Why is Thai food more common in the US than, say, Laos or Cambodia?

Thai restaurants in the US seem quite common (at least where I live). Maybe not on every street, but I see them frequently. On the other hand, I’ve never seen a Laos restaurant or a Cambodia restaurant. I do see a fair number of vietnamese restaurants, but I assume that’s related to people who came over during the vietnamese war.
How come Thai restaurants are so much more common in the US than their immediate neighbors Laos and Cambodia? Was there some factor that drove more Thai immigration to the US that somehow didnt affect the neighboring countries?

I doubt it has much to do with the number of immigrants. Food styles are trends, and Thai is one that caught on. But in terms of immigration, there is a strong formal cooking tradition in Thailand that produced some well trained chefs who came to the US to open or run restaurants. I don’t know if the same holds for Cambodia and Laos.

There are cambodian restaurants. It just depends on the city. But yeah, there are more Thai. Maybe because fewer of the Thai people immigrated to the USA as refugees? Maybe they came with more resources.

Perhaps the public in general has a better concept about what Thai cuisine is like.

In my neighbourhood, there is a Restaurant by the name of “Shanghai Express” but the owner and all the staff are Vietnamese. It’s not a fancy place and while they do have some Vietnamese dishes on the menu, they offer mainly traditional Chinese food (the way it is known in the West, which is very different from authentic Chinese cuisine).

I guess they do it to be more appealing to mainstream customers who normally would not patronize the more exotic ethnic restaurants.

It’s a mixture of all of the above, but mostly it’s because of the conditions under which the various populations originally came to the U.S. The Thai who came (during the war in Vietnam) were prepared to start small businesses, with sufficient capital and/or resources. The Cambodians and Laotians came as refugees, as Donnerwetter notes…

However, many Vietnamese came as refugees, too, but they came in such large numbers, they were able to attract enough initial clientele to create successful restaurants.

Also, as mentioned above, Cambodian and Laotian cuisines aren’t as distinct as Thai cuisine, which could generate an identity that North Americans could easily identify, and which was easily promoted. When Laotians and Cambodians do start restaurants, they often promote them as restaurants that also serve Thai food.

Cambodians, by the way, more so ended up starting doughnut shops, instead. (At least in L.A.)

Understand that Laos is a small landlocked country. It’s population is estimated at about 6.5 million. The Laotian culture is heavily influenced by Thailand. Laotians watch satellite TV that is sent to them unscrambled from Thailand stations. In remote villages there will be satellite receptors.

There is a bit of an identity crisis in Laos because of the Thai influence. Read “Another Quiet American”. http://www.amazon.com/Another-Quiet-American-Stories-Life/dp/9748303683

Cambodia is also relatively small in population, less than 15 million. It is heavily influenced by Vietnam and China.

Vietnam has over 90 million people. Thailand, about 64 million. China, try counting them.

It’s not surprising that China, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand would have much more influential cuisine. People from those countries have had a much easier time making it to the US for a variety of reasons.

And yes, as it was pointed out, a restaurant run by Vietnamese, in order to expand the menu will serve what Americans consider traditional Chinese dishes.

There’s more money to be made in Thai restaurants. How many Americans go out looking for Laotian food?

This is one of the same reasons why the majority of Japanese restaurants in the US are run by non-Japanese (usually Koreans). It’s a bigger market.

Cambodia doesn’t have much of a distinct cuisine compared to its neighbors. I mostly had fried rice and some Vietnamese-style hoagies when I was there. The most unique dish I came across was noodles with crab.

I could imagine going to a Lao restaurant. It would serve Lao and Issan (northeastern Thai) cuisine (e.g. Laap). But they might as well just open a Thai restaurant and also serve some Lao dishes.

Another factor is whether restaurants are common within the country itself. There are some Burmese restaurants in the U.S., but they’re not very common. Partly this is because there aren’t very many Burmese restaurants in Burma (or whatever the country is calling itself these days). Burmese food is a home cuisine. If Burmese want to eat out, they go to Chinese restaurants (or so I’ve been told).

There are thus a number of factors determining how common various types of restaurants are in the U.S. - the population of the country, the proportion of those people who emigrated to the U.S., the degree to which people in that country consider restaurants of their cuisine to be important institutions, whether that cuisine has become hip in the U.S., etc. Another issue is that you may not actually know what sorts of restaurants are common unless you really look hard for them. There are cuisines that do have a reasonable number of restaurants specializing in them, but unless you are of that ethnic group or you know well people who are, you might never hear of them. Some restaurants just aren’t hip, and some of them don’t want to be hip. They don’t have, and sometimes don’t want, lots of customers who aren’t of their ethnicity.

