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Subverted expectations

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Mee krob at Meng Lee

People who have been reading my blog for a while know that I occasionally enjoy writing about “Game of Thrones”. This is in spite of the fact that no one has ever asked me my opinion on “Game of Thrones”. You’re welcome, world.

But saying anything now seems like a pile-on to basically everyone else on the planet who watched the finale. Can I add to what Aaron Rodgers, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have already said? No, I can’t. I can only subvert expectations by saying that I hope to kinda forget about the last few episodes as thoroughly as Dany kinda forgot about the Iron Fleet.

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I AM DISAPPOINT

(Photo by Karen Blumberg)

Luckily, there is food to channel all my rage into. I have been trying my share of great food, without bothering to take many photos, because I am realizing that the constant documentation takes me out of the moment too much. It is no longer enjoyable for me to imagine what other people will think of what I’m eating. Also, I think Instagram is ruining food, more than even Michelin, San Pellegrino and the celebrity chef culture (btw, follow me at @bangkokglutton)!

It’s hard to get your food, though, when your server is running away from you like Dave B. and Dan W. running away from enraged GOT fans. Also, when the restaurant is turning away foreign customers when they threaten to give the restaurant their money. This is what happened at Meng Lee (Na Phra Lan Road next to Silpakorn University, open daily 11am-7pm), and I’m thinking it’s pretty lucky that I managed to slip through the door like a Faceless Man without having to unleash my crappy Thai.

You’d be right to think that it’s crazy for a Thai restaurant across the street from the Grand Palace to turn away foreigners, almost as crazy as sending out warriors to fight dead things in the dark. But then again, you’re not Meng Lee. This Thai-Chinese restaurant is a longstanding “cookshop”, a type of Bangkok-specific eatery that serves Thai-Chinese versions of Western favorites. These are the dishes that the courts of Rama IV and Rama V served to Western dignitaries to show that they were “sivalai” (the Thai term for “civilized”). As yucky as this whole enterprise might seem upon deeper examination, this “sivalai” cooking could be credited with helping the kingdom in the long run, aiding in the effort to keep Siam (all together now) the only uncolonized country in the region.

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Meng Lee is — alongside fellow golden oldies Silom Pattakan, Florida Hotel Restaurant and Chairoj  — part of a Dothraki-like tribe of cookshops, which serve a distinctly Bangkokian form of cuisine. It basically comes from a smattering of recipes handed down from the chefs who helmed the palaces, embassies and wealthy households offering this type of food. Because Western chefs were difficult to import into Asia, most of the chefs hired were Hainanese, who, like the “water dancers” of Essos with their swords, were blessed with sterling reputations for great cooking. As a result, the ensuing dishes ended up being a hybrid of Thai, Chinese and Western influences.

Every restaurant specializes in something different, but every cookshop serves a “steak salad”, or salat nuea san. Here the meat comes unsliced and simply panfried to an innocuous beige, set next to a green salad with a tart-sweet clear dressing that is canonically accurate (unlike GOT seasons 7 and 8).

steaksalad

There is also always mee krob, the crispy tart-sweet fried rice noodles dressed in tamarind and citrus that have become a Varys-ish caricature of themselves in recent years, lacquered to a cloying caramel crisp. Here, it is a soft jumble of mild crunch and tang, pleasant and comforting and not at all aggressive. Now, like the reason behind maintaining a Night’s Watch, no one knows why mee krob is always served at a cookshop. It is not particularly Western, Western-seeming or Chinese. We can only assume that, like Podrick Payne’s supposed hunkiness, it is something that simply caught on.

Not to say there isn’t anything else very Asian, because of course there is. Meng Lee is known for its beef-kale stir-fry, which, like Davos the Onion Knight, comes as you would expect, with no nasty surprises.

beef

And then there’s the omelet. Maybe Jay Fai has spoiled us all. But this is a latter-stage Tyrion Lannister version of a crab omelet, something I might slap together hung over and resentful over the intrusion of friends I’d invited over to the house the night before.

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At the end of the day, it might not be the food itself that lures you — if you make it past the Unsullied at the door — to this quiet corner shophouse oasis in the middle of everything touristy. It’s the nifty time travel that happens once you are seated: the checkered floor, the ceiling fans, and, yes, the elusive, super-shy servers. You are not transported “back” to fantasy medieval times; instead, you find yourself in mid-20th century Bangkok, when things seemed a lot simpler and the heat wasn’t quite so oppressive. Maybe this is enough reward to brave a trip through Meng Lee’s green door (BITTERSWEET).

