Downtown's Asian Restaurant Magnate Trims Portfolio | Alex Thao Closes Rama Restaurant And Saja, Transfers Lucky Liu's

Alex Thao
September 10, 2015

Alex Thao has closed his decade-plus Rama Thai restaurant in downtown San Diego, as well as nearby Saja Korean Kitchen, which opened in June 2014, and transferred management responsibilities in Lucky Liu's Chinese, in order to focus his attention on his newly opened Sovereign Kitchen + Bar and neighboring Food Shop. Thao, a lifelong San Diegan, is known for bringing Asian-centric eateries to the Gaslamp area, but this recent load-lightening may be a sign that the restaurateur is phasing out of the restaurant business.

Rama was Thao's first restaurant of over 13 he's opened that include eateries in New York and Los Angeles. The restaurant industry is in Thao's blood. His father opened Celadon, San Diego's first Thai restaurant, in the Hillcrest neighborhood in 1980. 

Sovereign Kitchen + Bar and it's casual, take-out Food Shop opened in July 2015 and were anticipated to be top dining destinations due to their executive chef - Vietnam’s “Iron Chef” Michael 'Bao' Huynh, who had a Michelin star and a James Beard Award on his resume. But Huynh and Thao parted ways only a week after the opening of Sovereign and Food Shop, and Huynh is rumored to be working on another San Diego project. 

Sovereign is currently closed for business but intends to relaunch in the coming weeks once issues with the liquor license, menu and staff are all are finalized. Alex Thao released the below statement regarding his recent restaurant shake-up:

Goodbye, Thank You and Hello Sovereign!

After much contemplation, I have made the difficult decision to close locations and transfer my interest in several San Diego restaurants – specifically, Rama, Saja and Lucky Lui’s. Sovereign, which opened in July, will continue to operate. Nearly all employees will transition to this modern Southeast Asian concept.

As of today, September 10, we are closing Rama Restaurant. Business was good, but our lease expired. Efforts over several months to negotiate a renewal did not yield sufficient terms and conditions. After 13 years in the Gaslamp Quarter, we elected to close rather than change locations. Saja will also close on Wednesday to make way for a new concept from a new operator. Meanwhile, at Lucky Lui’s, we are transferring management responsibilities. Beyond San Diego, our projects in Manhattan and Los Angeles are also in good hands with new operators and management

Naturally, such moves prompt questions: Why this activity? Why now?

The past few months, in particular, brought nothing new or extraordinary – Rama excepted. Mostly, we enjoyed the continued success that is only possible through loyal customers, strong management, and dedicated front- and back-of house teams. However, those months also highlighted certain personal priorities that deserve my attention, as well as a professional sense that 15 years of owning and operating multiple restaurants and bars, locally and nationally, is enough – for now. It was simply time to trim the portfolio.

Rama deserves a special mention. Since 2002, it has been our flagship venture, not to mention an acclaimed culinary experience featuring San Diego’s most dramatic dining environment. We took fine Thai cuisine to the next level, built special relationships with locals and visitors, and weathered tough times in the local economy.

Sovereign is fashioned from a similar conceptual fabric as Rama and shares its adventurous culinary spirit. Located at 467 Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp, Sovereign invigorates modern Asian cuisine. It spotlights Thai and Vietnamese street food and comfort dishes, along with authentic ingredients and unique flavor combinations. We are excited for Sovereign’s evolution and hope you make it one of your essential destinations. And absolutely, several delicious favorites from Rama’s menu will carry on at Sovereign!

Upon reflection, we feel a strong sense of both accomplishment and gratitude. It has been an honor to serve San Diego with diverse dining options and warm hospitality. Again, I personally acknowledge and say “thank you” to the many loyal diners and staff, who contributed to a great run. Also, a special nod to our comrades in hospitality, who continue to put San Diego on the culinary map. Restaurant work is neither easy nor linear. No two days are ever the same, but we do it for the love of the journey and the reward of pleasing our public.

And finally, as always, I am grateful to my family and friends for supporting my passion. It is a pleasure having you right alongside me – then and now, onward and upward.


Alex Thao