Incidentally, you might want to read Tyler Cowen’s new book, An Economist Gets Lunch or the recent article by him in The Atlantic (where the point is actually made more clearly). He recommends that people eat at Vietnamese restaurants rather than Thai ones. Vietnamese restaurants are cheaper for the same quality. Thai restaurants have been forced to Americanize their food in order to stay popular. In particular, this means that they make the food sweeter and with less exotic flavorings.

I used to live practically across the street from a Laotian restaurant. This was in a mid-sized Midwestern city. IIRC their sign actually said they were a Lao-Thai restaurant, but the name of the place was Vientiane (after the capital of Laos).

Your example kind of highlights a point I was going to make. If your food is not all that different from Thai, you might want to describe it as Thai anyway, because more Americans are out looking for that kind of food. Then you can do some kind of fusion or multiple menu solution.

Up here in the Pacific NW, it’s very common to find “Teriyaki” shops that serve everything. While the name makes you think Japan, it’s not unusual to find China, Thailand, Korea and/or Vietnam represented on the same menu in different ways. I know of one such restaurant that offers miso, wonton soup and pho in the “soup” section of the menu.

In a place like that, I might have sampled the fare of Laos or Cambodia and not even realized it.

I find that many of the Thai restaurants in my area are run by non-Thais anyway, which may explain why their Thai food kind of sucks. I wish that they’d stick to their core competency, then I might be interested to eat there more often.

Laos used to be a part of Thailand, fwiw, and in Thailand there are many Isaan (Isarn) restaurants. I ate at a couple of them this past week. Laos and the Isaan region of Thailand have a similar cuisine.

If Andrew Sullivan is to be trusted, in his special where he explored some of the Cambodian places in Orange County, I think the “best” kinds of Cambodian foods might be a bit out there for many Americans. Too much blood in the food. Thai cuisine also has this, with stuff like “fish maw” and “fish kidneys” appearing on the menus in Thailand, but they either keep it off the menu or have a special Thai menu that’s written in Thai script.

That’s not really an answer, it just raises the question of why Thai cuisine caught on and Lao cuisine didn’t. I mean, at some point, Thai cuisine was a rarity in the U.S. (and I’m given to understand that Lao restaurants exist in the big cities, for that matter.)

And around here the workers in the sushi places speak Chinese, not Korean.

Homer Simpson endorsed Thai food [/thread]

It’s not clear why Thai restaurants suddenly became hip in the U.S. at some point. Several sources I’ve consulted say the popularity of Thai restaurants started in California in the 1980’s. Sometimes it’s just a matter of luck how such trends start. Lao and Cambodian restaurants were never very common, but the strange thing is the decrease in the number of top-level Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. in the past ten or fifteen years. There are still plenty of less expensive Vietnamese restaurants though. For a short period it appeared that Vietnamese restaurants might become as hip as Thai ones, but then they started to fade out and never reached that level of popularity.

Could the fact that the US stationed large numbers of troops in Thailand and Vietnam have something to do with it? (There were at least five air bases in operation during the Vietnam war). The large number of repatriating servicemen – we all served one year rotations in country – would have provided a large base of potential customers.

I live in Thaitown, and I’ve tried just about every one of the restaurants here. The “hole-in-the-wall” places (where they sometimes have to search around for the English menu) serve these things. There are a couple of places that cater to the folks who “venture in” from the Westside, and while they might serve them if you ask, they definitely won’t put them on menu.

I actually saw this with Greek food when visiting Boston. Living outside of Chicago, I’m used to seeing Greek restaurants, so when my husband and I visited Boston a few years back, we decided to find a Greek restaurant. Turns out they all seem to be advertised as “Mediterranean” restaurants, and typically serve Greek and Italian cuisine from what I saw. Even a restaurant with a name like Ithaki gets labeled first as “Mediterranean” but only secondarily as Greek, even with a heavily Greek menu and only a few inclusions of things like fettuccine under more traditionally Greek toppings/sauces. (BTW, great food, at least as of that visit a few years back.)

So my guess was, and that seemed to be backed up by talking to friends who lived in the area, that people there wouldn’t know what to expect if they saw “Greek” but seeing “Mediterranean” think “kinda Italian” and try it out.

Madison, or a suburb of Minneapolis? :slight_smile: I think both of them said much the same thing, but my memory isn’t cooperating.

I think this is a pretty good explanation. Is there any example of a small (< 10 million) country that has really popular food? Jamaica, maybe?