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More Issaan chow in Bangkok (long report)

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Restaurants & Bars

More Issaan chow in Bangkok (long report)

foodfirst | Sep 1, 2002 10:54 PM

A continuing quest for great Issaan food in Bangkok (it's not hard to find, but it's not all good) has resulted in repeated visits to the following venues:

Open-air "restaurant" on Narathiwat Road at Soi 24, lighted signs have Coca-Cola adverts on them. There is a strip of open-air places at Soi 24, this one is closest to the soi.

This place is a typical downmarket open-air Bangkok food scene. A huge grill and a kitchen and lots of folding metal tables and chairs set up underneath awnings, right next to an 8-lane road divided in half by a klong. Extremely crowded on Thurs Fri Sat nights but unless you are a huge group you can score a table ... even if you had to wait it probably wouldn't be for long. I love the atmosphere: very casual (feel free to show up in shorts), very friendly, party-like on the wknds, strangely relaxing in spite of its location next to the road. Go here for the grill -- whole, salt-encrusted fish, whole chickens, and grilled beef salad (nya nam tok) and their traditional accompaniments. The chicken (order a half or whole) is by far the best I've had in Bangkok so far --- crispy brown skin with a not-overpowering marinade (slightly sweet) and a moist, smoky interior. Two dipping sauces served alongside, the usual dark chile and one sweet-hot. Ignore the sweet-hot sauce, it's nothing special. The dark chili sauce is incendiarily delicious: dark red in color, flecked with black specks from the roasted chiles, slightly sweetish from shallots or onions that seem to have been caramelized before being incorporated into the sauce, small pieces of fresh garlic -- the flavors of this sauce are so well melded and deep, nothing like the usual you encounter at other grilled chick places. So good you'll want to sop up remnants with a ball of sticky rice. The fish is also a must-have (it takes about 20 minutes). It arrives at the table belly down on the plate, split along the back, the heavily salt-crusted skin broken to reveal lightly smoky, extremely moist flesh. Alongside the fish is a grilled, skinned, soft but not mushy eggplant, sometimes sliced and sometimes just split in half. It and the fish are wonderful with the accompanying lime-chili-fish sauce-garlic combo which, like the chicken dipping sauce, is somehow a cut above the average. Som tam (papaya salad) is chock full of dried shrimp and roasted peanuts but if you like it hot say so ("gin pet dai" means "I can eat it hot"); on one visit we forgot to and it arrived devoid of any chili kick. Grilled beef salad has been full of small chunks of nicely charred beef one 2 occasions but last Friday was mostly fat. But I would still order it again for the copious whole mint leaves, the true char on the meat (many restaurant versions taste pan-fried not grilled), the just-right lime juice-fish sauce balance (complemented by beef juices), and the toasted rice which is left in very small broken grains rather than ground to powder, adding a nice texture and more toasty rice taste. We also usually order a stir-fry vegetable, pak bung (water spinach) or pak kanaa (collardy Chinese broccoli) faidaeng style, which is with chili and yellow bean paste. The jungle curry (gaeng pet or "hot curry") is a fine example of the genre, coconut-milk free and super-fiery. The menu is extensive but other patrons seems to stick to the above as well as cim-cum (Issaan-style hot pot) and a sort of grill-at-the-table contraption that looks like the conical fat-free stovetop grills sold in the US. Both look to be yummy but we can never get beyond the chicken and the fish. This place is cheap: a recent dinner of 1/2 chick, 2 baskets of sticky rice, beef salad, papaya salad, and pak kanaa faidaeng, along with 2 large bottles of beer, cost a bit over $7. There are no hotels in this area so getting here requires a cab ride or a very long walk from the nearest BTS station, up across Sathorn --- but for travellers interested in Issaan grill it's worth the (small) effort. Just tell your cab driver "Narathiwat Soi 24." The couple of dogs wandering among the tables (hey, this is Bangkok) don't bite and would love your leftover chicken bones.

Sara Jane's, inside and to the back of the Sindhorn Building on Wittayu (Wireless) Road opp. US Embassy consular section (and right next to Embassy compound). Second location on Narathiwat Road betw Sathorn and Rama III, on the even-numbered soi side of the road.

The throngs of Thai office workers at lunchtime testify to this place's high yum quotient (average Thais simply will not waste a meal or a baht on mediocre food). No decor to speak of, it's a brightly-lit large restaurant with a semi-open kitchen. Service is quick and efficient but friendly. Most of the menu is Issaan specialties, plus a few Western-ish dishes. This is not the place to go for grilled chicken, as it's a little dry (leave the grilled chicken to the grilled chicken-specific places). But everything else is delicious and arrives on the spicy side. Som tams such as papaya, green bean (long bean), and carrot are spicy and fishy and limey. Grilled Issaan sausage is porkalicious, limey and garlicky with a crackly skin --eat it with the accompanying slices of fresh ginger and coriander sprigs. Other notable dishes are the (slightly fermented) bamboo shoot laab (sup nawmai), bean thread salad with seafood, mostly squid and prawn (yam wunsen talay), and any laab such as chicken, pork etc. If you're dying to sample Issaan raw sausage laab this is probably the place to do it, although the waitresses will warn you off it. Check out the daily specials, not all of which are Issaan but most of which are quite good. Deep-fried soft-shell crab salad consists of a large, very lightly breaded, nearly grease-free and crispy specimen perched atop a bed of iceberg lettuce with a dab of salad cream ... not quite what we expected but we pulled the crab away from the mayo-like cream and very happily devoured it with the fiery chili-lime-fish sauce that came with. If you are in Bangkok during mango season Sara Jane's does a nice sticky rice (not too sweet and not drowing in coconut cream); the fruit freezes -- essentially fruit and ice in a blender) go well with the spicy food. The Western, or western-influenced food, looks promising --in particular a spaghetti in a sauce of chili and basil leaves.
Mid-range prices... laabs etc average about $1, the crab was very expensive at $5. Sara Jane's is open for dinner but is often deserted (food is still good and fresh though). The Narathiwat location, I understand, has more of an emphasis on seafood... but always seems empty when I drive by.

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