My first time at Soul Food Mahanakorn was in its first week. My friend James and I sat at the bar and I don’t remember what we ordered, but I do remember being excited to be there. “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s was playing. We had more than our share of cocktails. It was everything I had hoped it would be when I first heard about its opening, appropriately enough, over Twitter.
At the time, a mere 10 (!) years ago, there weren’t a lot of restaurants like Soul Food, straddling the line between your mom’s favorite place (insert appropriate old-timey restaurant here) and pleasant-enough eatery to take a tourist (any hotel). In short, it was that rare place that fell anywhere on the spectrum from a fun place to hang out with your friends over a couple of drinks to a restaurant to take your out-of-town guests to where you didn’t want to drown yourself in the middle of the meal.
The truth is, Thai food in Bangkok wasn’t really hip. There were cool places to hang out, don’t get me wrong, like the deeply-lamented Rain Dogs and Wong’s, and Sarika Steakhouse and, for a while, Le Bouchon, but they all had the flavor of a student-run cafe in the basement of an American college building, or the backyard of an expat townhouse made up entirely of male models and European DJs. Soul Food was Thai food, but not precious about it, peppering its menu with plenty of Isaan and Northern specials seen as too “street” for a restaurant at the time, and a decent list of beers and cocktails that put paid to the notion that “good” restaurants needed to only serve wine. It was a culinary pioneer in a lot of ways and made people who fell somewhere in between — not quite entirely expat, not super-duper local — feel like they were at home.
I’m writing in the past tense because Soul Food has now (rather abruptly, like a loved one who passes away without warning) put itself on hiatus in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus and a government ban on selling alcohol in restaurants to control it. Soul Food was cool and fun; an evening there wasn’t complete without bonding over a Beer Lao or three or a couple of their “Exile” cocktails, says this alcoholic. I met some of my closest friends in Bangkok at the bar at Soul Food, celebrated the publication of my first street food book there, and for the first time listened as someone quoted an article that I had written back to me, not knowing that I was the author (this is obviously a bigger deal for me than for you but then again, so is this entire blog). Although the Bangkok dining scene has changed and expanded in so many ways, especially after the arrival of Michelin & Co., Soul Food was like a family member that I assumed would always be there for me.
Not to say I will lament them forever, because I truly do believe that I will see Soul Food again, in one form or another. Like most of us during this terrible time, Soul Food is simply taking a break, retreating back into itself for a time of self-reflection and self-care. I myself am trying to do this very thing. Soul Food can join me on my couch as we binge-watch “Cobra Kai” on Netflix and share a bottle of wine. We are simply holding fire, preparing ourselves for bigger and better things. I imagine that the both of us will emerge from this period all the stronger for it.