn't for them, but what else could they do? They could cook Thai food.

Does the Thai government sponsor Thai restaurants? ›

Since 2002, the Thai government has funded and supported thousands of restaurants around the world that make “authentic” Thai food through the Global Thai program.

What is the #1 chain restaurant in the United States? ›

McDonald's

What is the most popular restaurant in America? ›

Here, we rank those concepts by U.S. systemwide sales and dive into Technomic's Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report with insights from the wins and losses of these giants.
...
Top 250: The Ranking.
RankChain
1McDonald's
2Starbucks
3Chick-fil-A
4Taco Bell
46 more rows

Is Thai food in the US authentic? ›

According to those who have been lucky enough to immerse themselves in the food and culture of Thailand, the cuisine we see here in American is, well... not quite the same. From flavor profile to the amount and quality of ingredients used, Thai food in the US is definitely not what one would get in Thailand.

What is considered rude in Thailand? ›

Don't lose your cool: Shouting, blowing your top, or displaying strong emotions is generally frowned upon in Thailand. Always keep in mind the rules of saving face. Keep your cool even when things go wrong; you'll be respected for doing so.

Why is Thailand known as the kitchen of the world? ›

Thailand has long been called “the kitchen of the world” due to the combination of having abundant natural resources, a year-round growing season, and a relatively low cost but highly skilled labor force.

Why do foreigners love Thai food? ›

Thai food is internationally famous. Its spicy but mellow taste together with its beautiful and exquisite appearance with the sense of Thai culture has made every Thai menu popular among the foreigners.

What can you not eat in Thailand? ›

Food and drinks to stay away from in Thailand
  • Leuat moo. The first food to avoid in Thailand is leuat moo. ...
  • Larb leuat neua. Larb is a popular dish in Thailand's northern and northeastern regions. ...
  • Larb dib. ...
  • Koi pla. ...
  • Yum khai maeng da (horseshoe crab) ...
  • Shark fin soup. ...
  • Fried insects. ...
  • Goong ten (dancing shrimp)
16 Sept 2021

Is Thai food healthy or unhealthy? ›

Traditional Thai cuisine is quite healthy and largely based on vegetables, lean proteins, and fresh herbs and spices. Certain Thai dishes are high in refined carbs and may contain deep-fried foods, added sugar, or high amounts of salt.

What is so special about Thai food? ›

What makes Thai food so different from other cuisines is its use of contrasting flavors. Thai food often pairs hot spices with sweet, light citrus flavors like lime and mango. The signature peanut sauce is somewhere between sweet and savory and adds depth to any dish.

Why is Thai culture so unique? ›

Its unique culture mixes strong Indian influences, Chinese traditions, and elements that are absolutely Thai. With its diverse geography, friendly people, and stunning scenery, the “Land of Smiles” is a must-see destination in South East Asia.

Is Thai cuisine the best in the world? ›

Thailand only 21st best in ranking of world's best cuisines.

What is the most famous ingredient in Thai cooking? ›

There are many herbs used in Thai dishes, but the most common and popular and important to have on hand are cilantro and Thai basil, and you can't make respectable Thai food without them. These are Thai food ingredients that are impossible to live without.

What do the Europeans call Thailand? ›

Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand, was known by outsiders prior to 1949 as Siam.

What country has the best food? ›

These are the top countries viewed as having great food by global survey respondents.
...
  • Italy. #1 in Has great food. ...
  • Mexico. #2 in Has great food. ...
  • Spain. #3 in Has great food. ...
  • Greece. #4 in Has great food. ...
  • Thailand. #5 in Has great food. ...
  • France. ...
  • Turkey. ...
  • India.

Which nationality visit Thailand the most? ›

Malaysia

Is obesity a problem in Thailand? ›

Obesity in Thailand has been flagged as a major source of health concern, with 32% of the population identifying as overweight and 9% obese.

Is Thailand an American or Chinese ally? ›

China remains as an important ally to Thailand, partly because of its influence and prominence in the region.

What is the Seattle accent called? ›

Pacific Northwest English (also known, in American linguistics, as Northwest English) is a variety of North American English spoken in the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon, sometimes also including Idaho and the Canadian province of British Columbia.

What smell will keep rats away? ›

This makes peppermint oil, chili powder, citronella, and eucalyptus the most common natural rodent repellents. Chemical smells, such as ammonia, bleach, and mothballs also work as mice deterrents.

What do Seattle residents call themselves? ›

A person who lives in or comes from Seattle, Washington, is called a Seattleite. This is a list of well known people who were born, lived, or grew up in the city of Seattle.

What US city has the largest Thai population? ›

Los Angeles, California, has the largest Thai population outside of Asia. It is home to the world's first Thai Town.

How much is a Big Mac in Alaska? ›

The state with the most expensive Big Mac is Hawaii, where the burger costs $5.31.
...
How Much A Big Mac Costs In Every State.
StateCost
Alaska$4.87
Arizona$4.43
Arkansas$3.95
California$5.11
46 more rows
5 Sept 2022

Do they eat a lot of meat in Thailand? ›

Most people in Thailand enjoy eating meat, even though large numbers refrain from eating beef and other kinds of red meat due to their religious beliefs. In fact, many types of meat such as pork, chicken, fish and seafood are the staple for Thai cuisine that people eat every day.

