Holy Basil

From left to right are chef Wedchayan Arpapornnopparat and Tongkamal Yuon of Holy Basil.

C

hef Wedchayan “Deau” Arpapornnopparat and Tongkamal “Joy” Yuon are the couple behind the popular food stall Holy Basil in the Fashion District’s Santee Passage.  

Specializing in Thai street food favorites turned with a mindful, creative twist and fresh ingredients, Holy Basil hosted a pre-pandemic pop-up in Highland Park. That was followed by a stall that opened in February after a stint in a nearby alley in September. 

The Bangkok natives met in Los Angeles 15 years ago, while working at the locally beloved Thai restaurant Chan Dara’s Pico Boulevard location. 

“Joy was the bartender, and I was a busboy at Chan Dara,” Arpapornnopparat said. “I was going to school. It was more of a part-time job.”

Arpapornnopparat was a Santa Monica City College fine arts student and then transferred to The Art Center in Pasadena to pursue a degree in graphic design. 

In the meantime, Yuon began managing Chan Dara.

“Joy and I were just working in the restaurant, and we were really interested in whatever we were doing there in general,” Arpapornnopparat said. 

“We got our experience there. Joy started managing at Chan Dara. That’s how we got a glimpse of how to run a restaurant.”

With her bartending experience, Yuon was interested in developing a beverage concept that resulted in the couple’s first enterprise: The_Base. 

Formally founded four years ago, the company develops and sells wholesome, organically sweetened beverage concentrates with exotically devised flavors including strawberry shiso, hibiscus agave, gooseberry marigold and blackberry charcoal. Seasonal options are also available, via its website: the-base.co.

Yuon was inspired by a trip to Thailand and then Arpapornnopparat’s graphic design background spurred the product development. 

 “That company (The_Base) started out of the blue,” Arpapornnopparat said. “We always knew we wanted to do something on our own. She went back to Thailand, and she was so interested in making sparkling drinks, any kind of healthier options, like spritzers. She came back home, and I was going to the Art Center and I had a school project of redoing (consumer) packaging. So that’s how it started. It was one of my projects at school, doing packaging, learning how people interact with brands. It grew out from the classroom and our passion.”

The_Base beverages are offered at Holy Basil as finished products in cans. 

“Usually The_Base (product) is a concentrate,” he said. “It’s more almost like an exclusive wine club, where people can do mixology on their own at home or just make mocktails at home for their family. But the product we offer at Holy Basil is a complete product in a can.”

The experience of developing the beverage concentrates introduced them to Los Angeles’ larger, vibrant culinary scene. Soon, the couple experimented with Thai cuisine and the dishes they grew up with in Bangkok. 

“When we were working with The_Base (beverages), we worked with a lot of chefs. So, we have access to multiple chef friends,” Arpapornnopparat said.

Initially, a pop-up was posed as a one-off. 

“We started Holy Basil as a pop-up, not even to test the market,” he said. 

“We just wanted to do something with Thai cuisine, really presenting dishes we grew up eating, with the flavor we wanted. In the beginning, what we were doing on the street was just a fun thing. Really it was just a fun thing to test if the concept of the food we were doing was something people cared about.”

The first pop-up in Highland Park was staged next door to its friends at the noodle and condiment shop, Chinese Laundry, on York Boulevard. The pop-up menu was focused more on Izakaya-style bar snacks and small bites.

“That was our original passion that we were going for. Izakaya,” Arpapornnopparat said.

Their beverage fans served as the front-row audience for the pop-up in Highland Park. 

“Through The_Base (brand) there were a lot of customers who never knew that we cooked,” Arpapornnopparat said. “So, they came and tried it and they loved it, so we saw we have enough support to do this thing.”

They discovered Santee Passage as a likely spot for The_Base headquarters and their restaurant concept, though the menu changed. 

“With the restaurant, we didn’t want to do the Izakaya concept,” Arpapornnopparat said. “Just because it’s our first restaurant, we wanted to be consistent. We didn’t want to deal with an alcohol license. We didn’t want to be open nighttime, things like that. So, we decided on more of a fast casual (concept).”

The Holy Basil menu is more extensive than expected, given its small space and kitchen. 

“Tom yum soup, there’s shrimp and chicken,” Arpapornnopparat said. “For our tom yum, the way we make it is different from other restaurants. We make a recipe based on the shrimp itself. I would direct people to the tom yum, in my opinion, which is very different from other places.” 

The broth for each version of the soup is made from fresh, scratch-made shrimp and chicken stock. The tom yum goong ($13) is made with fresh Ecuadorean white shrimp, oyster mushrooms, roasted chili jam, lime, lemongrass, makrut leaf, galangal and cilantro. The tom yum gai ($13) swaps out the shrimp for fresh jidori chicken, in its scratchmade chicken stock.

“The pad kee mao, the drunken noodle, it’s actually (prepared) in the way I grew up,” Arpapornnopparat said. 

“We wok fry it. You can smell the aroma from the whiskey. I don’t know if other restaurants are doing that. We use fresh noodles.”

His version of pad kee mao ($15) takes wok-fried and smoked flat noodles and tosses them with crisped pork belly, egg, bird’s-eye chili, Thai basil, garlic, scallions and XO sauce. It’s finished with the aforementioned secret ingredient: whiskey. There are also a range of rice bowls and fried rice dishes ($11-$15). 

A selection of small plates top the list. These include egg rolls ($6), hand-rolled and stuffed with glass noodles, wood ear mushrooms and ground pork shoulder; chicken wings ($8) brined in fish sauce and tossed in sweet chili jam served with housemade papaya pickles; or housemade sausage ($6) made with ground pork shoulder in XO sauce and bird’s-eye chili.

The small plates hearken back to the Izakaya bar food that served as the couple’s first inspiration. It’s a mode that they serve in earnest once a month or so, under the banner “Yum-Los Angeles” as a self-styled pop-up at Holy Basil. 

Arpapornnopparat described a couple of the dishes.

“So we will do more contemporary dishes with Thai flavor,” Arpapornnopparat said. “Thai ceviche, pickled crab with fish sauce and lime and we dress it with garlic, chili, multiple herbs and palm sugar. Clear glass noodle with dried shrimp and peanuts, dressed with lime, chili and fish sauce.” 

Check Holy Basil’s Instagram page for the next Yum-Los Angeles pop-up opportunity. By the way, beer and wine service is planned.

How is business these days, as restrictions lift? 

“It’s up and down,” Arpapornnopparat said. “We’ve been fortunate to have support from the downtown (community). We still haven’t had our grand opening, to be honest. We are still trying to see what menu works and obviously staying true to our company and then hiring people. Hiring people has been a bit tough, especially training them and teaching them from scratch on how we cook. So that also takes a little time but it’s been OK. We can only see it getting better now, that’s how we see it.”

The couple live on the same block as Santee Passage and they’re enthusiastic Downtown residents. “For me, I feel that Downtown is such a special place. It’s a neighborhood of its own. We love each other. During the pandemic, it got everyone together and we began to actually see each other (it’s) this spirit of uplifting each other. For those who are still struggling, it can only get better."