Sunday, 29 December 2013

Bangkok Part 4/5: Tasty discoveries

You can find good food simply by wandering aimlessly around the streets of Bangkok and stopping by wherever looks or smells good. This post covers the food we stumbled upon that we really liked but didn’t make it into our best-of list.

Pork noodle at floating market
This shop is one of the most unique ones I have ever seen – the dining area is quite long but only about 3 feet wide, with a long table along one wall and just enough space to sit. There isn’t even room for people to walk behind seated diners. It was empty when we were there, but I imagine that when it’s full, diners will have to pass the bowls from the kitchen (situated in a roomier part of the shop) down the table to others seated further away.

Anyway, the noodles. They came in a thick, dark gravy with some meaty bits mixed in. The flavour was deep and rich and strong, tasting of aromatics and pork that’s been stewed till the meat and collagen disintegrate into the gravy and thickens it. On the table was also a special chilli paste that added heat and even more body to the gravy.

It was well worth squeezing into that cramped space for a taste of this bowlful of joy.
Floss crepe at floating market
There was a guy selling these sweet treats off the back of his bicycle, all his ingredients and gear stored in a tiny storage box mounted over the rear wheel. We took notice because of the neverending crowd of customers gathered around him, waiting patiently for their orders. The ‘crepe’ was actually miniature versions of popiah skin – the really thin, circular type used by popiah hawkers, not the thicker square kind sold frozen in supermarkets. And the ‘floss’ was like thicker versions of cotton candy, taking the form of shards that were hard, brittle and melt-in-the-mouth. It was not too sweet, and tasted like it was made out of soy milk. It was very enjoyable and light, and tasted healthy to boot.

This extremely basic 'stall' looked like it was decades-old.
Like a cotton candy dessert taco.

Orange slush at floating market
I saw this stall and suddenly had a hankering for orange Slurpee. Well I bought one and was thrown off by the taste a little. I thought it wasn’t orange, or orange mixed with pomelo and lime or something. Many sips and wrong guesses later, I realised with intense embarrassment that what I was tasting was orange all along. It was all-natural, freshly squeezed orange juice, with the distinctive taste of pith. I was so used to all that artificially flavoured crap we get in bottles in Malaysia that I didn’t even recognise real orange flavour when I tasted it. Absolutely shameful.

Tastes so natural I didn't recognise it.

Coconut near floating market
We were walking away from the floating market when we saw this stall down a side lane. There were a bunch of guys there, chattering away and nonchalantly carving coconuts into smooth, perfect little shapes for sale. Their knives were seriously sharp, as was their skill. The coconuts they sold were a bargain at only 10 Baht each, and were filled with lots of sweet coconut water and thick but tender flesh. It was a delicious and refreshing treat made all the more enjoyable by the coconut-carving master class happening in front of us.

A really good bargain at just 10 Baht per coconut.

Grilled sausage
We were just walking along the back streets near our hotel when we saw this lone pushcart grilling up delicious-looking links of sausage. Each link was only about a mouthful in size, but packed some really nice big flavours. The skin was firm and popped nicely when bitten into, the meat firm and springy, overflowing with juice, and there was a very nice hint of lemongrass and heat. Whoever you are, anonymous sausage grilling guy, you certainly made our walk highly memorable.

As a bonus, the stall was also situated across the street from the cool-looking brick wall in the background.

Insect larvae
One of my main must-eat items in Bangkok was bugs, so I was really happy when we stumbled upon this stall selling them around the Pratunam area. Tried a sample of crunchy baby cricket, but ended up buying these larvae, which the vendor reheated in hot oil and spritzed with a vinegary dressing. The outer carapaces were nice and crunchy and the insides had the rich taste and consistency of the deep-fried fish eggs I usually order at banana leaf restaurants. It was a good, nutritious and healthy snack which even Lady Fartsalot found enjoyable, once she got over her queasiness.

I'd take these over caramel popcorn any day.

It’s taken far longer than it should, be we will be wrapping up this Bangkok trip report soon. Part 5 is coming up shortly…

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Bangkok Part 3/5: Slightly overhyped

This part of my Bangkok report is horrendously late, and will cover those places that had stellar reputations and (in some cases) very long queues. Perhaps those who raved about the food exaggerated too much, or perhaps the quality has deteriorated recently, but I just didn’t find them to be as impressive as the reviews suggested.

