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.