A Culinary Detour

A little over a year ago, I had lunch at an unassuming hole-in-the-wall next to one of my favorite landmarks in the city, Wat Kaek. It served very decent nam prik kapi(shrimp paste pepper dip) and chicken curry out of a surprisingly efficient kitchen placed prominently up front; its menu was small and seemed focused on southern Thai-inflected specialties; its khao mok gai (saffron chicken rice) was genuinely delicious, studded liberally with spices and deep-fried shallots but still juicy. It had all the hallmarks of what I would consider a great food stall: a limited menu with (arguably) one stand-out specialty, an open kitchen placed prominently up front so you can see your lunch take shape, and bargain-basement prices.

I returned this week to find the same space, but dotted by tables with tablecloths (!) and a handy English-language laminated menu that included a host of dishes from the Central and Northern Thai regions, plus a string of praise-filled blurbs from English-language publications, which immediately filled me with dread. The inclusion of pad thai on the menu sealed it: this food stall had been ruined. Ruined, I say.

The hubris of including Northern dishes like khao soy and (dare I say it) kanom jeen nam ngiew  was coupled with the complete absence of the saffron chicken rice dish — what were they thinking??? — so I ordered kanom jeen nam ngiew, expecting to be completely disappointed by a dish that I consider the culinary Bangkok equivalent of a unicorn. What confronted me was a watery mass of fermented rice noodles crowned with a generically spicy broth in which the namesake ngiew (a broom-like herb that lends the dish its name and texture) was completely missing. And it was accompanied by basil leaves! It’s official: no one in Bangkok who makes food for a living actually knows how to cook this dish. I’m better off staying at home.

I’m still puzzled by the glowing testimonials. Do all foreign food writers frequent the same places, brought there by their friends, content to continue on in a chain of bad recommendations? And what does that say about similar recommendations made by similar writers in other cities? Have I been cheated out of a genuinely good meal in, say, Istanbul? Do I think the meatball stand next to the Blue Mosque is good simply because someone told me so? It blows the mind.

I think a lot of Bangkok restaurants fall victim to a phenomenon plaguing a lot of people: they want to be all things to all people. For my part, there is better Southern food at Kua Gring on Sukhumvit Soi 40, better kanom jeen at Sanguan Sri on Wireless Road, and better Northern food at … well, up north.  Book your ticket now.

8 Comments

Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles

8 responses to “A Culinary Detour

  1. KM

    As I said at the FCCT, the ‘dish’ should be of primary relevance.
    Here Masman is better than Nam Ngiew!
    Same chef/cook?
    Same chef can cook varied dishes!!!
    Turmeric Rice???

  2. SpecialKRB

    I’m willing to go back if you are, based on Jarrett’s recommendations and my need to snap mote pics of that temple.

  3. Agreed on the menu part, BG. Everything that’s served should be good. But I do bring people to KAA for khanom jeen, because I still think their curries are delicious. Anyways, keep up the good work here! J

  4. Jarrett

    If you’re writing about Khrua Aroi Aroi – I suspect you are – the place has been around a long time, and been on the radar of farang foodies for a good long time too. They do do a few underwhelming regional dishes, but some of the curries are still fantastic – particularly the massaman. It’s also not a southern Thai restaurant. The place is still populated with mostly locals, and they deliver dinner 6 nights a week to about 20 families in the neighborhood. Not really the tourist trap you describe.

    • You’re right — Krua Aroy Aroy is a great example of a khao gaeng place. I must have thought it was southern because of the truly terrific khao mok gai and gaeng lueang I had there earlier, plus the inclusion of, if I remember correctly, gaeng trai pla on the menu. I wouldn’t call it a tourist trap, because it would imply a bunch of soulless “commercial” dishes, manufactured for the palate of the tourists unfamiliar with zany zigs and zags of authentic Thai food. That isn’t the case here. I genuinely enjoyed my meal there that first time, and thought the food was prepared with a lot of thought and care.
      I’m sure it has been on foodies’ radars for a long time, hence the glowing revews printed in KAA’s laminated menus. But things change, and nothing is ever frozen in time — otherwise, I would still be able to fit into my pants. My issue was, and still is, the inclusion of dishes that they frankly don’t do well. The inclusion of these dishes — the curries you speak of — and the testimonials from guide books suggest that they are reaching out to, well, tourists. And while I’d be the last person to fault someone for aspiring to more success, I don’t know why they can’t just achieve that on the back of the dishes that have won them bona fide, loyal fans such as yourself. Why make the menu a minefield, navigable only by the regulars who know where not to step? Why not edit the menu to dishes the kitchen has churned out regularly with consistency, and avoid risking the disappointment of a hapless customer or two (read: me)?

  5. Chissa

    This is a good article. I am not clever, so this is all I will say.

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