One of the things I love about Thailand is that great food recommendations can come from anywhere. I found out about Luk Than (Sirinat National Park, http://portal.dnp.go.th) from my husband’s lawyer, who, while not a Phuket local, seems at least as well-versed on the island’s culinary scene as he is on the ins and outs of Thai property law. When we went together the first time, sharing a fire-breathing gang som (sour curry), pad sator (stink beans stir-fried in shrimp paste with fresh shrimp) and nam prik goong sod (fresh shrimp chili dip), I stubbornly neglected to document the meal, leaving my phone at home because I had not discovered this restaurant myself. I made sure not to make this mistake a second time.
Luk Than is meant to form part of a “food court” located around 100 m down the road after you enter Sirinat National Park (just turn right and drive along the beach for about 3 minutes). And it is still part of a food court, if “food court” can also mean a bunch of closed and shuttered places that nobody goes to, plus Luk Than. Helping things along, park authorities have added a carved-wood sign for Luk Than in Thai along the main road, in case you need extra help.
The menu is all in Thai, but there might not be any need for it anyway: it’s all Phuket cuisine’s greatest hits. There’s a gang som you can have with your choice of protein and vegetable (this time we chose pomfret and young coconut), a collection of chili dips, and a whole bunch of stir-fried greens. Not wanting to miss out on anything, we ordered everything that caught our eye, and did not find ourselves regretting anything save the size of our pitifully inadequate stomachs.
The sour curry — strong, pungent, devoid of coconut milk — is known as gang som in the south, but is referred to as gang lueng (yellow coconut milk-free curry) in Bangkok, due to its inclusion of turmeric (gang som in Bangkok is actually a central Thai dish, milder and sweeter than the feral southern version and made sour from the inclusion of tamarind juice). Amid the vicious, chili-flecked dregs of the soup lurked two thick tranches of soft pomfret, buried beneath jagged shards of young coconut meat, cut big enough to show off the tenderness of the fruit. One slurp of the sour broth made metallic from the chilies and you knew you were in for it — not a “Nightmare on Elm Street”-type pain, where a malicious Freddy Kruger chases you down the road with chili fingers. No, this level of spice was inexorable and unforgiving, the “Terminator” of Thai food, not stopping until you are weeping and wiping the sweat from your brow. Of course, it was delicious.
There were other things too. There was a nam prik goong sieb (dried shrimp chili dip), the inevitable Phuket favorite, and a creamy lon (coconut milk-rich chili dip) of salted fish and fresh crab, both accompanied by a raft of fresh vegetables like raw stink bean still in the pod, bulbous Thai eggplant, and fresh white turmeric.
There were also tiny deep-fried fish (pla sai) that had to be plucked like harpstrings from their bones, eaten with the hands to save one’s brow from furrowing. Stir-fried mieng leaves glossy with oil and scrambled egg. Shrimp sauteed in garlic and black pepper. Squid, cooked quickly with salted egg yolk, onion, scallions and big, mild chi-fa chilies. It was, dare I say it, far more tender than the versions I’d had in Malaysia.
Of course, no meal is complete without kua kling, the Southern Thai stir-fry of meat cooked in a paste of spices that skirt the line between fiery goodness and abject pain. Here, the meat is sliced instead of minced, coated in a marinade that seems to include hefty doses of turmeric and lime leaves and rendered even more dangerous with an added shot of young galangal, which only serves to amplify the chilies — turning it up to “11”, so to speak.
Making our way to the parking lot as our ears rang from the food, my husband said it was lucky we had discovered a place that truly seemed to be a “hidden gem” — a term you hear often but, like “icon” or “legendary”, has since lost most of its meaning. It was agreed that mild success, enough to keep you going in a deserted food court, was a good thing, while too much success (the kind that forces you to cater to a legion of nameless faces) could end up being as bad as no success at all. Luk Than managed to toe that line. “Let’s not tell anybody about this place,” his friend agreed.