Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2020

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UNLV researcher explores the Thai American experience via cuisine

Mark Padoongpatt, Ph.D

Christopher DeVargas

Mark Padoongpatt, UNLV associate professor of Asian and Asian American Studies, is shown in his home office, Friday, June 26, 2020.

Mark Padoongpatt seems to be asked this question frequently: Where’s the best place to get Thai food in Las Vegas?

Lotus of Siam, he quickly answers, naming one of the valley’s most established restaurant brands, regardless of cuisine. His favorite dish is the Khao Soi, crispy duck on egg noodles.

But Padoongpatt says there’s plenty of other places and dishes to try throughout the city, such as the duck larb at Weera Thai on Sahara Avenue.

“Once you ask me about a food recommendation, I just keep going,” said Padoongpatt, an Asian American professor at UNLV and authority on all things Thai.

Padoongpatt, a second-generation Thai American, shared that knowledge with “Taste the Nation,” a new Hulu series where noted cookbook author Padma Lakshmi travels across America for the best immigrant cuisine. The show debuted three weeks ago.

“He literally wrote the book on the history of Thai people in America through food,” Lakshmi says of Padoongpatt in the episode.

That book, “Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America,” started as his dissertation paper in the early 2010s when earning a doctorate at the University of Southern California. The project took nearly 10 years — the product of limited information on Thai culture, he says. He collected data through newspaper clippings, menus and interviews with community members.

He explains the historical relationship between food and identity in the Thai American community, specifically in Los Angeles, where most Thai immigrants settled after World War II. His parents arrived in the 1970s.

“I try to make it clear that I can’t be a representative voice for the Thai community. I am one voice,” Padoongpatt said. “But I have become an authority because it’s what I study and my Thai American experience growing up in the United States.”

PBS recently aired a five-hour documentary on the Asian American experience in the U.S. It was well done and informative, Padoongpatt said, but it made no mention of Thai Americans.

Being part of the Hulu episode was important because it brought attention to an overlooked and proud culture, he said.

“Even in my field of Asian American history, Thai people are overwhelmingly ignored and overlooked,” he said. “My immediate network of scholars and colleagues loved the fact that Thai Americans were finally represented (in the show).”

Padoongpatt came to UNLV in 2012 as a professor of interdisciplinary studies. He is the director of the Asian and Asian American Studies program, which he helped launch in 2018. His research explores new Asian and Pacific Islander populations in America.

He got turned onto the area of Thai culture during a history and ethnic studies course during his undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon. A professor commented about how there was little knowledge on Thai culture in America and said it with be worth pursuing. It was a perfect fit because he had the background of growing up in a Thai American community in Southern California.

“I feel comfortable with the title of a scholarly expert in Thai American history and the responsibility that comes with that,” he said. “I have some authority because I am the first one to study it. Hopefully, I will be one of many.”

Padoongpatt’s next book will detail how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Las Vegas are creating space for themselves through food and sports.

When he moved here he was “really fascinated by the city because it was way more diverse, racially and ethnically, than people think. There is a lot of different communities because of the service industry,” he said.

That means there’s plenty of food for Padoongpatt to try — and talk about.