Before I begin, I want to share with you what made my day today. It was this photo (via Jezebel via Getty):
I think it’s the expression on his face, the trying-to-be-serious look of a toddler told to pose nicely with his great-aunt for the family photo. It’s the expression of someone trying to do his duty, fer serious this time. It’s the look I have on my face right now.
One of my favorite movies ever is John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. I don’t watch it too often because I don’t want to get sick of it like I did with “Clueless”. But it should be no surprise that I love it as a movie that’s ripe to use as an analogy for basically anything, ever. If you haven’t seen it already (and why not, what’s wrong with you), it’s about an isolated bunch of guys stuck in Antarctica for science-wonky work and what hijinks ensue when a super-cool discovery made by nearby Norwegians turns into something not-so-cool when it starts eating people and assuming their identities.
It’s not as scary as Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, because it doesn’t hide and attack when you’re not looking. It’s right there, in front of you, pretending to be somebody you know. It’s only later, when it shows itself, that you realize how truly horrifying it is: an amalgam of everything you recognize, combined and twisted into something monstrous. It’s the familiarity — and constant evolution with each entity that it absorbs — that is scary. Even more terrifying is the fact that no one knows who the monster is, possibly not even the monster itself. This is the most familiar detail of all.
Everyone has encountered “The Thing” at least once in their life. It’s that person seated next to you at a dinner party who suddenly starts spouting off about crime in Chicago without warning before alighting on opinions about American race relations that would make anyone with ears (i.e. me) want to jump out a window immediately. It could be the random man at a party who walks up to me only to ask if it is true that prostitutes hold a high social status in Thailand. It could be the friend who congratulates you on your scholarship, but that it was obviously granted because I am Asian (at Stanford, because there aren’t enough Asians there). I’ve met “The Thing” a gazillion times, and like MacReady, I have never vanquished it.
There are food equivalents of “The Thing” too, of course. A well-reviewed Thai fried chicken restaurant with the requisite surface dinginess (and a Green Bowl seal of approval to boot) to signal its authenticity, it ends up offering you a paltry handful of dried-up wings in a tiny bread basket, a bland som tum barely baptized by seasoning, a cold catfish stir-fry tasting of mud. The truth is, there is no way to protect yourself from encountering “The Thing”. The only thing you can do is to minimize the risk, like shutting yourself up in your room and ordering takeout for the rest of your life.
In terms of food, at least, Zaew has you covered. There are actually a couple of noodle joints named Saew or Zaew within walking distance of my house alone; who knows how many Zaew there are peppering the country. In any event, it’s a fairly safe bet that a noodle shop named “Saew/Zaew” will serve a decently good bowl of noodles, and Zaew Thonglor (Sukhumvit Road between Thonglor and Soi 57, 02-391-0043) is no exception.
Yen ta fo (of course, my favorite bowl of noodles ever) can be a hard sell, what with its pink color, fermented tofu base and frequently over-sweet sauce. The very best versions I’ve had walk the tightrope between sweet-salty and tart-spicy. Here at Zaew there’s not even any pretense: no sweetness, just a tart-spicy mix leavened with squidgy meatballs and the occasional bit of pork fat crackling, the best part of all. It’s delicious in a way that is different from my favorite bowls. It might even be better.
Zaew’s more popular options include tom yum noodles with minced pork and fish meatballs, or noodles made of processed fish in tom yum broth, or egg noodles and … you get the picture. But be warned: the portions are not only gargantuan by street food standards, but possibly by Thai standards in general. No need to order those two bowls all at once unless you are absolutely sure.