Do you ever find yourself in that situation where you recognize somebody across the room whom you haven’t seen for a while? What if they recognize you, too? What if you both sit, paralyzed, unsure of who is to get up and make that first stab at conversation? And if you lose this internal wrestling match and you do get up, what if you see that undeniable flash of resignation flit across his face, that “Oh crap, now I have to talk to this person I haven’t spoken to since my wedding in 2007” look? What if you catch that person desperately attempting to hide from you as your eyes lock onto his ear, trying to avoid the upcoming “Oh crap I said I’d call you back five years ago” conversation by suddenly becoming fascinated by the septuagenarian cashier near the entrance, the telltale hand coming up to shield his precious face from your gaze?
I admit it. I have nearly been run over by a bus in my haste to avoid an ex in San Francisco. So I know what it’s like to run away from someone like a bar of soap and stick of deodorant when faced with the likes of Johnny Depp in Full Hobo Mode. But you can’t run away from me, Sukhothai. I admit, you nearly succeeded, what with my preoccupation with the north, and then Isaan, and that brief flirtation with Phuket over the summer. But there was no way I was not going to knock over every vendor in the city in my search for the best Sukhothai noodles — an ingenious dish that combines a Chinese base (rice noodles) with Thai seasonings (lime, fish sauce, chilies, palm sugar), topped with a signature flourish of julienned green beans.
Sukhothai likes its food sweet, and is fond of its coconut milk. This is why Sukhothai can be considered more of a central Thai city, and less northern Thai. Sukhothai noodles — usually built upon sen lek, or thin white rice noodles — contain no coconut milk, but epitomize all the great things that characterize Sukhothai’s food: sweetness tempered by a bit of spice, a fondness for the pig in whatever iteration, and generous use of the region’s famously gorgeous cut lime. There is crunch from the blanched beans, crushed peanuts and tiny crumbs of pork crackling; there is a pork-bone broth flavored with tamarind juice and thick with slices of tender boiled pork. It’s hard to not like this particular hometown specialty.
The best place to have it may not be a street food stall. Instead, it’s a “comfort food”-style restaurant, what a diner would be like if it existed in Thailand. It’s called Baan Kru Eiw (www.bankrueiw-restaurant.com), located in downtown Sukhothai(ish) and named after the teacher who opened this restaurant out of her home a little over a decade ago. Teacher Eiw ran this restaurant in her spare time because she loves cooking and wanted to showcase Sukhothai specialties. That means you get other local favorites like naem nueng, a Vietnamese-derived do-it-yourself noodle dish featuring steamed pork “pate”, and gluey chuem, or boiled bananas in sugar syrup. Last but not least, there is pad Thai — a no-brainer for every Sukhothai noodle vendor in the city, since Sukhothai noodles are basically pad Thai in soup noodle form, with the same seasonings if not always the same protein (the pad Thai here usually involves pork instead of seafood). Kru Eiw wraps her stir-fried noodles up in a thin envelope of egg and crowns the result with a scattering of coriander leaves, with a side of bean sprouts, banana blossom and garlic chives (and of course, a cut of that big, juicy Sukhothai lime) to mop up any grease (Thais are very concerned about kwam lien, or greasiness in their food). At Kru Eiw, there is little grease to worry about. But if you see someone you recognize across the room, you’re on your own.