Who owns McDonald's in Thailand? ›

McThai Co., Ltd. has been appointed as the developmental licensee (DL) for Thailand by McDonald's Corporation since 1985. The first restaurant was opened at Amarin Plaza as the 35th country in the world serving the great taste foods & Beverages.

Why do Thai restaurants leave food outside? ›

"It's an offering to the house spirit," says Sabai Sabai owner Naphatsnun Sinpaksawat, or "Tip," as regular customers know her. She's been placing a full meal on the sidewalk daily since the restaurant opened more than four years ago.

Does Thailand have Mexican food? ›

Bangkok is also a hub of many authentic Mexican eateries run by the natives who aspire to enlive the food scene here with more flavors. You can also place a delivery order from them just by a quick call or several taps on your preferred app.

What is the only 7 star restaurant in the world? ›

Head to Al Iwan restaurant at Burj Al Arab, dubbed to be "the world's only 7-star hotel". Enjoy a high-class buffet lunch or dinner of authentic Arabian dishes while you take in the sea and city views of Dubai.

What is the number one food the U.S. is known for? ›

Pizza is pretty ubiquitous around the US, whether we're talking a classic New York slice, a stone-baked sourdough or a Chicago deep-dish pie. In fact, according to a Harris Poll, it's the country's favourite food – and the one most people would choose if they could only eat one thing for the rest of their lives.

What city in America has the best food? ›

Best Food Cities in the US
  • New York City, New York.
  • Chicago, Illinois.
  • San Francisco, California.
  • Houston, Texas.
  • Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Seattle, Washington.
  • Portland, Oregon.
  • Philadelphia, PA.
17 Jul 2022

What is America's Favourite meal? ›

Mac and Cheese

This casserole baked in the oven is considered America's ultimate comfort food. Tip: Use a good mix of different cheeses to get the most flavourful macaroni and cheese. Also, top it off with a shaving of Parmesan.

When did Thai food become popular in the US? ›

Those U.S. citizens come into contact with Thai food in the 1950s and 60s, write Thai cookbooks, introduce it to suburban housewives back in West Los Angeles, and that gets the ball rolling.

What food is solely American? ›

13 foods born in America
  • Cheeseburgers. There are multiple claims to the origin of the cheeseburger—but one thing's for sure: The greasy, sizzling, cheesy-beef patty originated in none other than the U.S.
  • Buffalo wings. ...
  • Reubens. ...
  • Pecan pie. ...
  • Chocolate chip cookies. ...
  • S'mores. ...
  • Lobster roll. ...
  • Corn dogs.
22 Jun 2017

Why did the Thai immigrate to the US? ›

Thai immigration to the United States proceeded very slowly. It began in earnest during and after the Vietnam War, in which Thailand was an ally of the US and South Vietnam. Records show that in the decade between 1960 and 1970, some 5,000 Thais immigrated to the United States.

What is the largest growing type of ethnic restaurant in the United States? ›

Mexican restaurants are the largest growing type of ethnic restaurant.

Which state has the most Thai people? ›

Total U.S. Thai Population By State
State20152020
New Jersey3,2652,881
New Mexico1,084572
New York11,54512,038
North Carolina3,3184,087
48 more rows

Which country has the most Thai? ›

The vast majority of the Thai people live in Thailand, although some Thais can also be found in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Is American Thai food healthy? ›

Thai food is filled with intense flavors and tends to be rich in vegetables, making it one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet. Among the spices and flavors that make Thai food stand out are turmeric, coriander, ginger, lemongrass, and chili peppers.

What is America's favorite ethnic food? ›

Many Americans learn about and enjoy different cultures through food. One study shows that Mexican food is the most popular ethnic food in the largest number of states. It is especially popular on the U.S. West Coast. But Chinese food is the top ethnic food nationwide.

What race buys the most fast food? ›

Race. According to the data, it appears as though the group consuming fast food the most was the African American population, with 42.4% partaking on any given day.

What is the fastest growing ethnic cuisine? ›

Asian Cuisine: The Fastest Growing Food Market in the World- An Infographic. This info-graphic is all about the growing popularity of Asian food across the world.

What time do Thai people eat? ›

Lunch is generally eaten between 12:00noon and 1:300pm. Many people eat out, grabbing a quick meal or snack such as a bowl of noodles, some soup or a stir-fried dish. A typical Thai lunch is curried chicken or stir -fried vegetables with rice, noodles or soup. Dinner is generally eaten between 7:00pm and 8:00pm.

What race is Thai food? ›

Thai food originated with the people who emigrated from the southern Chinese provinces into modern day Thailand many centuries ago. Historically there were many Szechwan influences in Thai cuisine, although over the centuries many other influences have affected Thai food.

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