The last Friday of every month is a guaranteed traffic nightmare in Bangkok, because it’s the day most people get paid. This means that everyone takes that monthly salary check, cashes it, and proceeds to blow their hard-earned money on stuff like karaoke and mixed whiskey drinks. It’s a night that, for fuddy-duddies like me, is better spent at home drinking red wine and watching “Orphan Black”.
But my friend Cha is having none of it. Last year while out on the interminable Camino de Santiago, we passed the time by talking about all the Thai food that we missed back home and where we would go the second we touched Thai soil. He talked about succulent grilled chicken and mieng pla pow, or skewered fresh fish cooking over open charcoal, sizzling flesh enveloped in cool lettuce leaves and slathered in a green chili sauce. He said he would take me to his places, a clutch of Isaan-inspired vendors worth waiting for after the gazillion-km trek to the far side of Spain. Then we got home and life intervened. Until that night. So there was no postponing this food journey, even if these vendors were located on the other end of town and it was payday.
We reached Lang Ram Mieng Pla Pow (located at the back entrance of the Rajamangala Stadium) after a 3-hour drive for Cha (and one measly hour for us). Despite being named after a grilled fish dish, Lang Ram had no mieng pla to offer us. It didn’t really matter, because this place is actually better loved for its incredible, luscious, tasty (insert more yummy adjectives here) chicken. This chicken is so good that I would actually go back to Ramkhamhaeng for it. And when paired with a battery of pounded Isaan-style salads (som tum) and Thai-style spicy yum, a plate of sticky rice or two, and a soda or three (no alcohol at this Thai Muslim-owned spot), you’ve got enough reason to spend three hours in traffic on payday. Include a big vat of tom sab (spicy Isaan-style soup) to be absolutely sure.
It’s easy to be full after a meal like that, but we are made of sterner stuff. All we had to do was go right next door for an actual shot at some mieng pla pow, since vendors selling similar things are frequently clustered together — as is the Thai way (are my words making any sense right now? That photo of grilled chicken up top is really distracting). What’s next door? Well, it’s called Racha Mieng Pla Pow Jay Goong, and its grilled fish are actually cooked over an open pit filled with flaming charcoal, which is deeply unpleasant to stand next to in the height of the hot season, but a great way to cook your grilled fish:
Racha is also staffed with a highly-efficient coterie of transgender servers dressed in pink air hostess outfits. They offer beer here as well as mieng pla, plus all the Isaan bells and whistles — som tum, sticky rice, eye-wateringly spicy soups — that one comes to expect from Northeastern Thai specialists. I dare you to find something better than a pla tubtim (red snapper) fresh off the grill, crusted lightly with salt and stuffed with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, surrounded by a mountain of fresh greens and rice vermicelli. Even better, Racha offers two sauces: one, a tamarind base garnished with chopped roasted peanuts, and the second, a bewitching green chili sauce leavened with a dash of coconut milk that is out of this world. It was almost enough to make me forget that it was payday and there were even more hours of traffic awaiting us on the ride home. Almost.