On the first day that Love & Thai opened the doors of its new restaurant in southeast Fresno, it was easy to see why the word love is in the name.
Friends poured in to say congratulations and dole out hugs. Old photos of the owners cuddling their children line the hallway. A mural that says “spread the love” takes up one huge wall.
And the little 67-year-old woman with the big heart — whose son said feeds everyone like they’re her own son or daughter — was juggling several meals at a time in the kitchen.
“It feels a bit surreal that we’re here, that we finally got to bring our vision to life,” said David Rasavong, who owns the restaurant with his parents, the aforementioned Bounma Rasavong and Minh Oriyavong, 74.
The couple moved to Fresno decades ago and have opened several Asian restaurants in town over the years.
See, the restaurant serving traditional food from Laos and Thailand food isn’t actually new. Although it’s at the northeast corner of Butler and Chestnut avenues near the Vallarta supermarket now, it used to go by the name Tasty Thai and was at First and Belmont, a little over three miles away.
Tasty Thai and internet rumors
Five months ago, Tasty Thai made headlines worldwide when a false internet rumor ignited claims that the restaurant served dog meat.
It started with a video about potential animal abuse at a nearby home. Without proof, it morphed into racist allegations about the Asian restaurant, which happened to be next door to the home.
Death threats were left on voicemail, people wrote one-star reviews of the restaurant online calling for it to be shut down, and cars would linger outside the restaurant, their drivers watching, David Rasavong said.
It all happened not long after a surge in racism against Asian Americans at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-Asian hate crimes rose 339% in 2021, one report found.
Fearing for their safety, the family shut down the restaurant.
“It’s almost like stuff you see in the movies,” Rasavong said. “It was a bit of a whirlwind.”
But then the support came flooding in.
Locals pledged to spend big bucks at the restaurant if it reopened. A restaurant designer from Los Angeles and a graphic designer from the Netherlands gifted their services for free.
“In the space of seven to 10 days, I went from hating the internet to loving it,” he said.
Love & Thai
They decided to reopen under the name Love & Thai, to reflect the support they received, but also the way Rasavong said his mom taught him to lead with love.
“We could have fought hate with hate, but we chose love,” he said.
Tuesday, it reopened for its “soft opening.” It’s still working out the kinks and tweaking the menu. A grand opening is planned for Oct. 19.
Most of the menu is the same. The crispy pork belly with sticky rice is still a favorite. They’ve added a few things, including chicken satay on bamboo skewers.
Love & Thai is in the former Pacific Fried Chicken spot, but it looks nothing like its predecessor. The space has been completely redone.
A large mural by Hana Luna Her tells the story of the Rasavong family, with an image of Bounma, a Laotian elephant, and the Golden Gate bridge for when the couple moved to San Francisco as refugees. The iconic “Fresno” sign and the Fresno skyline are also featured, representing where the family would make its home and become restaurateurs opening several Asian restaurants in town.
Silas Ruiz of Fresno came to eat lunch Tuesday. He got to the know the family years ago when he worked the door for a comedy night at one of the family’s other restaurants.
“The mom and dad took me right under their wing and fed me every single day,” he said.
He was “crushed” to see internet rumors close the business, but glad to see them get back on their feet.
“I’m really proud of them and happy for the family,” he said.
At the center of the bustling kitchen, mom and chef Bounma Rasavong stopped for a few seconds to reflect. Between turning a hunk of browning beef in a pan and checking a fryer basket, she said: “It feels good. I love to cook, you know.”
Details: Love & Thai is at 4821 E. Butler Ave. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. 559-712-1998.