Success is a family affair at Ayara Thai

By Jessica Koslow

Khao Soi Chicken Noodle is a Northern Thai dish of drumsticks braised in curry broth and served over egg noodles, shallots and mustard greens

Some people are born into a business but choose to follow a different career path. Others opt to walk in their parents’ footsteps. And then there’s Vanda Asapahu, who has done both: She grew up helping her parents run Thai restaurants, decided to spend four years working for the United Nations in Thailand, and then came back to carry forward the legacy of her family’s restaurant, Ayara Thai in Westchester.

“I don’t think you appreciate working with family until you work with everything else and then decide for yourself you want to come back,” she says.

Vanda’s parents, Andy and Anna Asapahu, opened Ayara Thai Cuisine in 2004. It was their third restaurant, and, as they had hoped, the third time was a charm.

“My dad has always been a serial entrepreneur,” says Vanda. “And my mom is his biggest supporter, the implementer of his crazy dreams, the backbone behind it all. They are an amazing pair.”

The Asapahus initially immigrated from Thailand to Montebello, and their experience preparing meals with other immigrant families eventually led to small eateries there and in East L.A.

Sisters Cathy and Vanda (left and right) follow in mother Anna Asapahu’s culinary and entrepreneurial footsteps

“Eating out was not affordable, and cooking for a family of four wasn’t cheap,” Vanda explains. “My family would pool the funds and ingredients of other families and cook a big batch together. We ate communally, sometimes with 20 people. Eating one dish is not part of our eating culture. We eat lots of dishes, and eating together made it easier for everyone.”

The opportunity to live and work in Westchester came after Thai Airways, where both parents had worked in catering and operations, launched commercial flights from LAX and needed someone to feed their crews.

“There were 60 crews rotating seven days a week. We cooked packaged food out of our home kitchen,” Vanda recalls. “The crews wanted to stay on Thai time, so local restaurants weren’t open. We delivered to their hotel room door or put the meals in the crew lounge. I was about 13 or 14. I was packing or cooking. It was very participatory. Every hand was on deck at all times.”

When Andy and Anna hit their mid-50s, they decided it was time for their last hurrah. They took all of their savings and opened Ayara Thai Cuisine.

“It was just the two of them,” says Vanda, with tangible pride. “They went from a staff of four to now feeding a staff of 30-plus, and my entire family.”

On a recent Thursday morning, Anna is already in the kitchen prepping for the day. Vanda gushes with admiration when asked about her mom: “She’s the ultimate power woman. She works seven days a week. She’s the first person in here and the last to leave. Everyone calls her mama. She’s so nurturing, making sure everyone eats. We eat like a family.

“She’s also a kickass businesswoman,” adds Vanda. “My dad dreams things up, but my mom is the final decision maker. As a woman, she’s often in the back of the house and doesn’t get as much recognition. But she never cares as long as we’re doing well.”

Ayara Thai Cuisine has gone through some big changes over the last year. In 2012, the family purchased their building, and as time passed they saw the need for an expansion project. In December 2016 they found an ideal space for a pop-up just down the street, and they moved their operations to Ayara Lūk. What began as a five-month project remained open until one month ago, and Ayara reopened May 1.

“We felt like we were constantly chasing — construction costs changed, banking regulations changed. We decided to move back into our original space and fix what we need with the money we do have,” Vanda explains.

“It was the toughest decision I have had to make as a business owner,” she continues. “This is everything for my family. This is our passion project, and the bread and butter that is our family. You can plan and plan and do and do, but when you get there things are out of your control. My dad said that is part of being an adult. You can only control what you can control, and then you have to move on.”

As the oldest of the three children, Vanda is the most hands-on. Also part of the business, her brother is currently working at Los Angeles Country Club as a golf coach and her sister is a pastry chef at Providence on Melrose.

Ayara has been a local favorite for years, and if all goes as planned, the physical space will only get bigger and better, with a full bar coming soon.

“I can’t express how much our menu is our personal identity, my family’s identity: Northern Thai, Chinese, American and California, which has plentiful produce,” says Vanda. “At Ayara, you’ll eat what we would be serving if we would have you eat with us at home.”

This Mother’s Day, Ayara is serving a few brunch specials: Khao Tom Salmon with a poached egg, Lobster Pad Thai with thin rice noodles, and Khao Soi Chicken Noodle.

Ayara Thai 6245 W. 87th St., Westchester (310) 881-4498