Not that they’re bad, mind you. Some of them are even worth a try… they’re just not as mind-blowing as I had expected.

Thip Samai
This hugely famous pad thai shop was packed to capacity and had a long line out front even on a week night.

The queue to get into Thip Samai.

The noodles are pretty nice, a little sweetish, with very delicately balanced flavours. Any addition of condiments – be it a squeeze of lime or chilli flakes – will change the flavour noticeably. They use good, fresh ingredients and got the cooking down to a production-line level of efficiency so we got our food fairly quickly in spite of the crowds. There was even a station manned by a couple of cooks who do nothing but fry up paper-thin crepes of egg and wrap the noodles in them.

While the food was good, it was not exactly mind-blowing. There just wasn’t enough wok hei and the flavours just aren’t very robust. Now, having had a taste of what most people agree is one of the best pad thais around, I can safely say that the pad thai is nowhere near as good as the Penang char koay teow I grew up on. Probably no stir-fried noodle dish ever will be. That’s something we can be proud of as Malaysians.

Looks kinda like char koay teow, but nowhere near as good.
We also ordered this egg-wrapped Pattaya-style pad thai.

Aside from the pad thai, they also have a coconut slush that’s apparently made according to a recipe given to the shop by the King’s mother, specifically to pair with their pad thai. It was pretty good, sweeter than normal coconut water and with a slight hint of caramel. There is a small problem with it that could just be down to my personal taste – there was this slightly unpleasant smell of coconut oil every time I swallow a mouthful of the stuff. I wouldn’t order it again because of this, but Lady Fartsalot didn’t have any issue. At any rate, since it’s only 25 Baht a cup, it’s certainly worth trying out at least once.

A kingly drink.

Another famous drink at Thip Samai is their orange juice – the only juice I know of that is charged at market rate, depending on the types of oranges they were able to buy that day. It certainly tastes good, with plenty of orange pulp and the flavour of natural oranges. However, I thought it was a little overpriced at 130 Baht for a big bottle containing about 1 liter of the stuff.

Most expensive orange juice I have ever had.
Prawn pad thai
Having finished our meal at Thip Samai, being the gluttons that we are, we immediately hopped next door to another pad thai shop that serves prawn pad thai. It was a little wetter than the pad thai at Thip Samai, with big, nicely cooked prawns and some ‘prawn oil’ or something, but other than that it was more or less the same pad thai dish. And actually, I thought it tasted more of crab than it did of prawn.

The prawn is the undisputed star of this dish.

Kaiton Pratunam chicken rice
On the day we went to this shop, they were not open at their usual time because the whole city was in mourning due to the death of a prominent religious figure. This meant we had to wait for many hours till they opened later in the day, and had to change our plans significantly.

When the shop finally opened, it was immediately packed with people and the workers were furiously chopping up some massive birds. It looked like we were in for a memorable chicken rice meal.

I am disappointed, however, to say that it had not been worth the wait. The rice was very fragrant and had a strong chicken flavour, but everything else was painfully ordinary. On top of the rice was a very small portion of chicken which tasted like the sort of run-of-the-mill steamed chicken you could find at most stalls in Malaysia. The condiments are slightly different: there was a sweetish chilli sauce, cili padi, ginger and some sweet soy sauce, but beyond that, it was just a regular old chicken rice meal.

Looks for all the world like a mediocre chicken rice meal at a not-very-good coffee shop in some sleepy backwater town. Tastes like it, too, unfortunately.

Thean Song duck
The roast duck was very tender and came in a very rich and thick dark sauce. There was also a nice vinegary condiment that worked well with it. I was just a little disappointed with this one because it didn’t have much duck flavour.

Lots of duck meat but not really a lot of duck flavour.

The soft steamed bread at the same shop was a little better. Nice and warm and fluffy, it came with a generous helping of kaya. This kaya had the deep, rich orange colour of a good egg yolk and was extremely smooth. It was drizzled with what appeared to be evaporated milk. The combo would make for a really lovely light breakfast.

