Mastering the art of Thai cuisine led Joyce Johnson to open a Thai restaurant in the United States. Her degrees in business administration and hospitality administration have helped her sustain the flourishing Bangkok Blue.  / photo by Yelena Ovcharenko

Mastering the art of Thai cuisine led Joyce Johnson to open a Thai restaurant in the United States. Her degrees in business administration and hospitality administration have helped her sustain the flourishing Bangkok Blue. / photo by Yelena Ovcharenko

by Kristen Chocek
photography by Yelena Ovcharenko

While on tour in Australia in 1985 with artist Leon Patrillo, Blue met Joyce. He was craving Thai food and happened to walk into the Thai restaurant that she was working at while attending college. “It happened to be a coincidence that day because Joyce was never supposed to serve me; it was going to be her sister, who worked there too,” says Blue. He recalls the two of them sharing small talk and he speaking broken Thai to her.

Upon finishing his Australian tour, he decided to take Leon Patrillo with him back to her restaurant. While he was dining, he left Joyce and her sister two tickets to his big show the next day. Without thinking much about it, he never would have thought Joyce would have showed up the next night with a dozen red roses for him. She found him back stage, and this just blew him away. “Fate works in many strange ways,” Blue says. This was the start of the long history the two of them created together.

Twenty years later, the couple resides in Rancho Cucamonga, co-owners of Bangkok Blue, a new authentic Thai restaurant off Foothill Boulevard in La Verne’s Target shopping center. Blue, his wife Joyce and their son Ming Johnson are the owners of this unique restaurant that has won the hearts and stomachs of many La Verne residents. The second you step into the restaurant, its storefront feel is stripped away and replaced by ambiance that can only be found in Bangkok. Blue and Joyce are always there to greet you with a smile and make you feel like a guest of a traditional Thai home.

Before the opening of Bangkok Blue summer ‘03, Blue and Joyce had led prestigious careers in both the music and restaurant industries. Each brings something special to this place that makes it stand out among the rest. “It’s been about music and Thai food from the start,” Blue says.

Blue grew up in Pasadena, living there for 33 years. He spent much of the late ‘60s playing bass for his night club band in and around Los Angeles. After a “spontaneous,” move to Honolulu, Hawaii, he became the manager of the ever famous band, Sea Wind. Sea Wind was a Hawaiian jazz band that later went on tour with many famous artists. Blue was then hired on with CTI Records, working in concert production and artist management with gold, platinum and popular Jazz and contemporary recording artists such as Gloria Estefan, Barry White, B.B. King, Kenny G, Al Jarreau, George Benson and Chicago.

After meeting in Australia in 1985, the two married in 1988 in Joyce’s hometown of Bangkok, Thailand. She then joined Blue on the Al Jarreau tour for seven and a half months around the world. “Joyce’s favorite place was Vegas because I took her to Caesar’s Palace, and she won tons of money right away,” says Blue. When the tour was over, the couple settled in Bangkok. In 1990, their son Ming was born. Meanwhile, Blue began managing the sound and music department for KANTANA, Thailand’s largest television/video/ film production studios. Aside from that, he promoted and produced international concerts in Bangkok, bringing many artists such as B.B. King, David Sanborn, Pauline Wilson, Patti Austin, Ernie Watts, David Garfield, Carl Anderson and many others to Bangkok for the first time.

In 1994, the family moved to America.. Joyce had a deep love for Thai cooking and always dreamed of opening her own restaurant. She began managing The Panda Management Corporation, which led to her five years as an Associate Manager for Benihana, Ontario. Under her management, the Ontario location made it to No.1 on the Benihana Chain. After many years of Asian restaurant experience, Joyce had perfected her Thai recipes and was ready to share them with others.

In August 2003, she opened Bangkok Blue and became the very first in her family to own and manage a Thai restaurant in the United States. Four of her seven brothers and sisters own five successful Thai restaurants in and around the Sydney, Australia area. It is a family passion passed down from their father. “My father loved to cook; he used to make food for all of the neighbors,” says Joyce. He was an excellent Thai cook and passed down his recipes to each of his children. Joyce has taken her family recipes and added a splash of her own creativity to each of the dishes served at Bangkok Blue. She has put her heart and soul into each dish. Every meal tastes like a Thai home cooked meal, which is her concept.

The menu is a collaboration of well-priced family style dishes that are fresh without MSG. These are not normal restaurant dishes. They are actually dishes that you might experience in a royal Thai family.

One might enjoy the Spicy Honey wings ($5.99) as an appetizer with a small mixed green salad with homemade peanut dressing on top ($5.99). For a main entrée, the owner’s favorite Keo Wan green curry ($7.95) and the Gapau Thai Basil stir fried chicken dishes are a must. And one must not go home until she finishes it all off with The Drunken Banana Flambé ($4.95). It is a creation that Joyce delicately created with sliced bananas sautéed in a caramelized sauce with a hint of rum and a dash of lime zest. This is served over fresh vanilla ice cream and sprinkled with toasted coconut.

Their son Ming has a great passion for architecture and played a big part in designing the inside of Bangkok Blue. He has big dreams of someday becoming an architect and living in Monaco. Blue has shared his love for music by playing and selling his own Thai inspired jazz music inside the restaurant. Along with his own, he plays music in the restaurant from many artists that he has worked closely with throughout his career.

Bangkok Blue itself is a combination of this family’s top talents. It is easy to spend several hours enjoying the food, the cultural décor and the company of the incredible family and staff. It is an experience within itself. It is here you will spot musicians and music industry professionals dining around you. Ricky Lawson, Michael Jackson’s former drummer is known to dine here frequently. Blue has displayed a Wall of Fame gallery, recognizing many of the artists with whom he has worked in the back of his restaurant. One can spot pictures of everyone from Paul McCartney, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Spike Lee, Peter Frampton, Don Henley, Leonard Harper and Tina Turner.

“Our philosophy is to provide a good atmosphere, personal service and good healthy food. We just want a small restaurant that is a step above a normal Thai restaurant,” says Joyce modestly.