Glutton Abroad: Orlando Redux

When I go abroad and am moved (or feel obligated) to write, I usually say something about the food I am encountering and what I think that says about the place we are in. But I am not doing that this time, because we are in Orlando for Christmas and New Year’s. If you are not aware, Orlando, home of Disney World — marketed the “happiest place on earth” — is in Florida, which, besides its southernmost tip known as Miami, abounds in strip malls, supermarkets, and chain restaurants. Here, a small and very personal ranking of the restaurant chains that are within a short drive of my rental home:

  1. Il Mulino
  2. Joe’s Crab Shack
  3. Red Lobster
  4. Vito’s Chophouse
  5. Morimoto
  6. Outback Steakhouse
  7. Cheesecake Factory
  8. Olive Garden
  9. Cracker Barrel
  10. Appleby’s

I have eaten at all of these restaurants, hence have legitimate opinions. In spite of its chicken ‘n dumplings, Cracker Barrel is lower in the list because of its general vibe of a post-2020 election MAGA rally; Olive Garden, because of its stubborn refusal to accept reservations, leading to lines that resemble the ones at a Universal Studios roller coaster ride after the lunch break. I can write about lines as well, because I now know them intimately, having endured a 4-hour wait to get into an Avatar ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom that, according to my brief calculations, amounted to .001 percent of the time spent in line. I can confidently say that the food at Disney (particularly the warm pretzels with beer cheese at Animal Kingdom) is far superior to the food at Universal (loaded shepherd’s pie “jacket” potato). I can tell you that the customer service at Universal is far more empathetic. I can point you in the direction of the best, cleanest bathrooms (Disney’s Epcot Center). But I cannot devote a whole post to the food here, made by people that, just like me, are simply trying their best to get through the holiday season.

Instead, I, like many of the writers here in American who find themselves in the strange lull between Christmas and New Year’s, will write something about my favorite food memories of 2022. After all, everyone else is recapping their year in whatever they have been doing. Why can’t I coast and be lazy too? So here it is, my favorite stuff this year, in no particular order:

The lobster at Faikeow Yaowarat

I’ve written about this place before, but what am I if not repetitive? It’s simply the best thing on the Yaowarat Road for me, the reason why I trek over there at 5:30 in the afternoon when most vendors are still setting up their stalls. Get there early before the line, or get stuck long enough to start mulling over your terrible life choices as you watch the live lobsters get plucked from your grasp one by one, destined for someone faster’s table.

Crac crab crab at Baan Tepa

Baan Tepa is, simply put, my favorite new restaurant of the year. Sure, the name is a little pretentious and the location is on the notoriously traffic-snarled Ramkhamhaeng Road, but the food, by young chef Tam Chudaree Debhakam, is really worth it. On my most recent visit earlier this month, I enjoyed a crab course of soft shell crab with a warm crab salad and crab roe, crab chawanmushi and a sauce of nam poo, or pulverized field crabs. Meanwhile, an earlier iteration of this course involved a custard of blue swimmer crab with “three oranges” vinaigrette, Trang soft shell crab with yellow curry and bamboo aioli, and a black crab brittle:

And although of course I remain a fan of Jay Fai and her crab omelet (even if it’s not the best dish she makes), it is not the best kai jiew dish in Bangkok. Instead, that distinction belongs to Samlor, where the omelet arrives as a deceptively fluffy “cake” meant to be broken into and eaten as a “slice”, replete with Japanese rice bottom and wonderfully gooey interior. My meal there was charming and innovative, much like Chefs Joe and Saki themselves.

Of course, it wasn’t all fine dining meals for me. There was also the introduction by Adam of @otr.offtherails to this lovely curry rice spot that has been around for half a century; my favorite thing there, the kai khem puu jaa, a mince of pork and crab studded with a single salted egg yolk and served with a tangy-spicy Thai vinaigrette (that means fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and chilies, ok?)

Finally, closer to home, Emporium’s rererevamped food court finally re(rere)opened, with a couple of new additions including an Elvis Suki (but without the scallops or seabass) and Pad Thai Fai Ta Lu, alongside longstanding veterans like Bamee Sawang and Royal India. My new favorite of this latest crop is Nai Uan, not of the Yaowarat Nai Uans of guay jab fame, but the Old City Nai Uans of yen ta fo fame. I have been wary of yen ta fos in shopping mall food centers since tasting a spectacularly bad one at MBK’s food court (an experience that soured that place for me forever), but Nai Uan’s bowl — topped with a healthy smashed handful of chilies, in the fashion of Thi Pochana‘s Bowl on Mahachai Road — is a delicious version if you’re after a good cry and clearing out of the sinuses on your own at the food court as a lonesome farang finds himself unwittingly staring at your face.

And that’s it for 2022. Next time you hear from me, I will (hopefully) be somewhere else, tasting something that hasn’t been reheated in a microwave. Here’s to a better New Year for us all.

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An Update on this Blog

Our offerings to the water dragon gods

I am sadly unable to write everything I had meant to write before my departure for the US, so if you’re hoping to get some awesome info on epic Thai culinary bangers, you’ve come to the wrong place. Apologies! Instead, I will be giving my reader(s?) a service announcement. Breaking News (or is it now Important Update, as per CNN? I’ve lost track): I am going away for 6 months.

