Wine inventory at Anajak Thai — a program that grew out of just six wines. Photo courtesy of Anajak Thai

One Great ListLos Angeles

At Anajak Thai, Riesling Is But the First Step to Wine Delight

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One Great List is Resy’s occasional tribute to particularly noteworthy or unique wine programs around the country. 

“It looks to be an old neighborhood Thai place with a neon sign and it happens to be a smoky little spot,” says Justin Pichetrungsi, the articulate and charismatic chef and owner of Anajak Thai. “I always wanted the tension between the new vanguard style and the classic — our place is the fight between the traditional and the rebellious,” he says. The restaurant, which fills the space between a bank and a Chipotle on Ventura Boulevard in L.A.’s Sherman Oaks, was opened by his dad, Ricky, 40 years ago.

Pichetrungsi had been pinch-hitting in the kitchen and running a small wine list at Anajak for a while before coming on full-bore when his dad had a stroke a few years ago. It started as a six-bottle list: a txakolina, Vouvray from François Pinon, Koehler-Ruprecht riesling, Beaujolais by Jean-Paul Brun, teroldego from Elisabetta Foradori. Wine was never of much import to his parents: “My dad’s a wok guy, he’s gonna drink beer and my mom loves riesling, she’s a spätlese gal all day, but she can only have a couple sips.” But Pichetrungsi, through travel in Europe and drinking around L.A., was digging further and further into wine, with an almost investigative perspective on tasting.

He fell in with the natural wine crowd, ducking out of meetings during his tenure as an art director at Disney to attend tastings with distributors like Farm Wine, Louis Dressner, and Amy Atwood. And ever since, Pichetrungsi’s wine list has expanded greatly and evolved with his palate. Anajak became an insiders’ spot on the natural wine scene.

But at a moment when many wine lists across the country are drifting further and further down the path of natural wine, Pichetrungsi now is pulling back, especially when it comes to high-acid white wines, like riesling. “You have to be realistic; you’re going to prevent yourself from drinking good, tense stuff,” he says. “I want my wines to be clean and I want the winemakers to have the confidence in the stability of their product.”

It’s a conversation that’s of particular relevance to Anajak’s cuisine in that over the last 20 years, the wine cliché about Thai food in the U.S. is that it ought to be consumed with riesling, that those with a wisp of residual sugar are especially well-attuned to the lashing heat of certain Thai dishes. It’s a philosophy that Pichetrungsi certainly supports. “Look, I’ll do anything to get people to drink more riesling. I’ll take a bullet for riesling,” he jokes. “If someone says, ‘all these rieslings are going in the harbor or you take a bullet,’ I’ll say, ‘aim for the leg.’ We’re destined to be partners.”

The list at Anajak goes deep in riesling, with numerous offerings from Hofgut Falkenstein in the Saar, as well as bottlings from other German producers such as the Brand brothers, Wechsler, Stein, Beurer, and on. The bulk of the wines on his list stay on the drier (though often riper) side, but “I would love for people to drink sweeter rieslings so we can make spicier food,” Pichetrungsi confesses, admitting that the heat in Anajak’s food often has to be middle-of-the-road in consideration of his customer’s palates.

That said, the Thai canon is obviously much bigger than just spicy. The dishes can run from herbal to sweet and tangy to fried and crispy to outright charred, making room for wines well outside of riesling. “The nose is such an element for us at the restaurant,” says Pichetrungsi. “It is a smoky, aromatic environment from the food perspective; we have to know the wines can hold up on the nose.” This proved as a surprising point of entry for wines from Burgundy. “Red Burgundy is far more diverse with our food than I would have ever thought,” Pichetrungsi says. “Gevrey Chambertins, Vougeots are just insane against the wok fumes.” On the Gevrey front, there’s one from Domaine Duband, joined by a number of approachably priced bottles from Rodolphe Demougeot and and Le Grappin, among others.

Pichetrungsi’s dad Ricky worked the line at Anajak until he was 71 years old, a fact that is ever-present for Pichetrungsi, who understandably grew up in the restaurant. Pichetrungsi left his full-time career as an art director (though his drawings still pepper the menu at Anajak) and has been in the kitchen four or five nights a week since. “The wine producers that I love are multigenerational, like me. They learned because they had to learn.”

