California restaurant’s comeback shows how outdated, false Asian stereotype of dog-eating persists

Jan 3, 2024, 10:03 PM

David Rasavong stands by a mural depicting his family's journey from Laos to San Francisco and then...

David Rasavong stands by a mural depicting his family's journey from Laos to San Francisco and then to Fresno, in his restaurant "Love & Thai" in Fresno, Calif. on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. Rasavong's body still tenses up when recounting how a so-called animal welfare crusader in May implied on social media that his 7-month-old restaurant, Tasty Thai, owned a pitbull tied up at a home next door. What's more, the dog would eventually be meal fodder. By the next day, vitriolic comments, voicemails and calls rained down. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — David Rasavong’s cultural pride is evident all throughout his restaurant.

It’s on the wall of family portraits and where a stunning mural depicts his family’s journey from Laos to California. It’s on the menu filled with Lao and Thai dishes like the crispy coconut rice salad of Nam Khao and the stir-fried rice noodles of Pad See Ew.

And it’s in the fact that Love & Thai in Fresno, California, restaurant is open at all. A baseless accusation grounded in a racist stereotype about Asian food using dog meat brought a six-month barrage of harassment so heated that Rasavong, 41, closed down its previous location over fears for his family’s safety.

His earlier restaurant had itself only been open for seven months when a so-called animal welfare crusader in May implied on social media that a pitbull tied up at an unconnected home next door was going to be served on the menu.

A day after the initial commentary, vitriolic statements, voicemails and calls rained down. Rasavong’s body still tenses up when recounting, in particular, a call from an elderly woman.

“She was so disgusted by me and yelling and screaming, and the only thing I can remember hearing her say at the end was ‘Go back to the country you came from you dog-eating mother-effer,’” Rasavong recently told The Associated Press.

Within days, he closed that restaurant because it no longer felt safe between the harassment and people loitering in the parking lot outside of business hours.

The false accusation tapped into a longstanding slur against Asian cuisines and cultures that has persisted in the U.S. for over 150 years, dating back to the xenophobia that grew in the U.S. after Chinese immigrants started arriving in more visible numbers in the 1800s and other Asian communities followed. It’s also one that Asian American communities are fighting against.

It may be astonishing to some that a claim rooted in a racist stereotype took down a family’s restaurant three years after “Stop Asian Hate” became a rallying cry. But for many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it’s something they’ve heard before as an insult or under the guise of a “joke,” along with other negative reactions to the actual foods of their cultures. In December, a comedian received some backlash for dressing like a UPS delivery driver and walking into an Asian restaurant with caged puppies for a social media video.

There is hope though that more people will learn to tell truth from trope. Since the pandemic first fueled anti-Asian hostilities, AAPI communities themselves have tried to take control of the narrative that Asian food is “dirty,” “weird” yet “exotic.” Furthermore, the appetite to learn about food from the Asian diaspora has only grown across traditional and new media.

Still, there were moments where Rasavong felt like nobody, even media, was on his side. He said a few reporters approached him assuming the claims were true.

But he soon received tons of community support, and the closure ended up being a new beginning.

A shopping center property manager offered him the chance to take over a suite vacated by another restaurant. Nkundwe P. van Wort-Kasyanju, a graphic designer in the Netherlands, and Los Angeles-based interior designer Danny Gonzales proffered their services for free. Hana Luna Her, a local artist, painted the mural. By the Nov. 3 grand opening of the new space, Love & Thai definitely felt the love. The place was bustling all day, Rasavong said, and the city presented a proclamation.

Rasavong is holding onto the belief that he went through this whole saga for a reason.

“There’s a journey that we’re supposed to go on,” said Rasavong, who declined to say if he’ll pursue legal action. “Don’t get me wrong. People need to realize this business is not easy … But you know, we believe in what we’re doing and so far so good.”

In actuality, consuming dog meat is something that has happened in various parts of the world for centuries, where they weren’t seen as domesticated family pets, said Robert Ku, author of “Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA.” Greeks and Romans referenced it. The French also ate dog meat during World War II.

But when Chinese immigrants came to the U.S., it was linked to them as part of “the myths that the Chinese were these bizarre people who had bizarre diets,” Ku said. “It was one of the attractions of actually going to Chinese restaurants back in the day because it came with ‘danger.’”

As other Asian immigrant groups came, the stereotype spread to include them.

“This is a real just blurring of the Asian identity where it doesn’t matter if you’re Thai or Korean or Vietnamese or Cambodian. You’re all the same,” Ku said.

