New York Times’s Halliday in Bangkok | 20.10.05
A dear friend of mine who’ll soon visit the “City of Angles” [sic] sent me a New York Times article about Bangkok’s more down-to-earth food scene: “On the Streets of Bangkok, Two Guys Keep It Real”. And it’s true, too. R. W. Apple kept it as real as any high-flying food reporter on an expense account could have done.
He certainly had the right idea. After a barrage of marketing pitches and one actual dinner, I, too, have had more than enough of the Bed Supperclub. (This typically overhyped bar & restaurant also happens to have been, ahem, the “womb” of the extraordinary art piece mentioned in the “City of Angles” post.) The local food scene contains many gems often overlooked by tourists and expats. And since we can’t count on the Lonely Planet to uncover them, why not let the grey lady try her hand at it?
For this endeavor, Mr. Apple recruited the help of Robert Halliday, a Jersey native who makes Bangkok his home and writes for the Bangkok Post lifestyle section under the pseudonyms “Ung-aang Talay” (Sea Toad) and “Plalai Faifa” (Electric Eel). Although I don’t normally read the Bangkok Post and have never really read his columns, I have glanced at them and thought the author Thai. So Mr. Halliday seems to possess quite a bit of local knowledge.
Unfortunately, however, much of local knowledge is unreliable when it comes to local food.
But with the help of a remarkably heterogeneous group of friends, including taxi drivers and farmers as well as intellectuals, [Halliday] still finds much that is genuine. Some of his discoveries have become widely known because he has championed them, like Polo Fried Chicken, a joint near the polo club in the diplomatic quarter. Once a humble three-table stall, it now has an air-conditioned if garishly lighted dining room down the street, to which a corps of waiters ferries platters of explosively hot green papaya salad, shredded beef fried with palm sugar and fish sauce and larb moo, chopped pork flavored with mint, to feed hordes of workers from nearby offices at lunch.
All good, but what pulls them in is the chicken. Brined and liberally dusted with black pepper, it is fried until golden-brown, crisp but not dry and papery, then showered with garlic, also fried. One of the marvels of this world-class dish is the succulence of the chicken; another is the sweetness of the garlic, unmarred by burned bits.
I cede the final word to Betsey, a student of the genre like all true Southerners. “The best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten,” she said as we plowed through a second platter. I think she might have danced with delight if she had not been too busy eating.
Are New York Times food writers always so breathlessly excitable? Apparently not, the survey of Paris’s inexpensive quality bistros is quite level-headed. What’s more, I can assure you that Chez Michel, at least, does serve excellent food. Indeed it’s the best Parisian establishment I’ve eaten in. While that admittedly says more about me and my budget than about the restaurant and the city, Chez Michel is also the favorite of my “Development of Paris” professor, a super-savvy Parisian architect who knows the city inside out.
Not so in the case of Polo Fried Chicken. While I don’t know anyone who knows Bangkok as well as Alain Salomon does Paris, my parents are discriminating eaters whose combined ability to separate food and fad is not to be doubted. And they both come down decisively against the eatery whose real and most common name is “Jay Kee’s Fried Chicken” (“ไก่ทอดเจ๊กีี” or Kai Tod Jay Kee, with Jay meaning “elder sister” and coming from the Chinese word “姐”).
Make no mistake, Jay Kee’s chicken is not a fad. Quite the opposite, it’s an institution. (Again, one wonders why Mr. Apple wrote as though he was encountering a lost civilization and Mr. Halliday was the shaman who led him to it.) But the chicken’s entrenched renown only highlights the fact that it is, in my father’s word, “nothing special”. An exceptional cook, my mother criticizes the chicken’s inadequate marination and thus lack of intrinsic flavor, a shortcoming that Jay Kee makes up for with the generous garlic. I was much too young when I last ate there to make any such judgments. Still I certainly didn’t come close to dancing with delight, and I was then as much a garlic lover as I am now.
Admittedly, the Southern-style fried chicken isn’t my kind of food to begin with, the Isaan (Northeastern)-style rotisserie chicken is. That brings us to the second point. The somtum (“hot green papaya salad”), fried beef shreds, and larb moo that accompany Jay Kee’s chicken are unlikely to be very good since those are all Isaan dishes and Jay Kee — like her school of fried chicken — is from the South. While Jay Kee could get her many Isaan employees to prepare those dishes, not everybody from Isaan cooks Isaan food well.
Which leads to the third point. Jay Kee outsources the chopping of green papayas for Somtum to the soi’s motorcycle taxis, who may very well be Isaan but are no less disgusting for that. Each morning the moonlighting taxis can be seen perched on stools on one side or the other of Soi Polo — a street with no sidewalks that is barely wide enough for two-way traffic — furiously chopping slices of green into round plastic tubs on the ground in front of them. With a steady stream of morning traffic into and out of the Polo Club plus a regular garbage truck, you can imagine that papaya slices aren’t the only things that land in the tubs.
