Category Archives: bamee

Yen ta fo for h8ers

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta fo Rot Ded

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta Fo Rot Ded

I write a lot about yen ta fo. It is my absolute favorite Thai noodle dish. What’s not to love? An unlikely but irresistible melange of textures and flavors, from squidgy blanched morning glory stems, rubbery squid, soft fish balls, crackly bitter deep-fried garlic and the crunch of a deep-fried wonton — and that’s before you even get to the sauce. Because it’s the sauce that makes or breaks it all: tart with distilled vinegar and pickled garlic, resonating from the heady boom of fish sauce, underneath which the slightest whiff of sweet fermented red tofu emerges like the flash of a red sole on an expensive shoe … that is what yen ta fo is to me. A very delicate balance that, at its best, is the stereotypical juggling act illustrative of the best of Thai cuisine.

At its worst, yen ta fo is something different. It’s all sweet, all pink, all sickly and flat, like Hello Kitty. So it gives people the wrong idea, that these noodles are something for people with a sweet tooth, that there is no complexity to it at all, that it’s Britney Spears when you want to be rocking the egg noodle-PJ Harvey special. I always put this down to people going to the wrong places for yen ta fo. There is such a thing as the wrong place for a certain dish. In fact, that is the whole point of this blog.

I’ve been to Thi Yen Ta Fo (084-550-2880, open 11-22 except Mondays) more times than I can count. I mean, it was always closed those other times, but it feels like second nature to me now to just head automatically to that street corner on Mahachai Road, just down the street from Thipsamai and next to Jay Fai. Usually, I just find a shuttered cart with a sign bearing the vendor’s name. But just a few days ago, it was all systems go: an entire corner and then some, littered with packed tables and the sort of flustered, harried waiters you would see at your nearest Fuji or Crystal Jade restaurant.

For a soup noodle dish that is so often dismissed as “those terrible pink noodles”, yen ta fo sure seems popular here. But there is a very good reason for this. When our bowls come to the table, it’s less about the pink sauce and fermented tofu and more about the veritable blanket of chopped chilies that coats our food like a suit of armor. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that a typical Thai fix-it involves just throwing a bunch of chilies on something to make it taste better, that doubt has long since been blasted from my head by the smoke coming out of my ears after a bite of these noodles. This stuff is SPICY. It changes the whole flavor profile of the dish. Here, it’s all tart and fiery, even slightly metallic. It’s yen ta fo for people who don’t like yen ta fo very much.

There’s other stuff too. The immense popularity of this place has necessitated the incorporation of a second cart, this one offering fried noodle dishes like guaythiew kua gai (pan-fried rice noodles with chicken and egg). That’s not to mention the pork satay place that also serves the customers here, and the other soup noodles offered by Thi, like the just-as-spicy tom yum egg noodles with fresh basil and minced pork:

Bring your tissues

Bring your tissues

I can’t say I don’t like these noodles, because that wouldn’t be true. Would they be my favorite yen ta fo? No, because they are barely yen ta fo at all. Would I go back? Absolutely. With a pack of tissues. And some Tums.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, Thailand, yen ta fo

Food for thought

A bowl of Mama deluxe at the Khlong Toei market

When I first moved to Bangkok, about 100 years ago, I didn’t know so much about Thai customs. Not even Thai eating customs. I didn’t know what was considered good manners, or even nice. This caused some problems for me when I started dating.

In general, Thai manners aren’t that different from Western manners. Slurping the broth of anything to show your appreciation is still considered gross, and burping is definitively accepted as The Worst Thing You Can Do, aside from spitting your lungs out all over the restaurant floor. So there’s that. Shouting and chewing with your mouth open are also not done. Don’t even get me started with kicking off your shoes and sitting Indian-style.

But there are little nuances that you grow to learn after being told by someone else that they are the Polite Thing To Do. Because food is always served family-style, it’s nice to put a bit of each dish on your honey’s plate first before serving yourself, or, if you are the lowest-ranking person at the table (this is always me), putting a bit of each dish on everybody else’s plate before yours. Never sticking your germy, spit-encrusted spoon into the common soup or curry bowl is also a nice thing to do; you are supposed to use the chon glang (central spoon) to put a little of the broth or curry into your spoon, and delicately sip from that. Sure, it’s largely unsatisfying and will never get you full, but that is not the point. The point is not to get your disgusting cooties all up into everyone else’s mouth. And of course, there is never YOUR soup, or YOUR curry. Hugging that pot of ambrosia to your chest like it’s the last Snickers bar on Earth only makes you look like a selfish ignoramus, and will gross all the Thai people at the table out.

