I’m still eating on the street but I revel in old restaurant favorites and some new, unforgettable dishes.
Extensive research goes into every place I decide to travel to and the books above prove helpful. They’re also great reading. Some websites I find extremely helpful too are this one and for Thai street food, this one.
“ I remember coming across a quote by English author G.K. Chesterton: The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
If that’s the case, then a tourist is what I am. I don’t like to come unprepared after all.
For breakfast one day, various fillings in bread bought from a street vendor. The colors brighten my day even more.
So, when it comes to building up my list of where to go, I consider the pantheon of street food greats. There are the super famous ones such as Thip Samai Noodle Shop and Krua Apsorn, both in Chinatown. There’s also Hai Somtum Convent in Silom (photo above). I almost make it here but it closes in my face. These places began as stalls and indeed, are still considered such even if they’re now housed in brick and mortar structures. The places in Chinatown have odd operating hours (Krua Apsorn closes at 7.30 pm) and are way out of my way so no go.
I do make it to a pad thai place on Mahachai Street which is in the environs of Chinatown, an area widely acknowledged as the place to go to for street eating. Mahachai Street is crowded tonight and looks like a well-traversed drag of streetside food stalls.
At the pad thai stall, a grim-faced young woman with steely determination and meaty forearms mans the cavernous wok. She sautés and stir-fries, scoops and serves. She drizzles a bit of this, throws in a bit of that, all ingredients within easy access of her seemingly serpentine hands.
When she deems a batch of noodles done, she ladles a serving onto waiting plates, blobs of orange on a ceramic sea of white. The gathered group of onlookers can barely keep themselves from drooling. Another girl then transfers each plate to a new station, dumping its contents into the waiting embrace of an omelet heating in a pan. Once in, the omelet is sealed and now carrying its precious cargo, is returned to the plate from whence it came and is served to the customer.
Despite this being a streetside stall, the food is not that cheap nor does it come quickly. And though this is a stall famous for its pad thai, I can’t say it’s one of the better ones I’ve had. My sister, Tricia, who is with me tonight and I, decide to play with the box of condiments on our table. A standard at every Thai table, the condiments array allows for improvisation and individualization, transmuting tastes to suit our palates. It’s an adventure and we agree on two things: we like the texture of the noodles but no, it’s not worth the THB 100 cab fare over.
We do better with dessert next door. I buy a glass of lod chong, its milky coolness refreshes, the green tapioca squiggles squirm and swim with my every sip. Tricia has chanced upon another stall selling ice cream of truly tropical flavors. The durian, while muted in smell, has every bit the nuance of the fresh fruit, but more creamy because of the dairy. The other flavor, coconut – and I love coconut in all its forms- gratifies, and with little chunks of coconut strings too.
Som Tam Nua (Som Tam Paradise)
Buried within the interweaving alleys of Siam Square is a gem of a somtam restaurant, Som Tam Nua. I’m trying to persuade Tricia that we should eat at Hai Somtum but she replies, “Let’s try my somtam restaurant first.” Why not, and Siam Square’s got incredible shopping anyway.
The somtam really is so good, and doesn’t disappoint. Part of the triumvirate of classic Isaan (Northeastern Thai) cooking – the other two being kài yâang (grilled chicken) and khâo niaw (sticky rice) – the somtam is alternately cooling and incendiary. It’s a rush of citrus at first, zesty kaffir lime and the squeal of a salty fish sauce. Then crunch my way I do through dried shrimp, peanuts, bean sprouts, and green beans. Cherry tomatoes and salted egg contribute a unique nuance. Mmm. We’re given small bowlfuls of náam jîm (dipping sauces), standard practice to individualize tastes.
Here’s the pad thai under a dome of dried fish flakes and pork cracklings. I wish I could stop eating long enough to take a picture of what lies underneath. A delicious dish which I squirt with lime, the noodles have a toothsome texture, lusciously satisfying. Tricia loves the fried chicken at this restaurant. Well-fried, it has a strong hit of garlic and provides yet another canvas for playing with dipping sauces.
Som Tam Nua
392/14, Siam Square Soi 5,
Rama 1 Rd, Pathum Wan,
Pathum Wan, Bangkok, 10330
The first thing that I eat in Bangkok is durian and I eat a serving of it every day that I’m here. I’ve rhapsodized on why I love it so but for those who abhor it (like my Bin), the ecstasy of this glorious fruit is lost on them. While I’m in this city, the days stretch out like a surprise, every second stoking senses, but the one thing that’s constant is that when the sun turns down its heat, I stop to eat some durian.
This is the very first thing I eat on my first day in Bangkok: durian atop sticky rice laced with coconut milk. It’s a small portion so I supplement it with a durian that I buy from the Gourmet Market. (See below). A perfect durian is bright yellow and yields when pressed lightly; this is when it’s most custard-like. The variety shown here is called mon thong or “golden pillow.” Widely available in Thailand, it’s a favorite because of its small seeds and sweet, creamy flesh. I eat this with eyes shut tight, savoring every bite. Flavors as disparate as zabaglione, crème brulee, and onions come to the fore. Again, it sounds disgusting, but non-durian lovers can’t begin to understand. As you can see from the shadows in the picture, this is shot as day is ending and twilight approaches. The dramatic lighting sets a most appropriate mood for my heightened state of durian rapture. Rarer than mon thong and correspondingly more expensive – up to twice the price – is gan yao or “long stem” variety. I can’t believe I pay THB 389 for less than 500 grams of durian. Unfortunately, I may have chosen fruit that’s not too ripe yet because it doesn’t make me swoon the way the mon thong did. Also, I don’t ascertain any significant difference in flavor to merit such an increase in price, but then again, this specimen I choose might not be ideal. In Silom, a durian vendor. Durian is my favorite fruit in the whole world, it’s just a pity that it stinks to the highest heavens; I’d stuff kilos of it in my luggage otherwise.
