Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

Glutton Abroad: Philly freedom

Me with all my friends on Atlantic City’s boardwalk

Philadelphia feels like an overlooked city. Located on the Eastern seaboard between New York City and Washington DC, it’s often a place you have to drive through in order to get to where you really want to go. While anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history will know it as the birthplace of the United States, Philadelphia also doesn’t come to mind as a foodie Mecca. But Philly is where Morimoto launched his first eponymous restaurant; is known as a haven for lovers of Italian-American cuisine; and has become a breeding ground for cutting-edge restaurants like Vedge and Zahav. If you come to Philadelphia, you best pack your favorite stretchy pants because you will certainly eat well.

Let’s face it though: the real “cuisine” of Philadelphia is what you’ve always expected it to be.

It’s sandwiches.

Their most famous sandwich is, of course, the Philadelphia cheesesteak. I remember having a spirited discussion with friend (and lifelong Philadelphian) Will in the middle of Terminal Reading Market on what the “authentic” version of the cheesesteak would be if you had to choose between Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s (the two most famous purveyors of this sandwich, ironically forgetting for the moment that authenticity is a trap and a sham). My hypothesis was that Geno’s cheesesteak was the “real” one because it featured Cheez Whiz as well as thinly-sliced beef (alas, you must place your order in English there, because you are in MURICA). Will pointed out that Cheez Whiz was not invented until the early 1950s, while cheesesteaks have been around since 1930 (again alas, he is correct).

The basic history of cheesesteak, after some very basic Googling, is that hot dog vendor Pat Oliveri (of Pat’s!) created the sandwich in 1930 after throwing some beef on the grill to make himself a snack. Unlike Geno’s, Pat’s uses melted provolone and beef chopped into bits (also, presumably, you can order in different languages). At both places, you order your sandwich “wit” or “witout” chopped onions. Cheesesteak aficionados would probably agree that both sandwiches are not the best specimens available in today’s Philadelphia.

Incidentally, Wawa produces a decent cheesesteak, and has done so since the Middle Ages, when I was in college at Bryn Mawr. What makes it are the hot peppers, which are apparently not a mainstay at either Pat’s or Geno’s.

I am not here to tell you where to get the best cheesesteak. There were way too many sandwiches for me to try and I was there for a limited amount of time. I am here to say that Philadelphians happily embrace their cultural heritage. Even the sushi bars do a twist on the sandwich.

Part of the menu at Zama, which also believes cheesesteaks should be made with provolone

The next famous sandwich of Philly: the roast pork sandwich from DiNic’s, the entire reason I was in the crowded Reading Terminal Market braving COVID. This sandwich — roast pork on a hoagie bun with melted provolone and broccoli rabe — is VERY popular, luring hundreds of customers a day to queue up in an orderly fashion with squalling toddlers in tow wondering why they have to wait so long for lunch. Here I admit I had a little dustup with Karen (who is, after all, also a Philadelphia native). You see, after doing yet again some basic Googling, I was informed that shredded pork was less dry than the usual roast pork slices. Our friend Pasha also said that “long hots” were what made the sandwich (sense a theme here?), an addition that I and all of my neighbors in line happily partook of.

Shredded pork sandwich with long hots from DiNic’s

Karen was unhappy that I would choose a sandwich that was not the one that every other person was in line for. In fact, she believed in the importance of tasting the original sandwich so strongly that she stood in the long line herself, getting me the roast pork sandwich with “greens” and provolone as God had always intended.

The “real” DiNic’s sandwich

I am grateful to Karen’s sacrifice in the name of research. I have to say, though (in whisper): I hated the melted provolone on the roast pork. The bitterness of the broccoli rabe was a relief. Maybe I was kosher in a past life. Also, the long hot peppers were really the savior of this sandwich. The bread was great on both versions.

Better than either the Philadelphia cheesesteak or DiNic’s pork sandwich? A sandwich that wasn’t even in Philadelphia. It was in Atlantic City, at a place called White House, where Karen made us drive to try the famous “White House hoagie” (an Italian hoagie with extra salami and provolone). It is the flavor of Karen’s childhood, spent at the boardwalk (where she also sampled copious amounts of salt water taffy and fudge). Best of all, the sandwich hasn’t seemed to change over the past 30-some years.