Along with the false allegation of eating dog meat, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the generations have often faced disgust and worse from others when they’ve brought their cultures’ foods from home to public spaces like school or work.

They’re taking steps to fight back, like in 2021, when San Francisco-Bay Area-based writers Diann Leo-Omineto, Anthony Shu and Shirley Huey self-published “Lunchbox Moments,” a compilation of over two dozen personal essays and illustrations that raised $6,000 for charity.

The project became “a powerful thing for all of us,” Leo-Omineto said.

“We tried to show it’s not always about being in relation to being American or being white or assimilated,” she said. “You can have moments of joy, too…I hope that it opened people’s minds a little bit more — or made them want to try new foods.”

It’s actually been a big year in publishing and food media for Asian cuisine. Publishers Weekly dedicated a feature in August entirely to Chinese and Taiwanese food after observing nine new cookbooks on the subjects were coming out this year. Several of the authors grew up outside of Asia. The titles range from “Vegan Chinese Food,” to “Kung Food” and “A Very Chinese Cookbook” from America’s Test Kitchen. Also, children’s book author Grace Lin released “Chinese Menu,” which relays folklore behind favorite Chinese American dishes. They all share personal anecdotes and readers often seem drawn to “personality-driven” cookbooks, said Carolyn Juris, features editor.

“It’s not just about the recipes. It’s about the stories behind them and I think people respond to that,” Juris said.

Like any other culture, Asian cultures encompass many different regional cuisines and nuances. With the growing Asian diaspora, it’s not strange that so many cookbooks can be mined and “publishers are savvy enough to know that there is a market for these books,” Juris added.

Back at Love & Thai, Rasavong is busy filling online orders for a waiting third-party delivery driver. He is optimistic about keeping up business now that the initial hoopla around his restaurant renaissance has calmed down. Rasavong also hopes his situation will remind others to think before they speak.

“People say these jokes and they think it’s just fun and just light-hearted,” he said. “There are certain things that you shouldn’t say that really do cross a line.”


Tang is a Phoenix-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @ttangAP.


Associated Press

US Olympic and other teams will bring their own AC units to Paris, undercutting environmental plan

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — The U.S. Olympic team is one of a handful that will supply air conditioners for their athletes at the Paris Games in a move that undercuts organizers’ plans to cut carbon emissions. U.S. Olympic and Paralympic CEO Sarah Hirshland said Friday that while the U.S. team appreciates efforts aimed at sustainability, […]

1 day ago

Associated Press

Shiny monolith removed from mountains outside Las Vegas. How it got there still is a mystery

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A strange monolith found jutting out of the rocks in a remote mountain range near Las Vegas has been taken down by authorities. How it got there is still unsolved. “It remains unknown how the item got to its location or who might be responsible,” Las Vegas police said Friday in […]

1 day ago

Associated Press

‘The Outsiders’ wins best musical and ‘Stereophonic’ best play as women make strides at Tony Awards

NEW YORK (AP) — “The Outsiders,” a gritty adaptation of the classic young adult novel, became the essence of a Broadway insider on Sunday, winning the Tony Award for best new musical on a night when women made strides. The musical based on the beloved S. E. Hinton book is about rival gangs of haves […]

8 days ago

Associated Press

Her dying husband worried she’d have money troubles. Then she won the lottery

FREEPORT, Pa. (AP) — In the weeks before his death, Karen Coffman’s husband worried she might have money troubles after he was gone. But two weeks before he died in April of complications from a brain tumor, the Pennsylvania woman bought a scratch-off state lottery ticket that netted her $1 million. “When I told him […]

8 days ago

Associated Press

You don’t think corn dogs are haute cuisine? These chefs, using alligator sausage, beg to differ.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Stefani De Palma, an award-winning chef and head of the a team vying to represent the Americas in a French culinary competition in January, knew she wanted her team’s work to feature flavors of her native California. The challenge at the Bocuse d’Or Americas competition this week in New Orleans was […]

9 days ago

Associated Press

High school president writes notes thanking fellow seniors — 180 of them

Emily Post would be proud. A high school class president in Massachusetts who gave a commencement speech wanted to recognize all of his fellow graduates. So he wrote them personal thank-you notes presented at the ceremony — 180 to be exact. “I wish I could’ve acknowledged you all, but there was simply not enough time,” […]

10 days ago

California restaurant’s comeback shows how outdated, false Asian stereotype of dog-eating persists