Mr. Halliday’s problem stems from too much reliance on local wisdom that isn’t very wise. Locals can behave like tourists, too, especially in a big city. Thais are as prone to the herd mentality as any other people, and I suspect the “intellectuals” that Mr. Halliday counts among his friends even more so. Popularity can be misplaced, and even if it originally isn’t, usually becomes in and of itself a commodity. And a commodity, needless to say, always comes at a price. There is after all no such thing as a free lunch, especially when hungry throngs are jostling and double-parking for a serving. Indeed, comedian Udom Taepanich quips that the abbreviation Aw Taw Kaw in the Aw Taw Kaw Market, “a food-lover’s must-see” that Mr. Halliday took Mr. Apple to, stands for “Every Thing Kern Raka” (“Everything too expensive”). If you want to keep it real, go to Tesco-Lotus.
If fame-induced costliness is unfortunate, phony luxury is outrageous:
But at Raan Jay Fai, a few doors down, in a banal setting of fluorescent bulbs, hospital-green walls and linoleum-topped tables, an elderly, balletic cook wearing a kind of knitted snood and working at a charcoal brazier turns out luxury pad khee mao, at a price. She allows her rice noodles, broad ones, to catch a bit in the wok, giving them a pleasantly seared taste, adds basil leaves and then dumps in prime seafood, including heroic lumps of crab meat that reminded me of Chesapeake Bay, what Mr. Halliday called “shrimps as big as sheep,” and fresh hearts of palm.
The thrifty, persnickety locals, who consider cheap, tasty noodles their birthright, term these “millionaire’s food.” Three servings cost about $18.50.
“Stupid millionaire’s food” is probably what they meant. The idea of a gourmet burger does appeal to me, but if “gourmet” means a 48-ounce rib eye and a whole lettuce sandwiched between two loafs of bread for 200 dollars a pop, then I’ll take the Big Mac instead, thank you very much.
Ironically, in the sentence right before that monstrous pad khee mao, Mr. Apple — no doubt along with Mr. Halliday — was sounding all high-minded about a proper pad thai, “free of the sweetness that often disfigures it in the West.” As it happens, the one and only Pad Thai I’ve ever had in my life was had in US — courtesy of a Thai-American college friend who snubbed Middletown’s Thai restaurant as unauthentic — and it was indeed sweet. However, considering the hearty spoonfuls that Thais these days add to other noodles that, unlike the Pad Thai, are not supposed to be sweet at all, I doubt my friend’s Pad Thai would’ve been sweet enough. (A Thai noodle shop always provides a set of condiments — sugar, fish sauce, vinegar, and dried red pepper — with which customers season noodles to suit their tastes.) The seasoning spree has actually spread beyond noodles. Rice congee vendors now provide the same set of condiments that people are spraying with increasing zeal. Not one to employ a holier-than-thou abuse like “disfigure”, I’ll simply say: YUCK!
Moral of the story:
- Don’t trust the locals, for they can be as tasteless and clueless as any bumbling visitor.
- Don’t trust the New York Times, but we already know that.
- Don’t trust anyone who claims to hold the magic key to Thailand, in food as well as in politics and other matters, especially if he boasts about “intellectual” friends and pays six dollars for a Bangkok pad khee mao.
- Do eat what you like. And yes, even if it’s Mr. Halliday’s six-dollar pad khee mao (just don’t call yourself a gourmet in that case). Life is too short to pursue phony authenticity. If you truly enjoy the food you eat, then none of the world’s Hallidays and Apples can claim any moral superiority over you. By the way, in case you don’t yet have a favorite Westernized Thai joint (call it “fusion” if it makes you feel better), may I recommend Middletown, Connecticut’s Thai Gardens? They make the best duck curry I’ve ever had.
- JW 22.10.05
I ate at the Som Tam place on Soi Polo a few years ago and I believe it is the same one in the article. I don’t remember the food being that great.
At least they didn’t go to eat at Cabbages and Condoms as most farangs seem to get sucked into. Some farang friends of mine used to eat there quite often and continually raved about the place. One day I went along, it was simply overpriced Thai food in an open-air restaurant. The food was ok, but not at those prices. If you want to eat Thai food in an open-air restaurant, there is a much place on the corner of Silom Soi 1 and Soi Ngam Dupli. I can’t remember the name of the place, but the food is excellent and not too expensive. You can eat inside as well if it is too hot or raining.
One of my favourite eatries for Isarn food in central Bangkok is a shop on Soi Convent in Silom. Going on memory, it was called Haiter and was close to a French Bakery and opposite the Irish Pub (Shennigans/Irish Xchange or whatever it is known as now). They had some of the best Kor Moo Yang around. Nothing like Isarn food and a beer after a hard day at the office.
Finally, a great place for cake is at Verasu on Wireless. A slice of cake goes for around 40-75 baht and they do salads and quiche as well. If you are in the area during lunchtime it is worth a look. You should get there before 2pm though.
- Tom Vamvanij 22.10.05
You surprised me with your last pick, JW. Veerasu is alright, I just didn’t expect it to attract your attention so much. But then again, I’ve never tried their cakes.
