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.