I actually liked this a lot more than I did the duck, carnivore though I may be.
The entries in this post had so much hype that my expectations were built up higher than they were able to deliver. In the next Bangkok installment, we will have a look at a few interesting items that we just stumbled upon without any expectations whatsoever. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Johnny Rockets – Worst. Burger. Ever.

Hello all. We take a break from my ramblings about Bangkok food to have a big rant.

The first, most important, and most distressing thing about Johnny Rockets is that the headline was not an exaggeration. Not one bit. The piece of crap I ate there really was the worst burger I have ever had in my life.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s backtrack a little.

I’ve seen the lot in The Curve under renovation for quite a while, and was rather looking forward to trying out what looked to be a real-deal, all-American burger joint.

In November, they finally opened and all the signs were highly auspicious. There were dancing waiters and cute uniforms and cheerful-looking d├ęcor that made the place look every bit like a classic American deli. Plus, the queues were massively long. We tried going there for dinner one weekend in mid-November and had to pass because the waiting list was too long and we needed to go watch the God of Thunder kick some dark elf ass.

Then, a few days later, I happened to have a morning meeting near The Curve which ended around lunchtime. I decided I should have lunch there and even got a co-worker to go with me. I don’t know if he will ever forgive me.

Despite it being a weekday, we still had to wait 30 minutes for a table. And despite the huge team of cooks in the open kitchen, we had to wait almost 45 minutes for our food.

The plateful of what can only very loosely be termed ‘food’ that finally landed in front of me was nothing short of vile.

The burger patty looked and tasted like it had spent a week being incinerated on the surface of the sun. Grossly overcooked, it was a disgusting hunk of dry, tough, rubbery meat utterly devoid of any flavour, save for the taste of copious amounts of pepper. And, inexplicably for a busy, packed restaurant, it was also cold.

The bun is a whole other nightmare. Its inner surfaces were two thick, hard, greasy crusts that looked like someone had slathered butter on them, toasted them for too long and left them to go stale for a couple of weeks before serving them to me. Again, how do you achieve this in a busy restaurant?

They managed to totally f*ck up the sides as well. The fries were soggy, limp, overly starchy abominations that no amount of ketchup or chilli sauce could save.

And with the coleslaw, the food quality went from horrific to borderline criminal. It was about half a handful of completely wilted purple lettuce that appeared to have been discarded vegetable trimmings salvaged from the dumpster behind a third-rate restaurant, crudely shredded and scattered unceremoniously on the plate with barely a few drops of disgusting-looking dressing coated in congealed oil.

And for this they had the gall to charge almost RM30!

The worst beef burger I’ve had at McDonald’s is 50 times better than this. Even the crappy McRib is better than this. Heck, a piece of old tyre rubber slapped between two sheets of cardboard and sauced with used engine oil would probably taste better than this unmitigated piece of utter crap that has no business calling itself ‘edible’, much less a burger.

We had to get back to work and didn’t have time to demand replacements that very likely would have taken another 45 minutes to arrive. So we just choked down the least disgusting bits on our plate and left, never intending to return.

Dammit, I wanted to like Johnny Rockets, I really did. Now all I want is to see its hordes of curious first-time customers shrink to nothing, and for the restaurant to die a well-deserved death – the sooner the better – so that the space it currently occupies can be filled with a shop that’s not a total affront to its entire industry.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Bangkok Part 2/5: Best of the rest

Last post, we covered my top 5 favourite things to eat in Bangkok. It hasn’t been an easy list to make, and I’m still not entirely sure I chose the correct top 5 because there was just so much good food there.

A few of the things we ate could easily have made the top 5 if someone else had written this blog, and this post is for them. In no particular order, here are the next 6 best things I ate in Bangkok.

Chocolate Lava Cake at After You, Siam Paragon
We had to wait about 20 minutes for a table at this famous dessert place in the basement of the high-end Siam Paragon mall. And it was a weekday afternoon – so you can imagine how long a wait you will be in for during weekends.

A taste of the Chocolate Lava Cake and we immediately understood why. It was easily the best chocolate lava cake we’ve ever had. The cake was soft and light, and had a thick, dark, super-rich chocolate sauce oozing out of it. It was not too sweet, and had a pronounced saltiness that added a pleasant savoury dimension to its flavour profile. There was more chocolate hardened and stuck to the bottom of the plate. It tasted like hazelnuts and I spent most of our time there just chipping and scraping it off the plate with a spoon.