But that doesn’t mean that I am going to be posting less. In fact, I will be posting more! Starting on January 7, I will be leaving Miami and embarking on what is expected to be a cruise around the world. I will be hoping to post (WiFi willing) from each port of call, starting with Grand Cayman or Colombia (plans keep changing, necessarily I suppose, because of various regulations. I have not been to either country so I do not have an opinion, but my sister pointed out that I would be able to hang out with Armie Hammer if I ended up in Grand Cayman. This is ludicrous, of course. I am not Armie Hammer’s type).

The fluidity of our plans, then, points to various other factors which will be out of our control. As you and more importantly, I, well know, cruises are well known for being incubators for disease. And although I have been told repeatedly by various people that Covid is over, some ignorant people who have not gotten that memo are still catching it! Why hasn’t anyone told them?

That’s not to mention norovirus, which, quite frankly, might be even worse to experience on a cruise ship than Covid (which one would you choose if you had to? It’s like choosing between Hitler and Pol Pot). And that’s not all! Cruise ships are also prime locations for disappearances, either on purpose, or not so much so. Throw in the fact that I’m cruising with my in-laws, and all sorts of shenanigans could ensue.

Obviously, it would make sense to make sure that none of these things ever happens to us. What better plan, then, than to make offerings to the temple of the water dragons in Nakhon Nayok? So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we drove two hours to this temple, in time to make our offerings and say our prayers at the auspiciously selected time of 3:09pm. What I assumed would be a quick jaunt with incense and some chanting ended up being a 1.5 hour marathon of merit-making, replete with not one, not two, but three performances by a couple of very talented Thai dancers. It was the most rigorous Buddhist merit-making that this particular Presbyterian has ever been to, but then again, it is a six-month cruise.

Now all we have is the uncertainty of what will face us. Will it be fun? Will it be exciting? Will we make it all the way to Barcelona in June? Will I be dead? Only the water dragons know. Until then, here’s (hopefully) a clip of the very talented dancers at work.

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Soft Rock Classics

A bowl of guay jab at Oun Pochana

I find that I am frequently starting my posts with the announcement that I had intended to write something else and was suddenly diverted from my brilliant plans. That is once again the case today, after learning of the death of Christine McVie at 79. Like Christine McVie herself, her manner of death was not strange or out of the blue — she had lived to a decently ripe old age. Classy to the end, her departure was met quietly with little news on her side; her bandmates weren’t even informed of her illness. The outpouring of grief came afterwards, after she was gone. It’s the way I would have liked to go, if I had left behind a body of great songs and a long history of performing for millions of fans.

Christine McVie wrote well-crafted, catchy, and understated pop songs that erred on the side of classy. Obviously, it is strange that I would be a fan. But it’s not just her songs that I enjoy (I’ll admit it now that I’m old, my favorite composition of hers is “Got a Hold on Me”) but her whole persona. It takes a very interesting and secure woman to allow Stevie Nicks the creative (and literal) space to twirl around in her scarves and skirts, singing about witches and gypsies, as she stays at her station, behind the keyboard, off to the side of the stage, doing her job. It takes a smart woman to last, period, among all the drama queens that Stevie, Lindsay and Mick surely were (especially during their cocaine — I mean “Tusk” — era). And of course there were the mutual heartbreaks over the course of recording “Rumours”, and the ways they were used to fuel that incredible spasm of 24-karat creativity; I admire all of it. It’s inspiring for me to see her, on my laptop screen or on TV, exhibiting excellence in her own way. Not everyone has to be Stevie Nicks, you know.

For over half a century, Chanchai Tangsupmanee — aka Nai Oun — toiled away in front of an abandoned movie theater, chopping up pig parts in the sweltering heat by the side of Yaowarat Road. He was no wealthy hitmaker, and few would call him a genius. But, at his street food stall Oun Pochana (MRT Wat Mangkhon), he was an artist in his own way, churning out bowls of pork noodles for the masses. After decades in obscurity, a huge number of loyal customers brought this humble guay jab vendor to the attention of none other than Me Myself (and also later Michelin). The fact that these accolades all came from a simple bowl of rolled Chinese noodles swimming in broth with pig parts and a boiled egg is fairly remarkable. It’s even more remarkable that it’s for guay jab nam sai (clear broth), arguably less popular than its nam khon (thick broth) counterpart due to the impression that clear broth hosts less flavor.

Now, guay jab is no Stevie Nicks. It doesn’t compare, glamor-wise, to other dishes like the noodles on the sizzling hot plate and the morning glory in the wok with the flames reaching up into the heavens. It doesn’t even compare to other soup noodles: egg noodles in tom yum broth leaves it in the dust when it comes to Instagram, and even a bowl of lowly fish meatball noodles with a spray of deep-fried garlic manages to outshine it. Let’s not get started on braised beef noodles. Face it, guay jab is not a pretty dish.

What set Nai Oun’s bowls apart from the rest is the broth, which is clear, yes, but also peppery and full of pork flavor, yet still also clean-tasting. There really isn’t anything else like it on that street, and that is saying a lot. Even after Nai Oun passed away from Covid, and his son Adulwitch took over, the bowls remained the same. If anything, the crowds have gotten larger and more insistent. My last visit there, I was seated so far back I was reminded of the time I visited Oun Pochana’s bathroom (don’t ever do this). Oun Pochana’s popularity has only grown over the years, turning this vendor into one of the road’s few real must-trys, even among native Bangkokians. A bowl of hand-rolled noodles with pork did that, a sign of real craftsmanship with staying power.

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