A GOURMET IN BANGKOK
NEEDS STREET SMARTS
Fabulous food is as ubiquitous in Bangkok as terrible traffic. At any time of day or night, mouthwatering Thai meals are available just about everywhere: at streetside restaurants, market stalls, trendy cafEs and five-star hotels. Despite the infinite scope of excellent eats, visitors often end up with bellies full of insipid pseudo-Thai fare that locals wouldn't go near.
There are two reasons for that. Some chefs take their farang (foreigner) customers too seriously: after getting complaints about chilies and other strong flavors, they wind up obliterating the essential character of a dish for fear of offending delicate Western tastebuds. Meanwhile, a lot of visitors forgo many of the city's delights by refusing to eat anywhere that lacks the appearance of a sanitized upmarket eatery, mistakenly assuming that Thais are somehow more tolerant of badly washed food and dirty cutlery. The following places don't have air-conditioning to match global fast-food chainsbut neither do they serve homogenized pap. Some have English-speaking staff and translated menus; when they don't, just smile and point. Prices are often as heavenly as the food.
In large, open-fronted premises that spill onto the sidewalk at 313 Maha Chai next to the Esso gas station, the Thip Samai Restaurant only serves the quintessential national dish phad Thai (fried noodles, tofu, bean sprouts), which it elevates from ordinary vegetarian staple to high art. The house specialty is a $1.35 version that comes wrapped in an omelette. For an extra $1.35, the deluxe sawng kreung comes with shredded green mango, crab, dried squid, and four large, fresh prawns.
Another local delight is the khao man kai, succulent boned chicken with savory rice and a peppery chicken broth, prepared at the no-name restaurant next to the 7-Eleven on Charoen Krung between sois 63 and 65. Adding extra grated ginger to the nam chim dipping sauce transforms this Thai version of mom's chicken soup into true food for the soul. (Open 5 p.m. through 1 a.m., prices at around $1.50.)
According to Ung-aang Talay, veteran food critic of the Bangkok Post, a tasty nam chim sauce can tip the balance between a good seafood restaurant and a great one. Of the two bustling open-air nighttime eateries on either corner of Soi Phadungdao (a.k.a. Soi Texas) at Yaowaraj in Chinatown, he recommends Rut & Luk on the northwest corner for its "aggressively seasoned" sauce. The restaurant's specialties include tiny mollusks grilled in their shells and whole fish baked in foil with black pepper and garlic. Those looking for something similarly substantial during the day should follow the lunchtime crowds to the nondescript Som Tam Polo restaurant, on the left side of Soi Polo en route to the Royal Bangkok Polo Club. Aficionados come for the fried chicken smothered in crispy, fried garlic. Also famous for its spicy som tam (green papaya salad) and grilled fish, Som Tam Polo is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Half a chicken, som tam and sticky rice costs around $2.
Although snack carts are less numerous in Bangkok than they once were, this most convenient form of Thai cuisine is alive and well on the ground floor of the quaint (and air-conditioned) Old Siam shopping mall, bordered by Triphet, Burapa and Charoen Krung in west Chinatown. Women in traditional Thai dress use original recipes and equipment to create popular standards such as khanom krob (coconut milk batter poured into tiny cast-iron molds and steamed), khanom beung (taco-like shells with sweet and savory fillings) and khanom thuay (tapioca flour and coconut milk steamed in porcelain cups). Just about everything is $1 or less. The mall is also a good option for those shopping for a picnic on the grounds of a temple or a lazy boat trip up the arterial Chao Phraya River. Try the squishy bread flavored with pandanus leaves, steamed squash filled with coconut milk custard, rice flour pancakes wrapped around minced nut, or the coconut cream dessert corner, guaranteed to test the boundaries of anyone's glucose tolerance. Another great stop is the Aw Taw Kaw on Kampeng Phet, opposite Chatuchak Weekend Market. Politicians and movie stars are among those who frequent this enormous covered market for its fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, snacks, curries, roast pork and chicken, and grilled and dried fish. The stalls are a feast for the eyes: their beautiful displays enshrine the Thai belief that food should look as good as it tastes. In Thailand, that's both an admonition and a frequent reality.
September 7, 1998
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Copyright © 2002 Jennifer Gampell