Yes, it was delicious. And Karen made sure to order extra red peppers, which in this case came chopped up finely for you to scatter into the nether regions of the sandwich at will. Again, the peppers made the sandwich. The mountains of salami and provolone didn’t hurt either.

The best thing to have after such a sandwich, of course, is a “water ice”, a name which Karen pointed out doesn’t make any sense, since ice is made out of water. The important thing to do here is to pronounce “water” as “wood-er”. I have yet to perfect this skill. Warning: this shaved ice dessert will dye your tongue for hours, so beware when you order something that’s not red or pink.

Cherry flavor at Chuck’s Water Ice

Ultimately though? Sorry to disappoint you sandwich lovers (and Joey from “Friends”), but this was my favorite sandwich of my trip to Philadelphia. Yes, I know it’s not really a sandwich. It’s a quesadilla filled with huitlacoche (the fungus that grows on corn, which sounds horrible but tastes like mushrooms). It was delicious and part of the best meal I had in the city.

Huitlacoche quesadilla from La Llorona

Having gotten all those sandwiches out of the way, I will be returning for more of this.


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Last Supper

Hotpot at the Ice Palace Restaurant in Harbin, China

Inspired by this post on Couchfish, I began trawling through my photos for some memorable meals of my own. I chanced upon this photo taken at the beginning of a meal in Harbin and realized that this unassuming pile of meat, noodles and vegetables was one of the most memorable meals I’d ever had — but not for the reasons you might think.

What this photo fails to convey is the depth of rage and dismay I’d felt at the time I took it, when greeted with a restaurant meant to mimic the experience of sitting in sub-zero temperatures outside … after having just come in from outside. I remember the interminable hour or two spent walking around the Ice Festival in Harbin, which, yes, is beautiful and yes, very unusual for Bangkok-based me, but also, after 15 minutes, damn cold. You see, temperatures in Harbin at night hover around -30 to -40 degrees, the kind of cold that makes it hard to walk down the street at night in search for a nightcap (which explains why the only places offering nightcaps are Russian discos with exorbitant cover charges, but I digress). It’s the kind of cold that freezes the tears on your eyelashes. The kind of cold that makes you dream of the moment when you are able to peel away your layers, sit down over a beer and luxuriate in the new warmth of your dining room.

So why the $&*(% would anyone want to emerge from the outdoors to sit an in interior modeled after the outdoors? Apparently, many people want to do this. The Ice Palace Restaurant in the Shangri-La is very popular, boasting -18 degree Celsius interiors that make a fine film of ice appear on your meat and vegetables every few minutes — just like in the outdoors, I’m sure, when diners used to congregate on sidewalks to scrounge up some warmth for themselves via boiling vats of water. A meal at this restaurant is a recreation of this life-affirming bonding experience, but alas it was not an experience I could do justice to. I lasted 15 minutes, coming to the realization that, when it came to far northern China, I was a mere poseur with the local cuisine.

I took better advantage of some other meals, probably because heating was involved. In Sharon, Pennsylvania, I took a pilgrimage to the restaurant considered the mecca for hot wing lovers not able to make it to Buffalo, New York. I remember feeling proud having made it through this entire platter of hot wings, even after they made me sign a silly waiver:

Atomic wings at Quaker Steak & Lube

In transit and in a hurry, I remember eagerly seizing the first opportunity I had to eat my first real-honest-to-God Chicago dog …

… at O’Hare Airport.

And then there was that beautiful meal all the way on the other side of the world, in Cuenca, Ecuador, at Tiesto’s, home of the sizzling hot plate platter. It was the perfect goodbye right before we were due to go home:

The pass at Tiesto’s

I also remember dozens and dozens of meals at this sushi bar, where chef Ryu always made sure to feed us the choicest fish he’d found that day. It was the first place I’d ever enjoyed shirako grilled on a slab of pink salt, or had a shot of hot sake spiked with the guts of a sea urchin, considered to be energizing in the cold weather. Chef Ryu had gone to high school with Terry, our family friend, and meals there made me feel like the luckiest person in the world.