 

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Korat state of mind

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Somtum Korat at Kanom Jeen Kru Yod

Korat is known as the “gateway to Isaan”, but there’s nothing entry-level about the Northeastern Thai food you get here. Green papaya salad, grilled meat, sticky rice, fermented Thai anchovies — it’s all there, graced with a decidedly “Korat” stamp like an edible Isaan-style “LV” with extra chilies on top, if you please.

There are as many types of som tum, or what’s commonly known as “green papaya salad”, as there are fruits and vegetables. That’s because, while the green papaya variety is the most well-known, you can make som tum out of just about anything: corn, green banana, sweet santol (known as gratawn). “Som tum Korat”, ostensibly named after the town in which it was created, veers from the usual with the addition of pickled field crab, dried shrimp and fermented Thai anchovy juice alongside all that green papaya and pounded long beans, garnished with a shower of roasted peanuts. The result is spicy and salty with a touch of sweet, in a region where sweet flavors are usually anathema.

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Som tum Korat with plenty of moo yaw at Som Tum Pan Lan

Of course, the flavors vary depending on the chef. Despite its deceptively simple appearance and quick assembly time, som tum is surprisingly hard to get right, a tightrope walk between salt, spice and tart, with an additional hit of sweet or bitter when the recipe demands it.

At Kanom Jeen Kru Yod (200 moo 9, Moo Ban Kokpai 2, Thanon Siriratchathani, 081-548-4097), the restaurant is named after the fermented rice noodles that locals flock to for lunch to eat slathered in the gang gai, or chicken curry.  But as delicious as those noodles are, the som tum salads are just as toothsome, big, bright flavors in a jumble of fresh, crisp textures and colors. This is also the big draw at Som Tum Pan Lan (Ratchasima-Pakthongchai Road, 081-966-1497), where we waited out a torrential downpour while hunched over a plate of som tum, bulked up and chilled out with a generous handful of moo yaw, or steamed Vietnamese-style pork sausage.

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A vat of Kru Yod’s ubiquitous chicken curry

Sometimes people want a little drama with their som tum. Or something to properly Instagram. I hate to say it, as I am a big Instagram user too (follow me @bangkokglutton guys!), but Instagram is ruining food. To win more interest, restaurants are creating dishes with an eye toward how spectacular they will look in photos, instead of how these dishes actually taste. The birth of som tum tad (literally “som tum on a tray”, surrounded by a solar system of items meant to go with the som tum “star” in the middle) falls into this category, but some versions are more palatable than others. Enter Thum Saeb Gaen Khon (11/2 Suebsiri Road, Soi Suebsiri 3, 084-605-9120), which, alongside a very tasty selection of regular som tums, thom saeb (spicy Isaan-style soups) and grilled meats, offers an enormous som tum tad centered around their very own “som tum gaen khon” and less manicured than the scary specimens haunting your local food court.

Here, the som tum is surrounded by fried pork rinds, fermented rice noodles, soy sauce-fried rice vermicelli, sprouts, pickled mustard greens, blanched cabbage, dried sweet pork, katin seeds, boiled shrimp, steamed cuttlefish, steamed mussels, blanched surimi, dried shrimp, sour fermented pork sausage, and three types of egg: hard-boiled, salted, and century. It’s a meal fit for 3-4 kings.

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Som tum tad at Thum Saeb Gaen Khon

When/if you get som tummed out, there are still some Korat-based culinary alternatives. Krua Khun Ton (Jomsuranyat Road) is as hidden as a hidden gem gets anywhere: tucked into an outskirts-lying development that calls to mind images of basement meth labs and Episode 4 of “True Detective” Season 1. Somehow, amidst all of this, a restaurant terrace sits behind a tranquil pool of carp and artful display of old furniture arranged around an ancient television set. Everything is good here, if the enormous crowd of people (everyone awake in Korat on a Sunday morning) is anything to go by. We settle in with a mee Korat (fried rice vermicelli with dark soy sauce, fish sauce, palm sugar, chilies and pork) and the restaurant’s signature, kanom jeen nam ya pla rah (fermented rice noodles with fermented anchovy curry).

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Khun Ton’s mee Korat

The soup — deep, salty, slightly funky and somehow sweet — is studded with thick, meaty chunks of fish and accompanied by a plethora of garnishes including shredded cabbage, pickled greens, and green foliage that I sadly didn’t catch the name of but tasted both tannic and tart, gorgeous next to the murky curry.

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Kanom jeen nam ya pla rah

It’s hard to leave Korat without feeling like you have swallowed a submarine whole. But like all physically taxing experiences, like childbirth, you forget about the pain afterwards in favor of the good and fuzzy feelings. Over the course of two days, I ate enough for a week’s worth of meals. This was only a little bit of it. But damn it if I didn’t end up wishing I could stand to eat a little more.

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