One of my earliest memories was of the restaurant Aloha, located in the balmy paradise otherwise known as Youngstown, Ohio. It was the sort of place that served flaming pu-pu platters and just the thing to stand in as “Asian” food in an area starved for ethnic cuisine. They would also give you a cocktail umbrella in your drink, even if it was something like a Shirley Temple. To my mind, that was the best thing about it. I saved my cocktail umbrella, a pink one, for weeks, keeping it in a drawer in a my desk to bring out at the most opportune moment.
Maybe a couple of months later, the opportune moment finally came. It had started raining heavily, and I was at home. I took out my umbrella and rushed out onto my apartment balcony, brandishing my pink umbrella over my head. Of course, the rain destroyed my umbrella in about 10 seconds flat. It was, up to that point, one of the most disappointing things to ever happen to me (SPOILER ALERT: I had yet to discover that Santa Claus didn’t exist). But what can you expect? I was, after all, only 23 years old.
I have since been hardened by the resentments and misunderstandings of my life into a miserable, cynical person. So when people suggest an old-style, locally foodie-famous restaurant for lunch, my first instinct is to shore myself up for the inevitable disappointment. Because that is what usually happens. There is the longstanding Thai-Chinese favorite on Rama IV Road that serves soggy fried chicken and salads slathered in mayonnaise in the name of nostalgia. The internationally-lauded open-air standby that purports to cook old-fashioned recipes even as they serve tom yum thickened with condensed milk. And all the places, born from the first flush of post-WWII prosperity, that have fallen by the wayside. Often, the eateries with grand reputations appear to be trafficking on their names, happy to slide into brand-stamped mediocrity. It’s not a great time for real retro either, at a moment when newer, shinier, splashier spots are opening every week.
Jay Dum, which is all the way in Patum Thani (Rangsit-Nakhon Nayok Rd Klong 10, 33/19 Moo 4, 02-546-1477, no reservations), is one such place with a grand reputation, but what sets it apart is that it is all the way in the middle of nowhere. So if you come here, you are really coming here, just to this restaurant, unless you are lost. My parents have been here enough times that they can say with authority that this day was better than that other day which was better than that other month, let’s not talk about that. I have only been here once. The specialty of the house is what the specialty of the house always seems to be, the grilled river prawn. It is central Thailand, after all.
But it’s all that other stuff that really gets me, because it’s special in the way a really good destination restaurant is special. There are the thin slices of bitter melon half-buried in egg omelet and the stir-fried morning glory peppered liberally with green bird’s eye chilies. The springy fried fishcakes (tod mun pla) with a cucumber relish. Those same fish turned into green curry with meatballs — made by loads of meticulous beating, because using a blender would turn these balls crumbly when they’re supposed to fight you a bit in your mouth.
And then, there are the sautéed lotus stems, crispy and juicy and garnished with prawn legs (!) which is a first for me because, really, who wants to waste their time shelling those suckers? But my favorite of all, I have to say, is the crab egg chili dip, so thick with orange crab roe it would make you weep, and all tarted up with pickled baby onions.
If you ever find yourself in the neighborhood (why?) then by all means stop by without calling them first, because they don’t take reservations. But if you’re not in the neighborhood but have a hankering for fish in patty or ball form, and grilled river prawns in a place outside of Bangkok but not at the beach, you could do far, far worse than Jay Dum. You won’t be disappointed.