(All photos by Dwight Turner)
There is something that happens when you’re seated at a table and a plate of food is set in front of you. There is no longer any need to think; there is only the basic, animal act of getting that food into your mouth in a way that will settle the stomach that’s telling you it’s been ignored. After a few bites in, after your brain truly gives you the green light to dig in and you really start hitting your stride, the euphoria of finally getting what you want starts to settle in. All is suddenly right with the world, your mind instead focused on this element with that sauce, or maybe that vegetable with this protein, the task of cleaning the plate the only one looming in your immediate horizon. When that world, your plate, is gone, so is your high. And that’s when you ask your dining companion, “What should we have next?”
This is something that happens, even if, as I was, you are somewhere patronized mainly by university students. Let me tell you, I typically avoid places that host a lot of university students as a rule. The reason is simple: they are young and their main motivation is value for money. They are young enough to think they have a lifetime of meals ahead of them, calories and grease and deep-fried breading be damned. So when Dwight (@bkkfatty) told me about a specific niche of restaurant that championed “steak” for student budgets, I was intrigued and made him take me to the Sam Yarn market, where Today Steak (or Steak Today, we can never be sure) resides on the second floor.
Thais have always been good at taking foreign influences and twisting them into something that is unique and probably unrecognizable to their creators. These budget steakhouses — and they are a specific niche, perhaps most famously represented by Chokchai Steakhouse — fall roughly into a similar category to the mid-century “luxury Western” restaurants like Silom Pattakarn and Agave that serve Chinese-Thai takes on Western dishes such as beef stew and Anglicized chicken curry. These steakhouses are, if not exactly parodies, then idealized versions of their American counterparts, serving food that is actually affordable and tailor-made to young Thai tastes.
At Today Steak, we took seats in an air-conditioned room dominated by what was clearly a Chulalongkorn University student meeting of some sort. A bridge actually connects the second floor of the market to the campus, making it basically another canteen of the university. I envied these students with their lives ahead of them, thinking that there were good things to come. Because you see, I had already seen the menu.
The basic philosophy of these types of restaurants are that there is nothing that a slab of processed cheese, bacon or red sauce cannot fix. There is no dish in which one of these elements is not present, unless you give up completely and order the Thai food (and then, why are you here?) The prices never veer over 200 baht, even if you order a T-bone steak (160 baht). But again, why chicken out and order the T-bone steak, if you are here? You came here to play, did you not?
And, even if you do try to order beef, there is a very good chance you will not get it. I twice tried to order the “beef godfather” for 150 baht (OK, I liked the name), only to receive a breaded pork cutlet garlanded with a salad tossed in mayonnaise and peas, cold white bread touched with margarine and the kind of ketchup-y Thai spaghetti that makes you realize why Pan Pan became such a culinary sensation in the 1980s.
Dwight ordered the “filet mignon” (120 baht), which we assumed would be a beef ribeye. Smothered in a red sauce and slices of flabby bacon, it looked a lot more like well-seasoned pork. Does this explain the price tag? In any case, the fries were as good as Dwight promised they would be.
But authenticity is not the point. It’s never the point here, unless it’s Thai food. The point is that this food is the stuff of someone’s childhood. This is the Thai equivalent of that alarming “salad” of lime jello, pineapple and nuts that your grandma keeps busting out on Thanksgiving. Tuna casserole with lots of canned cream of mushroom soup and potato chips crumbled on top. Sweet potatoes crowned with cherry pie topping and mini-marshmallows. Let’s not pretend this is grosser than anything else we’ve seen.
At the end of the evening, though, we showed our age. We finished our meal at Nai Peng Kua Gai and finally considered ourselves fed. As I write this now, I am planning on chasing my next high with a big plate of pad se ew.