You all know this stuff, so I’m basically preaching to the Thai food choir. But there are gray areas. I am reminded of this every time I see a platter of Tandoori chicken. One night I was at Rang Mahal (on the top floor of the Rembrandt hotel) with my boyfriend at the time, who is not my husband now. What did he do? Take away the chicken breast I had put onto my plate, and attempt to replace it with a chicken leg.

Now, you know if there is something on my plate that someone is trying to mess with, that I WILL SHUT THAT SHIT DOWN. NO ONE TOUCHES MY PLATE — especially after I’ve had a few bites, gotten my digestive juices flowing, and am just starting to hit my stride (you know what I’m talking about, Eaters). I speared the retreating chicken breast with my fork, resulting in a great big THUNK on the table. He didn’t like that so much. He was only trying to replace my manky old slab of boring, tasteless white meat with a hunk of delicious dark meat on the bone, after all! Needless to say (obviously), that relationship didn’t last.  I am now with a man who knows better than to MESS WITH MY DINNER PLATE.

I’m miles away from where I’m supposed to be, but stay with me for a second here: Because I’ve learned about Thai eating habits since that night at Rang Mahal, I feel like I can criticize what I see happening now — telling people to get off my culinary lawn, so to speak. And, it may just be me, but I see an increasing number of instant noodle packets at noodle vendor stalls, instead of the dried rice noodles that have been de riguer for forever. More and more, I think “Mama” has become a legitimate noodle option alongside sen lek (thin rice noodles) and sen yai (thick rice noodles), instead of a junky afternoon snack that you hide in the farthest reaches of your pantry.

This troubles me because I don’t think that stuff is that particularly good for you. Sure, you say, I blab about street food all the time, with deep-fried this and coconut milk-slathered that. But, in my case anyway, it’s food that I think has been lovingly and thoughtfully made, even if it is food for convenience. It should be a convenience for us, but a pain in the ass for them. And more and more, we’re accepting conveniences for everyone — as loaded with sugar and MSG, and deep-fried and industrial as it is.

I understand the jones for some processed, double-fried wheat noodles flavored with the chemical tang of a spicy Cheetoh once in a while.  So if you must have it, have it right. There are stalls that stir-fry it with vegetables and, occasionally, sausages; others who blanch the noodles in a broth and serve it with seafood, veggies and a delicious yum-style salad dressing. I have even requested it made into a som tum, which … didn’t work, but I suspect that had to do with the tom yum (spicy lemongrass) seasoning, and less with the noodles themselves.

Or how about in a bona fide pork bone broth, blanketed under a layer of genuine spicy lemongrass seasonings, crushed peanuts, and fresh basil leaves? Head over to Khlong Toei market, turn the corner from Rama IV road onto Ratchadaphisek and plunge into the heart of it underneath the awning, past the Chinese “general” stores and rice shops, past the wet seafood section, out into the sunlight, and past the pork and chicken and vegetable stands that repeat every few intervals like some sort of code, until you see a small road leading off to your right. Take this road for about 50 m until you see a chicken rice stall on your right; behind that lurks the smiling noodle vendor, who specializes in pork tom yum and gow low (soup without noodles) dotted with winter melon, all based on a flavorful, fragrant pork bone-based broth.

Or just scrabble around in your pantry and have a junky afternoon snack.

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, food, food stalls, markets, noodles, pork, Thailand

Strange combinations

O-tao in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

There are moments in everyone’s lives that are so strange, they might as well have been scripted. One of mine was a scant few years ago, during my second pregnancy. Well into my second trimester and approaching my third, I went to Macau with my husband, his family, and his family friends — getting one last plane trip in before airlines stopped letting me and my big belly on the plane.

Macau is an interesting place, full of an interesting history that seems to get shoved to the wayside somewhere in favor of the new thing in town: casinos. Lots of them. Like Las Vegas, it’s now a place built on dreams, full of places built to look like other places, and other places meant to spend lots of money. It was also something that, aside from the food, we were singularly unable to share in: never gamblers, we awkwardly gawked our way through the lobby every day, watching the strange dances of the dealers and the hopeful, window-shopping our way through this and everything else. And it was definitely not a place for 6-month-pregnant me: just a few weeks before getting relegated to a wheelchair because of my enormous weight, I could only walk a few minutes at a time before having to sit down and rest.

