Bangkok's Oldest Eateries
August 21, 2012
Forget ambience, fine linen or even proper cutlery. What they lack in finesse, Bangkok’s oldest restaurants more than make up for with authenticity and great meals. By JENNIFER CHEN. Photographed by CEDRIC ARNOLD
Published on Aug 21, 2012
In our Bangkok neighborhood, amid all the so-so sushi chains and trendy hang-outs, stands a humble, decades-old shophouse eatery with forgettable décor and nary an English sign in sight. But just try getting a table at Ruea Thong, which regulars pack every night to sup on its khao pad kak moo, fried rice with crackling, and kaeng khua hoy khom, curry with cockles. Hip young things, you can keep that plate of limp pasta in jarred sauce. Me, I’d gladly take a seat jammed by the door just to tuck into Ruea Thong’s fried rice with crab and kana moo grob, stir-fried kale with crispy pork belly.
That looks aren’t everything is probably the most important lesson about eating in Bangkok. In fact, when it comes to Thai food, the law of inverse proportion usually applies: the fancier the décor, the more suspect the food and vice versa. The second lesson is there’s value, or rather, really fine food, in the city’s older establishments. After months of eating disappointing meal after disappointing meal at the latest hot spot (oh, hi-so poseurs, when will you learn fresh herbs are always better than dried ones?), I decided to embark on a nosh tour of some of Bangkok's longest-running restaurants.
Lesson number one is definitely at work at Poj Spa Karn on Tanao Road in the Old City. Yellowing hand-crocheted tablecloths under dingy clear plastic. Knock-off Barbie dolls in prom dresses. An old television blaring a slapstick sitcom. This tiny, 84-year-old spot might claim to be Bangkok’s oldest restaurant, but it resembles the living room of a dotty spinster aunt nostalgic for her distant girlhood.
Its frumpiness, however, belies a genuine pedigree. The founding owner, a Chinese émigré, opened the restaurant after retiring as the personal chef to one of Rama V’s 33 sons. Among long-standing customers, it’s known by its nickname, Cook Somdej, or the Prince’s Chef. Faded black-and-white photographs of the owner and his patron, and Rama V with some of his sons, all dressed in Etonian tailcoats hint at the restaurant’s history.
The menu, too, carries a whiff of the royal kitchens, though many of the more elaborate dishes have long been jettisoned. Instead of a fleet of cooks, the restaurant is now a strictly family affair, with relatives rotating in and out of the kitchen, says Nathamon Jaidet, the current owner’s sister-in-law.
A plump matron attired in a decidedly unchef-like pink-and-yellow muumuu, Nathamon is on cooking duty when we drop by one Saturday afternoon. She isn’t one to dwell on past glories, enthusiastically recommending a dish called pong ma wee, a recent invention that, from the looks of the photo menu, incorporates ungodly gobs of mayonnaise. We bow to her insistence, and supplement our order with mee grob, sweet-and-sour crispy noodles, sea bass stir-fried with black pepper, and tom luuk rok, a clear broth with chunks of pork sausage that, by some mysterious alchemy, puff up to look like macaroons during cooking.
But it’s the lemongrass omelet, one of the restaurant’s originals, that really makes the meal. In the wrong hands, kai jeow, or Thai omelets, often disappoint: grease-sodden lumps with skins that quickly turn leathery. Not so with Nathamon’s masterpiece, which she concocts by pouring the egg–lemongrass mixture from a height into a wok full of oil, and then quickly dragging a fork through the eggs while they cook. The result is oil-free and feathery—too delicious to eat with the sickly sweet sri racha sauce that usually accompanies kai jeow. And delicious enough to erase any memories of mayonnaise.
Frankly, only the Japanese have mastered mayo, which too many Asian cooks wield when they want to add a foreign touch. But that's not to say all local attempts at Western fare should be vilified. Three decades before “fusion” became shorthand for East-meets-West cuisine—or, depending on your point of view, an object of dread—Mahatthon Pongpokasem’s parents were dishing up European standards tailored to Thai tastes from a street stall off Silom Road. His father, who worked his way through the ranks at hotel kitchens, soon gained renown for comfort food such as roast chicken and roast pork, and opened Lert Ros along Silom Soi 4, an alley known for its raucous nightlife.
During its heyday, the eatery catered to expat employees of international firms; these days, the clientele is composed of a mix of office workers and long-timers. The club-goers favor its flashier neighbors, and truth be told, while lunchtime can be lively, the cafeteria-like dining room acquires a funereal pall at dinner.
Don’t let that deter you. Tender and cloaked in a velvety gravy, the roast chicken is a solid rendition of a classic. But the real revelation is the beef curry, which occupies territory somewhere between a massamam curry and hong shao niu ruo (red-cooked beef). Mahatthon hews closely to his father's recipe: beef shank cooked over charcoal for three hours in a broth spiked with a melange of spices.
A few tables away sits a gangly teenager. “Your son?” I ask Mahatthon, who speaks flawless English after stints at hotels and Caribbean Cruise Line. He nods, though when I ask whether the youngster will take over when he retires, he shakes his head. “I have an older son, and I'll try to get him to take over but I don’t know if he wants it,” he says.
It’s a lament often heard among old-school restaurant owners. As a rule, old things aren’t cherished in Bangkok. Perfectly sound buildings are torn down and replaced with sleek condominiums, while beautiful, century-old shophouses and bungalows are left to slowly rot. The in-crowd is promiscuous with new restaurants, taking up and abandoning them faster than you can say “chocolate molten cake.” Novelty nearly always trumps the historic—or even the merely familiar.