The sour strawberries complemented the rich, sweet chocolate very nicely. The scoop of ice-cream was, however, more of a nice-to-have.

We also ordered the Horlicks Latte which was great –rich and thick, with a caramel-like sweetness. 

The stirrer gives me an idea: this would be EPIC if frozen and served as a popsicle.

But the strawberry crepe was a big disappointment. It was watery and didn’t have much strawberry flavour. Avoid at all costs.

Probably the best thing on the plate was the dollop of cream on the side.

Thab Thim Krob in Chinatown
This is such a ubiquitous item on Thai restaurant menus and we’ve obviously had it many times before in Malaysia. But the one we had on arriving in Chinatown is simply on another level. The santan is rich and thick and sweet, and the sourness of the jackfruit slices just offsets it perfectly. There were also cubes of thick but surprisingly tender coconut flesh, as well as deep red water chestnut pieces. A bargain at 40 Baht, especially compared against more expensive versions in Malaysia that’s nowhere near as good.

I would eat dessert more often if more of them tasted like this.

Chee Cheong Fun in Chinatown
This stall outside the Seiko shop in Chinatown serves up a chee cheong fun variant that’s unlike any of the ones we typically find in Malaysia. The rice noodles are incredibly light, and covered in a tasty soy sauce-based stew with tender chunks of pork, mushrooms and cuttlefish. Slices of fried garlic add just the right touch of bitterness and fragrance.

Single portions of the noodles are steamed in individual bamboo baskets.

Like all Thai eateries, this one had a holder with 4 different condiments on the table. One of these condiments – the tangy green one, seemed unique to this stall and goes very well with the chee cheong fun.

Just 40 Baht for this plateful of wonderfulness. It was so good I had to order a second one though I was already quite full at the time.
The stall owner hard at work preparing an order. If you crop out the Thai writing, this photo could easily have been taken in Hong Kong.

Pad Thai at Ban Laem
We decided to go to the Maeklong Market by train. The first leg of our journey was a 1-hour ride from Bangkok to Ban Laem. From there, we were supposed to take a second train direct to Maeklong. But on arriving at Ban Laem, we found out that the train schedule had changed and we needed to wait a few hours to catch our train.

This turned out to be lucky for us. As we were wandering around while waiting for the train, we randomly stepped into this shop that turned out to have pretty good pad thai. The noodles were nice and firm and chewy. They were a little on the sweet side but that’s easily balanced off with the condiments on the table. Add heat, salt or tang as desired and enjoy!

Our first plate of pad thai for this trip was a pretty good one.

Grilled scallops at Amphawa Floating Market
On arriving at Maeklong, we checked out the market, which didn’t offer anything special beyond the train that passes inches from your face. Once we’ve experienced that, we immediately hopped on a tuk-tuk (my first one ever) to the floating market nearby.

There were plenty of food stalls at the floating market, as well as along the narrow streets connecting to it. Of the many tasty things on offer there, among our favourites were these fresh, perfectly grilled scallops. Firm, sweet and a decent size, they came with a spicy-tangy dipping sauce that reminded me of the sauce at Nong & Jimmy back in Malaysia.

At 50 Baht for half a dozen, it was a pretty good deal too.

Century eggs at night market near Seacon Square
These eggs were coated and cooked in a spicy fish paste and came with a spicy-sweet thai chilli sauce. The black yolk was rich and creamy, almost runny. There was more heat in the fish paste coating, and it matched up nicely with the richness of the egg. This was a very interesting century egg experience - very nice and tasty but totally different from any century eggs I've tried before.

If century eggs freak you out (guess you must be a Westerner) they also sell regular eggs.

So ends part 2. Do look out for the next installment in this series of posts on Bangkok. Part 3 will be on well-known makan places that don’t quite live up to their hype. See you then!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Bangkok Part 1/5: My top 5

We recently took a 5-day trip to Bangkok, partly on a whim, partly to clear some leave before year-end, and mainly because I hadn’t been there before and was tired of Lady Fartsalot’s overly-dramatic incredulous reaction every time this was brought up in conversation.