Not surprisingly, all that money changing hands tends to draw an interesting element, especially at night. There were an awful lot of beautiful girls milling around the shopping mall, looking like they were waiting for someone. Maybe they really were waiting, scanning the horizon for their friends, hatching plans to see a movie, getting ready to share some hot wings. I honestly don’t know. But when I sat down to rest my stretched pelvis for the umpteenth time on the long and arduous walk back to our hotel room, my husband sat next to me, and a girl sat next to him, and promptly laid her head on my husband’s shoulder.

Let me set this scene for you. Me, a gigantic bulbous mammoth with a huge protruding belly. My husband, next to me, sitting stock still. My husband’s parents and their friends, standing behind us. Girl, apparently very sleepy, with her head on my husband’s shoulder. No one says anything. Some female passersby look, cluck at this strange combination of people on a bench, and shake their heads: whether at me, a big ol’ fatso who cannot just stand up and ask someone/anyone what is going on; my husband, who cannot shrug his shoulder and walk away; or at the girl, who is very, very tired — I don’t know. What I do know is that it is appalling, but in the funniest possible way. If I ever, at that moment, harbored that question of Do I Look Fat in This? the answer was: oh, most definitely yes. Otherwise, why would that lady decide to sit there, cuddling with my husband? Was there a question of This Is Weird and What Should We Do? Well, certainly. This was a moment that required examining my own feelings: surprise, indecision, humiliation, check. Exhilaration? Yes, that too. What happens next? Call my bluff then, Life. Just do it. Maybe I am a gambler after all …

… (although not much of one, if your parents are just milling around, looking at bath salts close by. She eventually got up and walked away).

The point of this long and tedious story is, strange combinations excite similarly strange feelings. It might not make sense, but it somehow works. This is something the Hokkien Chinese in Phuket — a community largely responsible for Phuket’s street food scene today — have taken to heart. Want oysters slathered atop a mix of egg, flour and cubed taro and dressed in lashings of minced garlic, soy sauce, bean sprouts and pork rinds? Sure, why not? How about thick yellow noodles fried with pork, chicken, fish and crispy greens, topped with a raw egg yolk, raw slivered shallots and, again, pork rinds? Of course.

Hokkien fried noodles at Mee Ton Poe in Phuket

O-tao, the Hokkien-style oyster omelet dish, is best represented at Ji Piena stall that has been around for nearly 80 years in one location or another in downtown Phuket. Its current incarnation, over 40 years old, is at a nondescript stall along Soi Phoonphol 7, where the hardworking chef churns out plate upon plate of o-tao topped with oysters, shrimp and/or squid (there is also a vegetarian version), as well as a small roster of curries atop kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles).

Ji Pien in Phuket

For fried noodle lovers, there is also Mee Ton Poewhich enjoys two locations, but I always go to the one on Phuket Road. A vast range of fried noodle dishes awaits, many a variation of the mee pad Hokkien (Hokkien fried noodles) on nearly every menu in town, but the real treat here is, besides the amiable service, the curries the staff eat at lunch. I’m not kidding. They are homemade and delicious: fiery gaeng trai pla (Southern Thai fish entrail curry), or the milder and no-less-flavorful gaeng prik (chili curry).

And if you still haven’t had enough of strange combinations, Phuket has you covered on the dessert side of things too: o-aew, a shaved ice dessert laden with bananas, colored syrup, and a jelly made from soaking o-aew seeds in water and said to protect diners from getting ulcers. Where to get it? At the moment, it’s available at a place called — where else? — O-Aew, across from the entrance to Soi Sun Uthit.

O-aew in Phuket town

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, dessert, food, food stalls, noodles, Phuket, seafood, Southern Thailand, Thailand

July’s Bangkok Diet

Mango pudding at Prince Restaurant in HK

There is a recurring feature in NY Magazine called “New York Diet” that I think is just brilliant (my favorite is this one). It’s basically the food equivalent of the “What’s in your purse?” stories that ladies’ magazines sometimes do (and that, of course, I also love). It’s people letting you become a voyeur inside their stomachs. You can tell some people are super-uncomfortable about it, and others are very honest — in every case, you get a very good glimpse into an unfamiliar life.

We don’t have an equivalent of that in Bangkok, although that would be a great idea. Looking over @SpecialKRB’s photos over the past month, I thought, why not just do it here? It’s not like the editor won’t like it! So here, from what I can remember, is what I ate over the past few weeks.