That could explain why most restaurants are a bit blasé about their past. At Poj Spa Karn, they couldn’t recall the name of the founder; he was just some Chinese cook called Hok. Paniti Vasuratna, however, takes a marked pride in the history of Bharani, the restaurant his grandfather, Aphai Isarabhakdi, opened in 1949.
A world traveler, Aphai wanted to bring international cuisine to Bangkok. “My grandfather tried to pick a dish from every country he visited,” says the gracious Paniti. Along the way, he gained a following so loyal that when the restaurant’s original location was shuttered a few years ago, customers would swarm into Paniti’s noodle shop and demand old favorites. Finally, he gave into the mounting requests and resurrected Bharani.
Renovated two years ago, Bharani—which also has an outlet in the Thailand Creative and Design Center— breaks rule number one. It’s actually an attractive place to eat, with lemony walls and quirky knickknacks from Panithi’s own travels. On a table alongside the window are photos of his grandfather and mother, the restaurant’s namesake. Panithi also preserved living history: 70-year-old chef Tongdee Nagplung was one of the original cooks at Bharani.
True to his grandfather’s mission, Panithi continues to faithfully serve international fare with Thai twists. “Tacos” turn out to be minced beef, pork or chicken heaped on a tortilla chip and topped with cheese and cabbage. They’re served with a salsa that tastes like nam prik ong, a northern dip of pork and tomato—and they taste better than they sound. Yum ham are swirls of house-smoked ham marinated in lime and chili that we fold into lettuce cups along with peanuts, spring onions, cilantro and, for the brave, nam prik kee noo, or bird's eye chilies.
Not all the menu offerings are topsy-turvy takes on Western cuisine. Some of the best are straight-up Thai dishes. Boat noodles draped with lush beef in a spicy rich broth could easily become a weekly regular, especially when capped with the coconut ice cream served local style with peanuts, palm sugar fruit and taro dumplings.
Classic Thai dishes are on the menu at Sanguansri. Start making plans now to visit this lunch-only, 40-year-old eatery near the American embassy. Not only does it serve astoundingly good food, but its future is uncertain. Last year, the owner died, leaving no will. Loyal staffers currently run Sanguansri, but they express concerns that the landlord might raise the rent—a not-so-implausible move given its location in one of the city’s prime districts.
As with most of the eateries profiled here, ignore the utilitarian décor of folding chairs and Formica-topped tables. It’s probably wiser to observe your fellow diners: office workers with their ID’s dangling from their necks, ladies of a certain age in shoulder-padded floral blouses and stiff bouffants, well-fed senior police officers with neat pot bellies. With the exception of the occasional U.S. Embassy employee, Sanguansri attracts a mostly local clientele. That is, a Bangkok crowd with nary a socialite or hipster in sight—always an auspicious sign.
Almost everything on the menu is worth ordering. A salad of lettuce, blanched broccoli and chili is generously studded with crispy pork belly that delivers crunch and melting softness in one bite—a rare achievement in a town rife with soggy versions of moo grob, or pork with crackling. The sweetness of pla khing, or deep-fried, shredded fish with ginger, is offset by the aromatic tang of chiffonaded kaffir lime leaves.
Sanguansri excels in balance. If there’s one thing that mars Thai food it’s the national sweet tooth; local palates are immune to that tablespoon of sugar diners regularly heap onto their food. “Thais like sweet foods,” Boonyuen Kamolnarin, the impish manager, says apologetically when I grimace after taking a sip of tamarind juice that turns out to be a glassful of dissolved brown sugar.
Luckily, the restaurant’s kitchen doesn’t fall into that trap. A deft hand is evident in the nam prik pla tu, a chili dip made with dried mackerel that’s often too pungent for foreign taste buds. Lime juice and just the right amount of sugar tame the heat and cut through the funky flavors. Meanwhile, a deceptively simple beef curry begins with a complex, herbaceous note and packs a fiery punch at the end. That gives you an idea of the skills at work here—who would have thought a curry could unfold in stages? It’s almost Willy Wonka-esque.
The finest offering is the kanom jeen nam ya, a dish of fermented rice noodles with coconut fish curry that’s popular in southern Thailand. Served only Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays, Sanguansri's take comes without fish balls, an improvement in my eyes (and mouth), and the fish—snakehead in this case—is finely flaked. A generous handful of lemon basil leaves garnishes the plate, making an addictively fragrant sauce so good that, if alone, I would have licked the plate clean.
When I try to pry Boonyuen for the kitchen’s secret, she admits they buy ready-made curry paste, though one from a reputable firm. “We haven’t changed the original recipes,” she says. “We haven't adapted to Western tastes.” Long may they continue doing so.
Nattaporn Ice Cream Located in a rickety, picturesque shophouse along quaint Phraeng Phutorn Square in the Old City, this 60-year-old shop serves up Bangkok's best coconut ice cream. The secret? Super-fresh, young coconuts; they go through about 200 a day. If the season's right, make sure to try the fragrant mango and durian versions. Go early before they sell out of popular toppings like sticky rice. 94 Phraeng Phutorn Sq., off Tanao Rd.; +66 2 221 3954.
GUIDE TO BANGKOK'S OLD-SCHOOL RESTAURANTS
Poj Spa Kar 443 Tanao Rd.; +66 2 222 2686.
Lert Ros 74-7 Soi 4, Silom Rd.; +66 2 234 3745.
Bharani 96/14 Soi 23, Sukhumvit Rd.; +66 2 664 4454.
Sanguansri 59/1 Wireless Rd.; +66 2 252 7637.