Chef Ryu at his sushi bar in Tokyo

But we can’t forget Bangkok, where I think the first meal I would seek out when I’m able is the kai kata (egg in a pan) at Kopi Hya Tai Kee:

As for my most memorable meal as of this moment, well, I guess it would have to be one of the last ones I’ve had in a restaurant since this latest COVID wave took hold. At Rub Lom (Breezy Point) in Prachuab Khiri Khan (7/2 Pin Anusorn Rd., +6632-601-677), we enjoyed a veritable feast, ordering a platter of crabs, bitter melon with egg, stir-fried curried crabmeat, catfish stir-fried in wild ginger, chilies and green peppercorns, and a nourishing gang liang studded with fresh shrimp and vegetables:

Gang liang
Stir-fried catfish

It was eerily quiet except for us and one other table, but the beach was right across the street from us, and the good food after a long car ride left us almost giddy. When I look back on this meal, it is the giddiness that I remember, and not the wild haring around trying to get everyone from point A to point B. I am hoping that, when I look back on this period a year from now, it will be only the great food that I remember and nothing else.

The sign at Prachuab Khiri Khan

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What’s Cooking: Duck larb

Roast duck larb with crispy duck skin, lime leaves and toasted rice kernels

I’m in what could be fairly characterized as a COVID lockdown/rainy season/away from home-induced rut, and when that happens all the ghosts of past regrets like to come up and haunt me when I least expect them. To drive those ghosts away, I have been doing a lot of yoga, reading mystery novels and even cooking — something I have had to force myself to do every day because I have been enveloped in a depression masking as a lazy stupor.

One of the dishes I’ve put my hand to is this duck larb, rustled up after a family friend sent what I can conservatively estimate as 10 Chinese-style roast ducks to our doorstep in Phuket. The meat was finely hand-chopped (good, mindless work that also helps with any latent aggression) and the skin lifted from the carcass and re-crisped in smoking hot oil along with dried chilies and a handful of torn magrood lime leaves. The meat was tossed in an Isaan-style larb dressing and mixed in with toasted, pulverized rice kernels and the crispy bits at the last minute. It was heaven with a big bamboo basket of sticky rice, the juicy leaves of fresh gem lettuce, and a handful of sawtooth coriander (when did we start calling it culantro?).

Behold, the recipe below. Of course, if you haven’t picked up an extra roast duck from your friendly local duck purveyor, you can still thaw out a couple of duck legs from the freezer, peel off the skin to crisp in hot oil later, and mince the nice tasty meat to your satisfaction.

Duck Larb (for 4-6 people)

  • 500 g Chinese-style roast duck, skin removed and meat finely chopped
  • 6 Tbsps water
  • 2 Tbsps fish sauce
  • 2 tsps salt
  • 2-3 Tbsps dried chili powder (or more, if you like it spicy)
  • 6 shallots, sliced thinly
  • 2-3 Tbsps toasted rice kernels, ground to a powder
  • 5-6 kaffir/magrood lime leaves, torn
  • Handful of dried chilies
  • Unscented cooking oil
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Fresh vegetables to go with your larb (cucumbers, mint leaves, coriander leaves, lettuce leaves)
  • Steamed or sticky rice
  1. First, make your toasted rice powder, which is probably the most complicated part of this recipe. In a flat nonstick pan, pour an even layer of white rice kernels (the better to control the heat) over medium-high heat. When the rice starts turning golden and the smell reaches your nostrils, turn the heat down to medium-low and shake the pan a bit. Continue shaking/tossing the kernels to get them as evenly golden-brown as possible. They should be the color of a salad bowl from Ikea. After about 6-9 minutes (this really depends on the heat of your stove and how good you are at tossing the kernels in the pan), you should be finished. Let the kernels rest for a few minutes. Then grind your kernels in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder or, if you’re really in a pinch, on a cutting board with the bottom of a clean pan.
  2. In a clean saucepan, heat over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles. Add your 6 Tbsps of water and add your duck immediately after. Shuffle it around in the pan; even if the meat sticks, the juices will eventually come out and help the bits on their journey to the land of the cooked. This should take about 3-5 minutes.
  3. In another pan, heat an inch of cooking oil over high heat. Crisp your torn lime leaves, working quickly and set to drain on a plate lined with a paper towel. Do the same with the dried chilies.
  4. Transfer duck and juices to a bowl and add shallots and rice powder.
  5. Add salt and fish sauce, tasting as you go.
  6. Add dried chili powder and taste to see if you want more.
  7. Add lime juice and taste.
  8. Mix in deep-fried lime leaves and dried chilies and serve immediately.


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