One street in the San Fernando Valley shows us everything that’s possible, when failure is not an option.
Liquor store, building supply store, cannabis dispensary, taco stand—there is not a great deal, you might think to yourself, standing at the corner of Sherman Way and Varna Avenue in the San Fernando Valley, to distinguish this little slice of Los Angeles from any other. But you've overlooked one thing—, a very good diner, one of those s where young families and blue-collar workers fortify themselves for a busy day ahead with breakfast burritos and chicken-fried steak and eggs.
A quick glance at the menu might make you think that Hungry Fox is a typical diner, but there’s nothing typical about this place. Maybe the sweet chile sauce that comes with the excellent chicken and waffles is your first clue. Or maybe it’s the housemade jams, peach and strawberry and pumpkin, that tip you off. Maybe you’ll understand if I tell you that Hungry Fox likes to change up its seasonal jams with ingredients like fresh figs.
For me, though, it’s the salsa that made me realize I was at a place that feels like the future of breakfast. The salsa, packed with tomatoes and different levels of intensity, resembles what you’ll find at good Mexican restaurants, but it’s the Thai chiles in there that made me want to spoon it over everything.
Then there’s the Thai sausage, which you can get on a plate or inside a breakfast burrito. Think about this for a moment: Thai. Sausage. Breakfast. Burrito. This transcendent sausage, Hungry Fox proprietor Eddie Kantayos says, is “homestyle cooking” that resembles what you’ll find in Northern Thailand.
But homestyle doesn’t mean simple in any way at this Thai-owned diner. This pork sausage involves a careful calibration of Thai chiles, lemongrass, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, cilantro, scallions, and other ingredients.
“It’s not easy to make,” says Kantayos, who is from Chiang Rai. “You can’t find it in the Thai restaurants around here. This sausage is my favorite. This is like how my mom makes it.”
When you visit Hungry Fox and see happy guests ranging from toddlers to great-grandmothers, when you walk around the restaurant and hear customers speaking four different languages, you realize that Kantayos is embracing his heritage while simultaneously creating a place for everyone. Maybe you think that what Hungry Fox is doing with food is blurring the lines. I’ll argue that Hungry Fox is doing something even better: This restaurant realizes that the lines don’t have to be there at all.
This is Valley Glen, where we are here, and it turns out that this particular stretch of Sherman Way is a goldmine of good breakfast, some of the best in Los Angeles, usually served up by immigrants. There’s the Cambodian-owned Golden Donuts, with its perfect old-fashioneds and devil’s food donuts. L.A. restaurant operator/food personality Nguyen Tran of Starry Kitchen fame turned me onto Golden Donuts and stresses that these donuts are still good if you eat them a day later. He’s asked the owners of Golden Donuts if he can stage with their baker, but this isn’t a place that’s prone to giving away its secrets.
Also on Sherman Way is Nanay’s Gloria Kitchenette, a glorious Filipino restaurant, where $5 gets you three pieces of longanisa and some garlic rice for breakfast. Come for this sausage at 9 a.m., and you’ll likely see trays of soul-warming lunch food (including bistek, sisig, and picadillo) that are ready to serve, and the friendly women behind the counter will ask if you would like some free pork soup (sabaw) with your breakfast. The answer should be yes, unless you want some free fish soup instead. For $1 more, you can get two eggs.
For a comforting Salvadoran breakfast, head to Restaurante Y Pupuseria El Manguito, where the pupusas are filled with ingredients like fresh beans, cheese, chicharrones, and pumpkin. This is also a good for huevos rancheros.
There’s even a stellar breakfast option in the Chevron station at the intersection of Whitsett Avenue and Sherman Way. Visit Cilantro Mexican Grill inside the gas station at 8 a.m. on a weekend, and you’ll likely see a crowd of first responders drinking agua frescas as they eat breakfast burritos stuffed with carne asada, turkey sausage, or, best of all, shrimp.
Sherman Way is by far my favorite street in L.A. for breakfast. The food itself is inspiring, and then Kantayos tells me his story and reminds me that the American Dream often isn’t easy or a linear path but it no doubt exists in this neighborhood where nearly half the residents (including many Mexicans and Armenians) were born outside of the United States.
In Thailand, Kantayos was a lawyer. His wife, Ann Petprasert, worked for the DSI, which is Thailand’s version of the FBI. They moved to L.A. in 2005 to operate Hungry Fox, after Petprasert’s father purchased the restaurant, previously a Greek diner. Kantayos learned how to cook from Hungry Fox’s former owner. He says he feels “super lucky” that he was able to pick up diner recipes and techniques even though he went from a white-collar job in Thailand to the service industry in L.A. He is a man who makes the most of what’s around him.
He originally intended on returning to Thailand after making some changes at Hungry Fox. But there were years of struggle before the restaurant became successful. Petprasert had some family in California, but Kantayos didn’t really know anybody here. He was lonely. Interactions with customers were difficult because he had issues communicating in English.
“But I kept learning,” he says.
Petprasert got pregnant, and the couple decided to stay in L.A. and raise their son as an Angeleno.
“Oh my God,” Kantayos says. “I had a lot of problems. I needed the restaurant to survive, for my life, for my family. I had to learn by doing.”
Kantayos revised the menu, updated the decor, and created good feng shui in Hungry Fox. In 2011, he says, he finally had a successful restaurant. He continues to add dishes, like eggs Benedict, to the menu while upgrading everything from the parking to the bathrooms. He’s no longer worried about his business going under or that he won’t be able to provide for his family. He even opened a second restaurant, Green Basil Thai, in Calabasas this past February. This new is a full-on Thai restaurant where Kantayos’ cousin, Vit Pongsiriyakul, is the chef.
“Everything’s better now,” Kantayos says. “Everything’s good.”
But he knows that success is about trying harder, thinking about the future, listening to guests, and making sure that things stay fresh. Kantayos remembers how his spicy sausage got some mixed reviews at first, but then he was happy to see that palates were evolving in L.A. He loves how customers who enjoy spicy food have told their friends that there’s legit Thai sausage at the diner.
“The food should be fresh,” he says. “It should be still hot on the plate. The food should have life.”
Hungry Fox, 13359 Sherman Way, 818-765-7111
Golden Donuts,13444 Sherman Way, 818-982-5436
Nanay’s Gloria Kitchenette, 12863 Sherman Way, 818-982-8530
Restaurante Y Pupuseria El Manguito, 12650 Sherman Way, 818-982-0907
Cilantro Mexican Grill, 7214 Whitsett Ave, 818-765-7998