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! 

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