Monday, July 2

I help conduct a tour around Aor Thor Kor, which is mildly excruciating. I’m not a Great First Impression person. So this is sort of uncomfortable. Also, everybody knows everything already. Why am I there? I do meet some very nice people though. I hope to see them again.

When I get home, @SpecialKRB is there! It’s the beginning of a loooong holiday for her, when everything is wonderful and still full of promise. Of course, the first thing we do is go to Greyhound Cafe at Emporium. It’s a big favorite of hers and she always gets the same things: chicken wings, sandwich in a bowl, watermelon shake.

Greyhound’s fried chicken wings

Tuesday, July 3

I wake up and do stuff. It was a month ago, folks! What I do remember: dinner, with @SpecialKRB and our friend Annelie at my favorite Bangkok Isaan spot right now that’s not on Petchburi — Moo Jum at the entrance of Suan Plu soi 3. It’s been a favorite of food-loving types for ages because of its sticky, mouth-watering grilled fatty pork neck. However, I think the namesake dish — a sort of Isaan-style sukiyaki sometimes called jaew hon — deserves some love too.

Isaan-style sukiyaki at Moo Jum

Wednesday, July 4

How better to celebrate U.S. Independence Day than with a tabletop full of egg noodles with Tabitha and Akio at Rungrueang noodle shop on Sukhumvit 26?

Egg noodles from Rungrueang

Thursday, July 5

There was a time when it was next to impossible to get a bagel in Bangkok, and to sort of have one, you had to trek to Villa and get one of those Danish Bakery bagel approximations, which were not so great. Those times are over now, thanks to BKK Bagel Bakery. We order a whole mishmash of things; of course my Reuben comes last. Of course I eat it all.

BKK Bagel’s Reuben

And of course, I’m still hungry. So it’s on to the second lunch, at Din Tai Fung (yes. Really, yes) where we get pork xiaolongbao and dan-dan noodles, my absolute favorite noodles of anywhere.

Pork soup dumplings and lemonade at Din Tai Fung

Saturday, July 7

It’s hard to find things at the airport, I get it. Different airlines have different types of lounges, and Thai Airways doesn’t always have the best stuff. Things you can count on at a Thai Airways lounge: Chinese steamed dumplings, tuna sandwiches, and what is obviously @SpecialKRB’s favorite, Mama noodles, particularly tom yum goong flavor, which we agree is the best flavor for instant noodles, ever.

@SpecialKRB tries both “spicy lemongrass” and “minced pork” flavors, just to be sure.

Mama noodles at the Royal Orchid lounge in Suvarnabhumi airport

Later, we are in Chiang Mai, the City of Great Food. Really. We do not have a single bad meal there. What we have most of, naturally, since we are doing research for my next book: copious bowls of khao soy, some at the same place twice.

Chicken khao soy at Samerjai in Chiang Mai

Monday, July 9

Sometimes I consider adding a “level of difficulty” category to the food stalls in the book, because some stalls are a genuine pain in the ass to get to. Niyom Pochana in Lampang (in front of Muangsat temple, in case you were wondering) counts as one of those stalls, scoring a strong “9” on the “level of difficulty” scale. That said, it is still worth it if you like beef or pork noodles. It’s all in the meatballs.

Niyom Pochana’s meatballs

Tuesday, July 10

Back in Bangkok for a night. Unbelievably, while @SpecialKRB and my family are stuffing themselves silly at India Hut, I am at a “dinner” at the newly-opened Cabochon Hotel, where no food is readily apparent, anywhere. I do have 900 glasses of wine though. I’m sure that really impressed everywhere there.

Wednesday, July 11

In Ubon Ratchathani, where our first meal is a gigantic succession of Thai-Vietnamese dishes at Sabaijai. The northeast of Thailand is thick with great places like this started by Vietnamese who fled their homeland during the Vietnam War. Unlike the nearby Indochine, Sabaijai still retains a sense of humility; prices appear to be similarly down-to-earth.

The spread at Sabaijai in Ubon

Friday, July 13

We get back from Ubon in time for a fun pop-up dinner at Opposite (theme: “Crudo”, cooked by Chef Paolo Vitaletti). There is crabmeat risotto and a range of salads that run out far too quickly (but are rapidly replenished) and a scrum over the cured meats. But the standout for me is clearly the raw bar: oysters, a ceviche smelling of smoke, a single sweet raw scallop, dressed with olive oil and a garlic chive. I still think of that scallop sometimes, not in an OMG I WANNA NOM NOM NOM way, but intellectually, as a memory of what scallops should taste like. Ultimately worth all that scrumming.

