The first time I ate Thai food was in a mall in Metro Manila. It was a restaurant whose exteriors were lavishly decorated with carved teakwood gilt with gold. I remember thinking, as several Buddha heads looked down on me, that the place looked expensive. (It was.) Thus, it was drummed in my head that authentic Thai food (unless you are having it in Thailand) isn’t cheap.
The next time I had Thai food, it couldn’t have been more different and unexpected. My husband, who grew up in Marikina, brought me to a Thai restaurant located at its local public market. There was no teak furniture, and any gold that covered the decorations was flaking off. A lone image of Buddha
smiled serenely down on me as I had the best and cheapest Thai food this eastern side of the metro.
Since 1997, Krung Thai has been serving authentic Thai food at a corner of the Marikina public market in Barangay Sta. Elena. The space featured a few tables and looked more like a canteen with its shelves of Thai condiments and sauces for sale. But the space was bright and made cheery by the colorful lamps hanging from the ceiling.
Last year, the owners, a Filipina married to a Thai, opened a second branch in Marikina Heights called Moo Baan Krung Thai. Moo baan means gated housing community. An apt name as the new restaurant stands on a big lot with ample parking, and, yes, there’s a gate. The owners built the restaurant following a simplified Thai style of wood and sloping roofs. Inside, the tables and chairs huddle close enough together, that only the glass walls that let the sun shine through prevent the space from feeling cramped. Splashes of color come from the tables covered with purple Thai cloths and table runners.
We usually visit Krung Thai as a family because of their generous servings. On this rainy afternoon, we all crave for the Tom Yam Tale (small – good for 3-6 persons– P389 and big – good for 4-6 persons P499). It comes to our table piping hot, smoke wafting from the bowl, and we all simultaneously lean down to inhale the fragrant aroma of lemongrass and lime. The soup is reddish because of the chili paste in oil but it’s not spicy hot. I once read a review that Krung Thai’s Tom Yam isn’t authentic because of this. But for me, it’s all about the balance of flavors. The push and pull of the sweet and the sour, with not one flavor dominating the other. (Note: The staff of Krung Thai are very attentive and accommodating, so if you prefer your soup spicier, you could ask them.) They don’t scrimp on the ingredients either. The shrimps and fish are tender while the squid is firm.
The younger kids always have the chicken pandan (4 pieces/P239), cuts of marinated boneless chicken wrapped in pandan leaves. My nephew, who loves analyzing every bite of food he eats, describes the chicken as “nicely caramelized outside and has a pleasant tang from calamansi, lightly imbued with the flavor of the pandan that encased it.” I agree with him. The chicken has a crispy exterior but a quick efficient bite releases the meat’s juices in my mouth.
We also have the crispy catfish with mango salad (P399). We debate whether to order just the spicy green mango salad (P119) but I want some crunch in my salad, so crispy catfish it is. Again, there is that push-pull with the tartness of the green mango and the sweet dressing which we suppose is tamarind syrup. The catfish and the roasted peanuts add texture to the smoothness of the mango and onion strips.
They have a variety of choices for the rice, but we order the Thai bagoong rice solo (P199). It comes with strips of egg omelet and pork adobo. The rice is tasty without being salty, a distinct possibility when cooking with fish bagoong. It doesn’t taste fishy either. The bagoong rice is a meal in itself, but not being content, we also order the pad Thai special with shrimp (photo above; P279). With just the noodles and the shrimps hiding under the omelet strips, the pad Thai looks a little pale and I worry that it would also taste tired, but my brother-in-law reminds us to mix the kalamansi and the crushed peanuts with the noodles. The extra condiments bring forth bursts of flavor as we bite into the noodles.
It may seem that we are eating backwards, but the dishes are served family style and one after the other, so we just eat whatever we fancy first. I guess the golden spring rolls stuffed with vegetables and vermicelli noodles (5 pieces/P219), the stir-fried spicy kangkong (P99) and the Krung Thai fried chicken (half/P299) do not merit as much attention as our good old Thai favorites. But the spring rolls and chicken are also quite good and would be perfectly safe dishes for those afraid to try more exotic foods.
On this day, we are lucky to have the sticky rice with mango (P189) for dessert as it is only available on Fridays and Sundays. I have an unli-rice moment when it arrives: three cups of malagkit rice liberally drizzled with coconut milk that I want to keep all to myself. The gata is thick but not too heavy and I find myself asking for extra gata because I want to taste its sweetness with every bite of rice.
Krung Thai restaurant is a fine example of not judging a restaurant based on its location and its interiors. The original Krung Thai at the Marikina public market continues to serve good food to this day, but Marikeños welcome the calmer ambience of the new Moo Baan Krung Thai. With its consistent food quality since 1997, I’m sure both restaurants will flourish at least one decade more.
Krung Thai Bayan
Marikina Public Market Branch
W. Paz St. cor. M. Cruz St.
Sta. Elena, Marikina City
9:30 AM to 8:40 PM (last order)
Moo Baan Krung Thai
72 Liwasang Kalayaan
Marikina Heights, Marikina City
10:00 AM to 9:30 PM