As usual, this trip was primarily about looking for good stuff to eat.

I’d had good food in Thailand before: in Phuket (in spite of the fact that it was overly touristy) and in Koh Lipe (even though it was nearly off-season when we were there and a lot of shops were closed); but Bangkok would offer up a whole new level of amazing tastes and textures.

There was food everywhere. It seemed that there were little push-carts and shops liberally spread out along every main road and down every side lane. Massive, neverending markets were filled with stalls displaying a maddening array of tempting treats. Obviously we didn’t have enough time (or the stomach capacity) to try everything, but we did eat enough to fill 5 whole posts.

This first post, let’s check out my top 5 favourite things to eat in Bangkok – the best of the best in a city filled with really, really good food.

5. Fried chicken salad
We were at Khao San road, which was choked with gaudy, touristy bars; neon-lit tattoo places (probably the sort where drunken farang go to get tattoos of Chinese words expressing deep and philosophical thoughts like ‘chicken noodle soup’); and overpriced seafood places serving mediocre food.

Following my usual rule of thumb, we pushed past the throngs and walked till we stopped seeing white people – and came to a small cluster of stalls where the locals who worked there presumably went to enjoy proper Thai food at decent prices.

My favourite view when on vacation: not a single foreigner to be seen. 
This was where we came upon a roadside stall selling fried chicken salad. It was a bargain at just 50 Baht, with generous chunks of tender fried chicken breast, the batter crispy and flavourful. This was tossed with raw onions, carrots and assorted greens. It had peanuts, and some raw long beans with a subtle sweet flavour that worked surprisingly well with the other ingredients. Everything was held together with a spicy-tangy dressing.

One of my top 10 all-time favourite salads.

It was a light and tasty meal; and I thought a smaller portion would have made an excellent starter. Trust the Thais to make even fried chicken taste this healthy and delicious.

4. Somtam Nua
There are several branches of this chain. The one we went to was located across the main road from the high-end Siam Paragon shopping mall, down a narrow alleyway lined with mostly-closed shops. If you have trouble finding it, there is a tourist information booth nearby where you can ask for directions.

The place was packed with locals, which was always a good sign. We ordered four of the recommended dishes on the menu, and were not disappointed with a single one.

The papaya salad came with the usual veggies, something that tasted like chicken pate, and fried pork skin that was very nicely puffed so that it was light and crunchy and not at all hard. The dressing was just perfectly balanced: its acidity not too harsh, its sweetness not too cloying. It goes down so smoothly, it could have been a refreshing beverage. In fact, if you tossed a few ice cubes into a big glass of the stuff, I’d happily chug the whole thing down like it was fruit juice.

Can't decide which I like more - the pork skin or the dressing.

The fried chicken was not battered, so it didn’t have a lot of crunch. But this was more than made up for by the wonderful flavour that penetrates deep into the tender, juicy meat.

Just like mom always makes... only 50 times better.

Though the fried noodles were a little mushy, the dish worked really well overall. I don’t know about the wok hei mentioned in some blogs, but it had a really nice, big flavour. The meat floss and pork skin sprinkled on top made it just that much better.

Reminds me a little of stir-fried mee suah.

Next, the spicy pork bone soup had a generous helping of deliciously tender pork that just falls off the crunchy soft bones. The soup wasn’t very spicy and had a nice sourness – but it was a shame that there wasn’t a discernible pork flavour to it. It was like they cooked the soup and meat separately and put them together before serving.

I've come to think of this as sort of a Thai bak kut teh.

Finally, I need to mention this amazing dark, spicy-citrusy dipping sauce that had my saliva glands working overtime. It presented a dilemma: the food was so good it seemed like sacrilege to spoil it with sauce, but the sauce was so good I couldn’t bring myself to leave it untouched. I compromised by ordering some sticky rice and drizzling the sauce on that.

Red sauce in the back was quite generic and tasted bottled - the one in front, though, simply blew my mind.
Gotta have a bit of sticky rice to balance off the big, big flavours on the table.

It's a pretty modern-looking shop compared with those around it. Here's the signage out front to help you identify it.

The meal came up to a very reasonable 440 Baht.