Sunday, July 15

Big Bite Bangkok. It’s the second one we’ve done and @DwightTurner does all the heavy lifting, but I am still kind of a mess at the beginning. What if people have a terrible time? What if I poison someone with a rogue chili dog? What if no one knows what Sloppy Joes are?

In the end, everything turns out OK, thanks to Chris’s unshakeable calm, @SpecialKRB’s stellar salesmanship, and great contributions from the other vendors. I am sad the food runs out by the time I am ready to eat — at least someone snares me one of Quince’s black puddings, and I get a sip of the tom yum martini that everyone is lining up for.

At Big Bite Bangkok

Wednesday, July 18

Before we leave for Phuket, we go to Soul Food Mahanakorn with Chris for what will basically be our last dinner in Bangkok together (sniff sniff). We order all our personal favorites on the menu and then some — smoky tart eggplant salad with bacon and deep-fried shallots; a Masaman chicken curry; mieng kum with morsels of porkiness. While waiting, we pass the time by discussing how we would cast our movie selves: we decide Chris is Steve Carrell, @SpecialKRB is Tina Fey, and I am Lena Dunham. We are all secretly offended by these choices.

When the food does come, it is an enormous amount, enough to give us pause and take it all in and realize how enormously lucky we are. Jarrett (who we’ve decided is Joseph Gordon Levitt) also sends out a stuffed squid stir-fry with slivers of chili and basil, and a northern Thai-style duck larb that reminds me of what my dad used to make for us after he came home from work — in other words, it is meaty and savory and grounded, exactly as it should be. A nice taste of home before a long trip away.

(All photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, chicken, dessert, food, food stalls, noodles, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand

Not just for old people

Noodles with chicken and bitter melon

Someone once asked me “Why the obsession with age?” I was surprised; I hadn’t noticed how much I was writing about my old, old oldness. But why wouldn’t I be — I am staring down the barrel of 80, people I knew five years ago no longer recognize me, and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t eat like I used to. I cannot even be bothered to work, which is okay, since it gives me time to focus on the truly important things in life, like watching reruns of “Revenge”. Ah, youth! Its innate arrogance and unconscious cruelty and all the things we took for granted. Never to return again.

Another sign of my inexorable march to watching “Dancing With the Stars” on a religious basis: my newfound appreciation for guaythiew gai mara, or chicken-and-bitter melon noodles. Bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd or bitter squash and indigenous to the tropics, is one of those fruits that is hard to make out. Like taciturn people, they seem to offer nothing — wrinkled, waxy green flesh; a bitter, dry-mouth crunch — without a lot of work. But everyone that grows them has found some sort of use for them: sliced and scrambled with eggs in Okinawa; curried in India; souped up with shrimp in Vietnam. In Thailand, they are stuffed with minced pork and stewed for hours in a broth coaxed from pork bones to make gaeng jued mara yad sai, or stuffed bitter melon in clear soup. It’s one of those dishes that requires an introduction like “This is very good for you” (it’s supposed to be good for sore throats). Thais like to joke that you are starting to get old if you begin to appreciate it.

But rarely is there any mention of chicken-and-bitter melon noodles. That’s strange, because they are not hard to find at all. Tucked in amongst the ubiquitous papaya salad, egg noodle and rice porridge stalls are the vendors who display halved bitter melons and chickens on their carts, the ones who, inevitably, already have two or three people waiting in line. They are open for breakfast and lunch, because chicken-and-bitter melon noodles are a daytime dish. They are almost always mobile vendors, or vendors who, like the one between Emporium and Benjasiri Park, offer stools as tables with shorter stools as chairs (you are supposed to eat with your back to the traffic so road dust doesn’t fall into your bowl, but really, is this really cheaper than springing for a couple of tables?).

My favorite is the one on Sukhumvit 24 road, in front of a massage parlor and kitty-corner to another one (and a few feet down from yet another one). Noodle choices are thick (sen yai), egg (bamee), Mama (yes I know), and rice vermicelli (sen mee). The chicken, which from a distance looks like it is smoked, is actually gai jae, or boiled chicken. And the piece de resistance, the broth: sweet to offset the bitterness of the melon, aromatic with an almost cinnamon-y scent, stewed with bits of mara, old bones, and the remnants of my writing career.

