Restaurants & Bars

on the trail of Issaan chow in Bangkok (very long)

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on the trail of Issaan chow in Bangkok (very long)

foodfirst | Jul 23, 2002 11:46 PM

If you're a fan of Thai cuisine then you are most likely a fan of the foods of Issaan (northeast Thailand) ... the perennial Thai favorites of laab, gai yang (grilled chicken), som tam (green papaya salad), tom yum gong (hot and sour shrimp soup), and nya nam tok ("waterfall beef" -- grilled beef salad with lime and chiles) all originated in Issaan.
Bangkokians love Issaan food and over the last few months I've been lucky enough to sample it in a variety of settings. This is will be the first post in a hopefully ongoing series.

Cafe de Lao -- a more upscale restaurant in a converted old house off of tourist-popular Silom Road. The setting is lovely ... on a relatively quiet soi, with garden seating out front and tables scattered about a slightly-too-brightly-lit main dining room. The Thai and English menu is not limited to Issaan dishes, but it does offer quite a few (as well as a wine list). We were a group of 6; Nop, who hails from Loei in Issaan, did the ordering. Som tam was authentically fiery and packed a salty punch from the generous amount of dried shrimp scattered throughout. This dish went quickly and we had to order another. Laab muu (pork "salad") was spicy and nicely minty but lacked enough ground toasted rice to give it that distinctive laab texture and flavor. Wun sen talay(glass noodle salad w/seafood) was oh-so-limey, only slightly spicy, and packed with generously sized prawns and squid pieces, and ground pork. The scent of lime leaves and lemongrass predominated in the authentically coconut-milk free tom yum gong ... galanga was young and fresh enough to munch on (rather than leaving in one's bowl) along with the soup's other edibles. Coconut milk-based gaeng gai (red curry with chicken) was just OK --- perhaps indicating that this restaurant's best dishes are those from Issaan. With a super thin soup base (I prefer mine a bit thicker) and sparsely dotted with tiny eggplants, baby corn, and chicken, the curry lacked fire and the coriander/lemongrass/lime-leaf urgency of the other dishes. Our grilled fish was tasty but without the dish's characterisic grill-charred skin it seemed more steamed in foil than grilled; the lemongrass-coriander root stuffing seemed not to have quite enough heat to penetrate the flesh of the fish. The star of the meal was the cut up whole chicken that seemed to have a place on every other table in the room as well. More roasted than authentically grilled, it was nonetheless delicious: a beautiful golden crackly skin tenuously adhering to a moist flavorful interior. All I could think was that leftovers of this chicken, if there were any (there weren't), would make a killer sandwich with cilantro, holy basil, and mayo. Khao niao (sticky rice) was soft and fresh, served in traditional individual bamboo servers, and each place setting was graced with 2 dishes of dipping sauce: one a deep red tasting predominantly of roasted chiles, and the other a lighter-colord hot/sweet sauce. It being April we finished with 3 plates of mango and sticky rice, served warm but with a touch too much coconut cream on top for my taste. The bill for the food came to about $12/person excluding wine (corkage is 250 baht), slightly expensive for Bangkok but quite reasonable given the pleasant atmosphere and the restaurant's proximity to Silom Road. All in all, a very fine dinner with a few outstanding dishes --- this is a place to go if you want to eat Issaan in a somewhat "upscale" atmosphere (let's face it, sometimes you just want to eat a meal without sweating).

Isaan food stall on Soi Convent
We (just 2 of us) headed here on a sticky, rainy Sunday night for cimcum (jeemjoom), which Thais describe as "Issaan suki" -- basically a sort of hotpot. A tom yum gong-like broth is brought to your table in a small clay pot that is placed on a burner. When it comes to a boil you add whatever raw ingredients you've ordered (pork, beef, fish, or mixed). We chose mixed and our rather large plate was loaded with pork, squid, a few medium-sized shrimp, a bit of beef, two raw eggs, and vegetables (water spinach, napa cabbage, holy basil, mint, long beans). (I've since learned that asking for extra veg is usually not a problem at these places.) While the broth was heating up we worked on an absolutely incendiary green papaya salad (OK, I'd told the gal running the place that we can take it spicy -- "Kin phet dai!"), dipping our sticky rice alternately into the salad juice that collected on the plate and the garlicky roasted chile dipping sauce that came with the meal, and munching on the raw long beans and green cabbage that accompanied the som tam. We couldn't believe that all of the fresh ingredients would fit into the small clay pot full of boiling broth without causing an overflow, but little-by-little they did. Cimcum is the sort of simple food I like -- basic ingredients combined to deliver ultimate taste. The puckerlicious sour broth was generously spiked with fresh chiles. We fished out the various ingredients and placed them in our individual bowls, adding a bit of dipping sauce to crank up the heat, and by the time we had finished off the solids each of us had a nice little bowl of meaty-fishy-vegetably-garlicky sour broth to chase the cimcum with. As we were mopping our foreheads one of the stall operators passed by carrying a promising-looking laab colored deep red with dried chiles. Alas, we were too stuffed with cimcum to go for it, but it makes our return to this stall a certainty (grilled chicken too). Price for two, including 2 cups of ice and 2 large bottles of water: $6.00. Atmosphere: no air-con, occasional exhaust fumes and tuk-tuk and motorcycle engine noise, but friendly enough. Friday and Saturday might be a bit hard to take, what with the bumper-bumper traffic on Soi Convent.

Cafe de Laos
16 Silom Soi 19 tel 02-635-2338
takes Amex, DC, MC, V, reservations a good idea Thu-Sat

Issaan food stall
Silom Soi Convent(across the street from the convent --look for the stall/tables with its own loud generator)
evenings only

Coming up: Issaan sup, sausage, and more at Sara Jane's, in a barn-like structure off of Sukhumvit, and at dueling open-air restaurants on Narathiwat Road

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