A Royal Family Affair
Family and flavorful food have kept Royal Thai Cuisine around for almost three decades.- By Linda Domingo | Photos by Katherine Vazquez
Calling Royal Thai Cuisine a family business would be accurate, but somehow the term falls short in describing this Orange County institution. Owner and Executive Chef Sam Tila opened the Laguna Beach location in 1985, about four years after opening the first location in Newport Beach. While remaining the executive chef at both locations, Sam soon enlisted the help of his brother Lek to manage the Laguna Beach site; however, the brothers’ culinary history goes back even further.
“I was born in a restaurant,” Lek, now 64 years old, says. “My mom and dad had two restaurants in Thailand.” Before coming to the U.S., Lek’s job in Thailand consisted of importing and exporting food. His family still owns Bangkok Market, a Thai staple in Los Angeles since the 1970s, and Lek’s nephew is a celebrity chef who has been featured on the Food Network and Travel Channel. “It’s all in the family,” Lek adds.
As far as Lek knows, Royal Thai Cuisine was the first Thai restaurant in Laguna Beach. The restaurant’s extensive menu can be intimidating if you’re new to Thai cuisine, but Lek and his staff are happy to offer recommendations.
For an introduction to some of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers, the Royal Thai sampler serves up Naked Shrimp, a spicy salad consisting of shrimp seasoned with lime, Thai fish sauce, chili and lemongrass; the Pot of Gold, small crispy shells with a chicken and/or vegetable mix seasoned with curry powder; satays; and spring rolls. While it’s easy to gravitate toward more familiar dishes like paht Thai, Lek recommends the drunken noodle, a stir-fry with chicken, pork, shrimp and squid with vegetables and chili—his personal favorite. There’s no alcohol added, but Lek offers an explanation for the dish’s namesake: People would make the dish for parties, using anything that was in the kitchen. “Noodles, vegetables, everything. They put everything in there. Then they have a party. That’s the story of where it came from. …Drunken people, they love it,” he adds, laughing.
Thai food is notoriously spicy, but the staff will happily make a mild version of any dish. Vegetarian options are also available for all entrees. The kang ped—red curry with bamboo shoots, Thai eggplant and sweet basil—provides a spicy kick and pairs perfectly with white rice. “All ingredients are fresh and cooked [to order],” Lek says. “We always make it fresh.”
In addition to flavorful food, the restaurant’s authentic interior décor aesthetically satisfies appetites for the exotic, and its outdoor patio is a charming setting for a romantic summer date. LBM