A friend of mine who likes to call himself an “omnivore” once said that the only thing he hated was lard na, the Chinese-inspired Thai pan-fried noodle in a thick gravy with meat or seafood and vegetables. I understood what he meant. As great as Cantonese food can be, a big knock commonly levelled against one of the great cuisines of the world is that it is too greasy, too goopy, too much like … baby saliva. Or the guy that is constantly coughing and clearing his throat in the corner of the coffee shop in the morning when you’re trying to mind your own business and standing in line for ages and WHY DON’T YOU HAVE DECAF?! You know what I’m talking about.
Actually, you probably don’t. But you might know what I mean about guay thiew lard na, which is seriously one of the great food stand offerings of the city. If a safari hunter is always on lookout for the “Big Five”, a galloping gourmet in Bangkok is sure to bump into a lard na stand on his or her way to the egg noodle, soup noodle, pad thai or rice porridge stall down the road. This city is littered with many a lard na stand serving faithfully exact facsimiles of that goopy, steaming mess that my friend so dreads.
But he didn’t know about sen mee krob.
Some of the very best — and by “best” I mean the places that are well-known by Thais for their lard na — vendors in the city deep-fry their noodles so that the crispy crunch of the starch offsets the thick gelatinous gravy they are slathered in. Like a Japanese cherry blossom clinging to the branch in late March, this is an ephemeral delight; the noodles go limp if you dally before tucking in. But it is something very real, something very genuine, a real added dimension to a dish that would otherwise be only okay.
It is also the reason why I am wandering down this busy, congested street miles away from the nearest air-conditioning, where DVD vendors vie for your attention and the sidewalks are littered with remote controls and stereo components. We are in Baan Maw, a neighborhood in the old city specializing in electrical equipment — and, tucked behind what appears to be a hubcap vendor, lard na with crispy sen mee, or thin noodles, studded with pork, bristling with Chinese kale.
Rot Tip Yod Pak (Baan Maw) is also known for its crispy pork on rice, but the lard na is what I’m there for: a cheery crunch nestled amid a burst of porky flavor. And at about 30-40 baht a plate, it’s reasonably priced.
Which is more than what can be said for Jay Fai (327 Mahachai Rd., Samranrach Intersection). With its various interpretations of the gravy noodle — with seafood, shrimp, pork, chicken or beef — hovering at around the “250+” range on its menu, one would wonder, Why? The answer, simply put, is this:
Now, I have seen people wander into this restaurant, sit down, look at the menu, calculate the prices, and then walk out again. But they were obviously not thinking clearly, and their places are almost always quickly filled. A meal at Jay Fai is an investment. That is because when people ask you, What’s the best place for Thai food in Bangkok?, you will be able to tell them, with some authority, that it’s Jay Fai. You can tell them about the tom yum hang, the ubiquitous lemongrass “soup” served without the broth, redolent in galangal and kaffir lime and chili; the stir-fried wide noodle with chicken (kua gai), thick with fresh lettuce and shrimp as big as the palm of your hand; and the most expensive crab omelette (kai jiew pu) I have ever seen at 500 baht — but so engorged with crab flesh you don’t really bat an eye.
There is more (for example, this place is big on serving things “dry” — dry congee, dry sukiyaki, etc), but I would miss lunch, and that would be horrible. All I can say is, I’m saving up for my next meal. And taking my friend with me.