3. Jay Fai
This was a nondescript corner shop that’s open to the street like a typical Chinese kopitiam, with no air-conditioning and completely utilitarian furniture. But the prices on the menu seemed to have ended up there because they took a wrong turn on the way to a higher-end place.

We had Jay Fai herself prepare our meal.

The framed news clippings on the wall explains this discrepancy. They speak of how this legendary shop is frequented by the well-heeled; chauffeured there in big, expensive cars; all happily putting up with the less-than-premium ambience for a taste of something amazing.

We read about how everyday dishes are elevated to stratospheric levels by immaculate skill and top-quality ingredients.

Then the food arrived and we immediately saw what all the fuss was about.

The crab omelette was massive; the size of a small loaf of bread. It had a thin, slightly-crispy outer skin of fried egg, lightly spiced and aromatic. Then we broke it open and gasped: it really was a loaf – a loaf stuffed to near-bursting with big chunks of sweet, firm, fresh crab meat. There was very little egg inside, just mouthful upon mouthful of delicious crab. I believe Guy Fieri would call this ‘All thrilla, no filla’. It was well worth its 800 Baht price tag.

Golden egg crust hides a magical treasure trove.

Holy crap... sooo... soooo much crab!
The second dish we ordered was the drunken noodles: broad rice noodle sheets each coated with a salty-spicy dark sauce that has big, big flavour. There was Thai basil that provided even more heat, along with perfectly cooked vegetables like mushrooms and baby corn, and 3 massive prawns that were probably normally used in sang har meen. What’s interesting is that, although the sauce was very strong, it was somehow able to enhance the flavours of each individual ingredient. 380 Baht seemed a reasonable price to pay to get a taste of such magic.

Massive prawns and even bigger flavours.

All in all, it was an epic meal. This place didn’t make the number 1 spot simply because I felt the top two offered a higher ratio of enjoyment versus price paid.

2. Grilled pork skewer
We passed by this tiny pushcart near our hotel as we were walking to get a cab. It was a simple stall, selling grilled pork, rice and not much else.

Here's the stall, usually parked at the corner of Samsen Soi 2 and the main road.

We bought one each, took a bite as we walked away, and immediately turned around to buy more. We ended up going back 3 of the 5 days we were in Bangkok – but they weren’t open the third time.

The pork skewers were thick rectangles of meat, slightly bigger than playing cards, spitted on bamboo and grilled over charcoal. The taste still haunts my dreams. It had a sweetish marinade that had been very well absorbed; there was some nice charring and caramelisation; and the meat was incredibly tender and juicy, with a springy texture. It was extremely addictive and we would have eaten more if we weren’t saving room to try other things.

Pure happiness on a stick.

The best part? It’s a steal at just 10 Baht per skewer.

1. Sab X2 wantan mee
When Lady Fartsalot first told me we were going for wantan mee, I was incredulous. Why are we trying a Chinese hawker dish in Thailand?

I was glad I went along because here we are at the number 1 thing I ate in Bangkok.

It was a pretty simple bowl of dry wantan mee. Standard-issue char siew, green vegetables, and wantan that are a little mushy but nice and meaty and flavourful. Where’s the magic? Well, instead of dark soy sauce, they drizzle rendered pork fat over the noodles, along with a generous helping of crispy lard croutons (that’s chee yau cha, in case you weren’t sure).

So simple. So elegant. Genius.

The pork oil flavour permeates the noodles and leaves a wonderful taste in the mouth. The crispy chee yau cha… well, I don’t have to tell you what a pleasure it was to crunch into those as you are eating – in my opinion, they could give bacon a serious run for its money.

A deceptively plain-looking bowl of absolute awesomeness.

Also, the cook is quite a colourful character. The way he dresses and the flourish with which he makes the noodles indicates a real sense of showmanship.

Noodle-making performance in full swing.

To get to this shop, find Shibuya 19 in the Pratunam area, go down the narrow lane next to it (the one closer to the McDonald’s). A little way in, on the right, will be the shop. Try the dry wantan mee. Order seconds. Heck, order a third bowl. You can thank me in the comments below.

Well, that’s all for this long first post. Stay tuned for Part 2: Best of the rest!