With Ricky remaining a partner in the business and Pichetrungsi’s mom and aunt (“Employee #1”) still  staples in the front of the house, Pichetrungsi has made some well-considered changes to Anajak. The à la carte menu remains, largely in the same way Ricky had been presenting it, with pad Thai and pad siew, lab tot (northern Thai-style meatballs), curries, and southern Thai fried chicken (now with an optional $90 caviar sidecar).

But to this, Pichetrungsi added a daily omakase that would better put to use the more creative side of the kitchen, as well as the astoundingly popular weekly Thai Taco Tuesdays — a byproduct of the pandemic — which have people lining up for dry-aged fish tacos and Chinese sausage tostadas. “The pandemic was a vessel for us to free ourselves. Out of the quiet times came a lot of ideas and conversations — what are we going to do, what needs to change about our industry? And I was like, we’re gonna do Taco Tuesdays,” Pichetrungsi says.

In the midst of this evolution, he realized that he couldn’t keep the kitchen going and run the wine list the way it ought to be.

Four Essential Wines from Anajak Thai's Justin Pichetrungsi

2020 Hofgut Falkenstein Riesling Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett Trocken ($91): “To me, it’s just so classic,” says Pichetrungsi of this dry riesling from Germany’s Saar. “I want people to discover it. I should open it for people that don’t know it; people opened things for me that I didn’t know, I have to pass it forward.”

2018 Francois & Julien Pinon Silex Noir Vouvray ($88): “I love reductive, savory chenin. The flint is so pronounced on the nose in this wine.” says Pichetrungsi. “François took over from his father, he was a child psychiatrist, so winemaking is his second career. That wine is me in a bottle — I’m sure he’s got the same tribulations that I have. Do you taste it in the wine? It’s something that’s not so straightforward because they’re living through something that’s not straightforward. The people I would love to drink Vouvray are not buying it — they buy dry wine — but when you pour it the right time in a meal, they’ll love it.”

2017 Domaine Rougeot Bourgogne Côte d’Or Rouge Les Vaux Sans Soufre ($77): “I’m just starting to try to understand it,” says Pichetrungsi. “It’s going to take me some time to really understand Rougeot, it’s posing some questions. For a naturally made [red Burgundy] there is so much energy — it feels so free and alive.”

2020 Matassa Tattouine Rouge ($105): From France’s Roussillon, a blend of grenache gris and carignan. “It’s one of those natural wines where if you opened it now, you’d think, ‘This is a great natural wine,’” Pichetrungsi says. “It’s pale, pale, almost grey, like strawberry ice, but as time has gone by, some wisdom is showing up. The grenache gris gives that hazy, fluffy quality to the wine. It’s a fun, early-part-of-the-meal, let’s-hydrate kind of wine.”


Enter John Cerasulo, who had recently relocated from New York City, and had tangentially been involved in the wine world via friends who were importers and retailers. Cerasulo brought a similar curiosity when it came to wine — including that adoration of German riesling, Champagne, and Burgundy. And so was born the role of Anajak’s first wine director, with Cerasulo in dialogue with Pichetrungsi as much as anything. For the past year, Cerasulo has been expanding in realms that Pichetrungsi hadn’t explored as much on his own. German pinot noir. Chablis.

One such spot was in Rhône reds. Cerasulo found an easy correspondence with the grilled wagyu from Gifu that’s on Anajak’s omakase menu, as well as with a charred pork that’s marinated in soy, coriander, and molasses. Eric Texier’s wines have long been a staple for Pichetrungsi, but the Saint-Josephs from Vincent Paris and Domaine Rouchier, new to him, have now filled those voids.

And at the same time, Cerasulo is learning from Pichetrungsi, too — finding that a chef’s approach to wine is very different from someone who’s always approached it from a sniff-and-swish angle. He understands fermentation from a culinary perspective. “He’s very sensitive to brett and he’s always doing lacto fermentations for his omakase and talking about malolactic fermentation,” says Cerasulo. “He’s unlocking this other layer to wine. I’m assuming a lot of chefs have that. They’re eating the wines.”

 

Megan Krigbaum writes about wine and all sorts of other drinks and travel for numerous publications. She’s currently a contributing editor for PUNCH, and formerly a wine editor at Food & Wine. Follow her on Twitter. Follow Resy, too.