Chicken-and-bitter melon broth

Before you take it home, you are invited to juice up your noodles with any combination of condiments: sugar, dried chili flakes, pickled peppers in white vinegar, crushed peanuts, roasted chili paste. The end result is what the best Thai food always is: a study in contrasts between the flavors of the melon and the broth, the texture of the crisp crunchy greens with the soft give of the noodles, the comfort implied in the chicken and the spice of the roasted chili paste. Really, can you blame me for giving this a go?

Condiment bar

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, chicken, food, food stalls, noodles, Thailand

So here goes

Jay Maew's giant pomfret with pickled plums

People sometimes ask me where I like to eat. I suspect this is so they do not have to worry about bumping into me somewhere. I’ve been asked this enough times that I have decided to write down a handy little list, detailing the places I make a serious effort to go to again and again.

You may notice there is a pattern. As I get older (I am 75), I get more set in my ways. You will never, ever catch me in a place with throbbing music, or packed with people, or outfitted with beds instead of chairs, unless Anthony Bourdain is there, in an outfit made out of sun-dried beef. I will try my very best to avoid a place that describes itself as fusion, unless it is something like Eskimo-Mongolian, because — well, who wouldn’t want to see that? I also steer clear of theme restaurants, unless they involve ninjas, or pirates. Or, uh, knights and jousting. Never mind. Just scratch what I said about theme restaurants.

1. Jay Maew
Just off of the highway in Samut Songkhram on the way to Hua Hin, this Thai seafood place is … about to close, because the owners want to retire and enjoy their lives. This is a shame (although I am all for the owners wanting to enjoy their lives), because their gaeng som is easily the best within 100 km of Bangkok. Also delicious giant pomfret, stewed with pickled plums or steamed with soy sauce and ginger; grilled crab, thick with eggs; freshwater shrimp, heads oozing, lightly blistered. Try not to miss it!

Before going over Mae Nam Tha Jeen, stick to left, go under bridge, U-turn, make first left, and it’s on your left hand side.
034-713-911

2. Jay Fai
Let me tell you a story about Jay Fai. I wrote a book about street food stalls, and although the bill at Jay Fai falls quite outrageously beyond the price limit of 100 baht per meal, I included it, because her cooking is incredibly delicious, more so once you find out she is self-taught.

Well, she didn’t like being included in a book with the pad thai guy down the street and the assorted noodle vendors here and there on the sidewalk. Her food is “on another level”, she said. Well, I can’t say I disagree with that. “Dry” thom yum (spicy lemongrass soup), festooned with prawns as big as a child’s hand; double-fried lard na, thick flat noodles paired with skinny yellow ones, topped with a flavorful seafood gravy; or, my favorite, a Japanese-inspired omelette stuffed with gigantic hunks of crab — this place is the first place I think of when someone I like wants to eat great Thai food.

Jay Fai's crabmeat omelette

327 Mahachai Rd.
02-223-9384

3. Chesa
People are sometimes confused when I say this Swiss restaurant is my favorite Western restaurant in Bangkok. Who knew raclette could be so alluring? How could fondue be such a draw?

Truthfully, although I love cheese, raclette and fondue aren’t big draws to me either. Yet I come to Chesa every chance I get because nearly every item on its menu is well-cooked. I like that the chef includes seasonal menus — focusing on, say, white asparagus in late spring, chanterelles in the fall. I like the brisk, efficient service. I like that they don’t mind substitutions. I even like that it’s slightly fusty and quiet. Best of all, I love that this is a restaurant that does not shy away from offal — veal kidneys in a mustard sauce, liver with rosti, breaded fried sweetbreads, these guys have it all.

Kidneys with brussels sprouts

5 Sukhumvit Soi 20
02-261-6650

4. Soul Food Mahanakorn
Every time I mention Soul Food Mahanakorn to anyone, I am invariably told one of a several things: 1. that it is their local; 2. that they have had the party for their book/exhibition/film/album there; 3. that they had a very interesting conversation about (insert something here) with the owner; and 4. to try the lamb grapao/Burmese-style stewed pork belly/spicy eggplant salad/excellent cocktails.

