After a rainy day, a stroll down the Bangkok sidewalk is less of a walk in the park and more of a studied advance, Indiana Jones-style, into an ancient temple guarding a magical figurine in the depths of a South American jungle. Any false step, and your fate will be sealed, but it won’t be a poisonous arrow through the eye or an enormous boulder ready to crush you. To some, this fate may possibly be even worse: a sudden, warm explosion of water that splashes up your shin, wetting your pant leg and getting between your toes. Yes, I’m talking about soi juice, and it seems to be a particularly Bangkok phenomenon, but if any other city can also lay claim to dirty body temp water lurking like a ticking time bomb underneath random loose sidewalk concrete tiles, please let me know.
But even the threat of a soi juice soaking isn’t enough to keep me away from Bantadthong Road in the Sam Yan neighborhood, my new favorite area for street food explorations. I passed by once while in a taxi and was immediately transfixed by the bounty of neon sign-fronted food outlets, many open-air, with a few old-school aharn tham sung (made-to-order) shophouses scattered throughout. From the back of a speeding taxi, it looked like 9th Avenue in New York, or a tantalizingly welcoming neighborhood that you pass through and can’t find again in a recurring anxiety dream (is this just me?) I made a pledge to myself to return one day.
It turns out, my friend Nong (@lovenongdesigns) made a similar pledge while zipping through the area in her own taxi one evening. So we both, with my sister Chissa and my friend Karen in tow, returned to the Sam Yan area one night with the express intent of exploring this area, newly sprouted from the ruins of the former Suan Luang market. I remember complaining loudly about Chulalongkorn University’s plans for this area after razing the former street food strip and displacing my beloved nam kang sai (Thai shaved ice) vendor to Saphan Lueang. When I returned after the razing, what remained was a sterile, questionably grammatically named shopping mall set next to a mostly-empty park and a collection of twee Chinese-style shophouses that would not have looked out of place in Epcot Center. Out of the former strip, only Nai Peng (now renamed Jay Fon), remained.
Now I am back to eat my words, literally. I mean, Suan Luang Square (the development that displaced the immediate vicinity of the former market) is not that interesting to me, exploration-wise, but the entire area around it is top-notch, ripe for a good long wander on an empty stomach. The shophouses have become lived in, even with their new-ish slicks of paint, and trees that look like they belong, not like confused out-of-town tourists, now line the alleyways that once housed car repair shops. Prime exploration fodder seemed to me to be the stretch of Bantadthong Road from Chula Soi 10 to the Centenary Park.
In fact, the only area that made me want to run away has the exact opposite effect on most people: the sidewalk in front of Jeh Oh, of the famous Mama noodle seafood bowl. This was the queue when we arrived at 5:30:
Needless to say, a quick bite there wasn’t happening. But a very patient and friendly group of Thai diners on the sidewalk who had yet to tuck into their seafood noodles did allow us to snap this photo, showing what these dozens of people were lining up in the street for:
But even without the brag-factor of getting to dine at the area’s most buzzy shophouse, we had options galore, and that included a clutch of secondary outlets for street food vendors that have begun living the dream and are expanding. One such outlet is Elvis Suki, a former favorite that I hadn’t been to for years after a disappointing visit to the original Yotse vendor with @tonedeafinbangkok.
Now you can ignore every bad thing that I said about this place before because Elvis Suki is awesome, and their delicious scallops — and more importantly, the baked seabass in banana leaves — are back to their former glory (eating my words, part 2). Like a handsome ex-boyfriend that you haven’t seen in a good long while, I’d forgotten about the bewitching mash of lemongrass, lime leaves, coriander and brown bean sauce that coated the skin, permeating the fish’s succulent white flesh. So one good thing about a second outlet for this vendor is that you can be sure that they will have the seabass in stock, which is a relief after years of hurrying to the original location at 5:30 because they only had 15 fish to sell a night. I was especially happy after hearing Karen say that she could eat this fish every day for the rest of her life.
As delicious as it was, we tried as best as we could to limit our food so that we would be able to sample the other eateries that beckoned like sirens in the surf. So our next stop was Banthat Tong Roast Duck, a spot on Chula Soi 12 that lured us in with their vividly yellow shopfront and lingering aroma of grilling duck, which can be ordered in place of kai yang (grilled chicken) at this Isaan-style restaurant.
For this diner, at least, the duck was light on the meat but big on the bones, a winged version of present-day Kim Kardashian. Karen said eating a piece felt like flossing her teeth with duck bones. The som tum polamai (fruit som tum), however, was great, even if it made us cry.
By this point in the evening, we were well and truly fatigued, even though we had only eaten a couple of meals and walked a few blocks taking photos of other people’s food. In line for dessert at Ginger Soup, we decided to just call it a night. However, we do have a wish list for our next night of exploration, and it might include these places:
Until then, I will have memories of the best thing Karen has had this trip, Elvis Suki’s seabass, juicy and sweet, pungent and herbal. With that in mind, we can consider this post a Chapter 1. I personally can’t wait to see how this particular book ends.