My Favorite Food Court
There’s no doubt that Siam Paragon’s Food Hall and corresponding Gourmet Market is the paragon for selection and “ooh” factor. But when it comes to eating, I prefer the food court of Platinum Fashion Mall. It’s extensive and one of the best things is that each stall has an English translation of the dishes on offer. There’s an excellent stall that serves oyster omelet (hoy tod) cooked to order. I notice that the Thais aren’t particularly fond of American or European pastries. They prefer their soupier sweets that are laced with coconut and pandan syrups in which colored chunks of tapioca and water chestnuts bob about. These are joyful little bowls, where every spoonful offers a different combination of crunchy-sweet, cool-icy.
My Favorite Pastry Shops in Bangkok
No one is more surprised than I am to find that Parisian patisserie Lenôtre has landed in Bangkok. Their two shops in Langsuan and in Siam Paragon are havens for French pastries sitting prettily in their chilled displays. The Langsuan store is especially inviting since it opens at 6am for a breakfast of their exceptional almond croissants and hot chocolate.
Lenôtre’s hot chocolate is a special blend of 72% chocolate. Here it is, hot, served in the iconic Lenôtre macaroon mug. When served as Iced Chocolate, the chocolate notes aren’t as smoky but their taste is cleaner, sweeter, and I’m given the option of adding more sugar syrup. The cake seen below is Doucette, a melding of feuilletine and biscuit (pronounced bis-KWEE; a French sponge cake) and whipped cream in which hazelnut is the star. The Volute is a dome holding the secrets of a trio of chocolate mousse, chocolate biscuits, and surprise – a green tea crème brulee. It’s smoothness multiplied although the green tea is more of an idea that needs to be coaxed out as a flavor.
Coffee Beans By Dao
I must thank my sister Tricia for alerting me to this place. A very popular café-bakery with several branches, Coffee Beans by Dao has a Facebook page but it’s this article that I find helpful. Though the original branch is in Ruamrudee, I chance upon the store in Siam Paragon which is mad, just mad at lunch with nary a seat to be had, especially at lunchtime. The branch at CentralWorld is infinitely more quiet.
I don’t get to eat a full meal at Coffee Beans by Dao but I do enjoy this Caramel Cheesecake very much. There’s a deep caramel note in the custard itself which is pointed up by the walnuts that repose atop and are similarly lacquered in caramel.
Some Favorite Thai Dishes in Some Favorite Thai Restaurants
You can read my previous feature on Home Kitchen here. Like a moth to the flame, I always order the same things whenever I visit. You’d think I‘d learn, but I never do. I love Home Kitchen for its consistency, the fact that it’s small (but it’s always crowded), and mostly because the staff doesn’t seem to bat an eye when I order enough for three people even though it’s just me and another person eating.
Somboon’s oyster omelet (hoy tod) is just slightly better than Home Kitchen’s. Made sticky because of a goodly amount of tapioca starch, this omelet is fluffy, its oily crevices cradling oysters that are succulent and plump with brine.
Home Kitchen does a good job with fried fish, their specialty being whole fish that flays upon contact with the sizzling oil. This is a whole grouper that’s been deep-fried. Highly un-photogenic, yes it is, but when served with the accompanying fresh mango sauce, its taste overshadows its lack of beauty. I love this dish for its seamless succession of flavors: sour, cool, sweet, and salty. I especially like nibbling the fish’s tender cheeks and its crispy skin.
94 Langsuan Road, Lumpini
Pathumwan Bangkok 10330
Phone: 0-2253-1888; 0-2254-9888
I’m feeling out of sorts when I decide on a whim, to eat here. Air-conditioned and far away from the car-fumed ambience I’ve been dining in, it lifts my spirits somewhat. I want something hot, soothing, and something cool.
I like tom ka gai (chicken soup with coconut milk) even better than tom yum goong. There’s something I like about how the coconut milk tames the spice of the soup. At Taling Pling, they drizzle some chili oil on this before serving it, and I up its acidity by squirting some lime in.
This one dish is THE food discovery of my trip Called Yum Crispy Fish Salid (not a type-o, that). The little circles are lemongrass, finely sliced, so they look like mini onion rings. Their somewhat woody texture echoes the crispiness of the fried fish bits and cashews, the whole lot awash in a fragrance of fine spice and lime. I coo and praise its simple perfection.
More info here.
The 9th Café
This is an interesting little café in an area called “Hi-So” (high society), where farangs (foreigners) are aplenty and the waiters speak passably good English. Billed as a “Thai-Italian fusion restaurant,” The 9th Café is just what I need when my taste buds clamor for a respite from Thai food.
On the day that my sister and I are here, there’s a daily special: Spicy Deep-Fried Soft Shell Crab Salad. Though the dish you see in the photo has already been partly ravaged, what makes this dish is the num jim jao or dipping sauce that’s characteristic to this restaurant. “The num jim jao is different, depending on the cook and his list of special ingredients,” explains our waiter. Exploding with a litany of spices, all overpowering and all wanting to be tasted, it’s a carefully calibrated flavor catalog of sour, sweet, salty, and spicy. Remarkable!
Looking and tasting rather anti-climactic after the appetizer is the Ninth Spaghetti. A spicy spaghetti of sorts (this is Thailand, after all) it reminds me of a carbonara because I can taste cream but not see it. The shrimps are cooked just until opaque and the bacon blitzes through the richness with its characteristic saltiness.
A variation on the 9th Spaghetti is another pasta dish, this time with Grilled River Prawns coated in a White Wine Sauce. It’s very delicate in taste, one of those dishes that I imagine would go well with a Pinot Blanc perhaps.
The 9th Café
More info here.