The point being, everyone loves this place. What started out as being a trendy new place with promise has turned into something that people genuinely love to go to, again and again. Everyone has picked out their favorite dish on the menu (mine is the Hat Yai fried chicken); everyone has had some sort of party there (including me); everyone has had an interesting conversation with Jarrett (boo, Eagles). This is because it is very easy to do all of these things, thanks to a smart menu, a convivial, homey atmosphere, and Jarrett’s genuinely warm personality. You feel like he could be your best friend: we could watch movies together, and do each other’s hair, and he could listen to me blather on about “Game of Thrones” for hours on end … right? Jarrett? Hey, where are you going?

56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55
02-714-7708

5. Bamee Slow
I travel more than I should, and this is the first place I always try to go to once I get home. I love bamee kai — I am a fool for eggs, and a boiled egg, cooked just enough so the yolk runs all over a silky, fragrant handful of egg noodles accented with red pork and fried garlic, is probably my idea of an edible heaven. Best/worst of all, the wait can take up to 25 minutes, ramping up the anticipation for your first bowl (I immediately order two, broth separate, to avoid unnecessary drama) that much more. It’s the very best street food, the slow kind.

 

Entrance to Ekamai Soi 19 (after 8pm)

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, curries, fish, food, food stalls, noodles, restaurant, seafood, Thailand

When it’s time to break up

roasted duck

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

This is the duck we never had. But I should start from the beginning.

Relationships with restaurants are like relationships with people. There is the flicker of interest, the sideways glance, the feeling that maybe you should check that out sometime. There is the lust. And then there is falling in love.

Like anyone who lives a lot in the past, I remember the details: 1997. Paris. Le Grand Vefour. Plaques marking where past patrons once sat — I sat at Colette’s place, but I also remember a Napoleon. A platter of velvety, almost candied pigeon. A wine like leather and mushrooms. And a Swiss financier who sent over a bottle of dessert wine, simply because we “looked happy”. I remember a vista had spread out before me of previously unexplored things, at least for a culinary student living on hard-boiled eggs in a 5th-floor walk-up on the edge of the Greek Quarter. I do not go back to Le Grand Vefour very often, but I will always love that restaurant because of that feeling.

At least, I think I will always love that restaurant. Because, like for any relationship, the threat of a break-up always looms. They can be clean and clinical; a bad meal, bad service, and you simply never go back. They can be contentious: he said, she said sort of stuff, requiring the intervention of a manager. And they can be ugly.

When you have driven for hours from Rouffillac to Paris, enduring Opera-area traffic, drunken throngs in the Greek Quarter, and a winding queue down the sidewalk, and it’s already 9:30 and you’re bone-tired, you want some TLC. You’ve seen the guys at Mirama before; you lived just around the corner, for Chrissake, you remember being a loyal customer even though you never really counted Hong Kong-style duck and egg noodles as one of your favorite dishes.

It’s kind of jarring when they start picking and choosing from the line in front of you. But it’s okay; they said two tables of five, and that’s fine, it’s understandable. It has now been an hour, you’re next, and the group behind you that has just sidled up is big as well — eight carefully-coiffed blondes in the kind of scarves that suggest they are “slumming it” for the evening on the Left Bank.

So it feels like a punch in the gut when the group behind you gets called, and you’ve been waiting for over an hour. The celebratory whoops are salt in the wound. You are being taken for granted. The wise thing to do is to walk away. But you can’t help it. You march into the restaurant and confront the 60-year-old, balding, stressed-out Chinese man, who explains they don’t seat tables of 10. He is now telling lies. The Chinese man is now like all those other guys who tell tales when confronted: she was just a friend, he was alone that night, she meant nothing.

Walk away, walk away. So you do — for two seconds. You double back again. He needs to know it’s wrong. You need closure. You tell him. He doesn’t seem to register what you are saying. It feels like talking to a brick wall. So then, you walk away. But because you just can’t help it, you walk back again. You need to know. “Is it because she’s blonde?” you say. “No, no,” he says, and you think he’s lying, yet again.

You walk away for the last time, only to hear your name after you’ve crossed the street. “He can seat four!” someone calls out, and it’s the final straw, the last insult — he couldn’t seat 8 of you, but now 4 is okay? “He can kiss my ass!” you scream across the rushing traffic on Rue St. Jacques, convinced you will never, ever return. You turn around and seek out the next best thing, Roger Le Grenouille, and he is kind and welcoming, and the frog legs are great, and things are okay. But you will always remember Mirama’s rejection, and how that stung, a little bit.

Mirama

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

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