For Thai food, the first place that comes to my mind is the old-staple, Klang Soi on Sukhumvit 49 (right by Samitivej Hospital), which serves up mean ยำปลาดูกฟู and ห่อหมกทอด.
Also on Sukhumvit 49, about halfway between Samitivej and Sukhumvit road, Duilio’s offers perhaps the best value in town with its 129-baht pizzas and 89-baht salads (++, prices for lunch only).
I haven’t been to a bona fide Isaan restaurant in a long time, so thanks for the recommendation. I must say, though, that the featured in this article, also by R. W. Apple, looks really good (thanks mostly to the chicken, not so much the somtam). Too bad it’s in Washington D.C.
- poststaffer 22.10.05
How delicious…Tom gets the opportunity to puncture the New York Times’s dreadful pomposity and have a go at one of our own lofty denizens in the process. My stomach turns when I read Robert Halliday’s advice, Not too much chili, or it will blot out the other flavors, like looking into the sun when you’re trying to study a Monet.’
What? Even in the West, if a pompous stuffed shirt said that at my dinner table I’d drop the knives and folks in an embarrassed clatter (embarrassed to have invited such a windbag, and have him inflict himself on other guests).
Even harder to swallow in noisy, smelly, sweaty Bangkok, where everything’s a struggle and I consider myself lucky if I can find an eating place quiet enough to hear the person opposite - never mind whether the chili content of a dish interferes with my ability to ‘study a Monet’. What pompous twaddle.
Anyone with 2000 DVDs in his collection has too much time on his hands, and sounds profoundly bored. Doesn’t like to see his name in print? Not only that, he uses a ‘self-deprecating penname’. I bet they shared a self-deprecating chortle over that one.
Trouble with this language is that it skirts perilously close to being patronising…not towards the writer or his wordly host (perish the thought), but the gentle natives among whom these two men were busy ‘keeping it real’ with their $6 pad khee mao and foot-long river prawns.
Alright, maybe I sound sarcastic. It is every man’s right, after all, to study a Monet without the aroma or taste of strong chile interfering with his aesthetic sense. I would love to tell you that I cope with living in Bangkok so well that I have time or the energy for such things - but I don’t.
I find the climate here a drain, the crowds annoying, and the noise unbearable. My ideal eating place is a place where no one else goes. If it’s popular, then you won’t see me there.
As for writing on food, I find the best writers are those who barely talk about the food at all. Nor do I want to hear about ‘ambience’, thanks very much. Writers like Mr Apple struggle to sound interesting because there’s only so much you can say about food or the surroundings in which it is cooked. Most Thai food is delicious, no matter where you go.
I should add here that although Robert Halliday writes for the Post, I have not met him. I don’t even read him, as I do not need to pay outrageous sums of money to eat well.
When I first started work here, and lived close to town, motorcycle taxi drivers used to ask me if I knew him. They invariably mentioned his size (Big Bob) and his articulacy in Thai (Fluent Bob).
In the 4.5 years I have lived on the Thon Buri side (where I keep it real by living in a fresh market, no less - get that!) I have heard nothing. Over there, we just get on with the humdrum business of living…but then maybe we are simple folk.
The NY Times article includes a collection of pictures. Seems Mr Apple brought a photographer with him, as well as his expense account. The last picture has Mr Halliday talking to a vendor in Or Tor Kor market. I feel sorry for her. It looks like he is not so much having a simple conversation as he is performing (Bob Holding Forth). But then the whole article reads like that.
Classic New York Times BS. Hold the condiments, though - I like my NY Times bullshit as it comes.
- JW 23.10.05
You surprised me with your last pick, JW. Veerasu is alright, I just didn’t expect it to attract your attention so much. But then again, I’ve never tried their cakes.
I used to work near Wireless Road so I have tried restaurants in the area at least once. My main reason for mentioning Verasu was that I was really surprised that their cakes and some of their food was quite good. For a long time, I thought that expensive electronic equipment = overpriced food and avoided Verasu like the plague. However, their cakes are cheap. They also do an excellent quiche as well.
I was often sick of the hustle and bustle of Wireless as most eatries get very crowded around lunchtime. It is even worse than Silom! Verasu is rarely crowded and it was certainly a refreshing change from noodles on the street (with free toxic fumes from all the cars).
- poststaffer 23.10.05
Excellent maps indeed. I was able to find a hotel I stayed in, and a wonderful airy restaurant I ate at (perched on the end of a fishing pier) in Hua Hin just last week.
Walking from one to the other, I passed many nasty looking eating places designed to lure western tourists, of which Hua Hin has no shortage.
I can’t remember much but for all the bright timber furniture and red…red…carpet? Lights? I dared not look too closely, lest I catch the eye of the eager waitresses stationed outside.
Bland, and stuffed with the kind of tourists who are instinctively drawn to places that look just like home, no matter which exotic parts of the world they are visiting.
If they had walked just 50m further, they could have dined on one of Hua Hin’s fishing piers, and watched the tide go out (and the rain clouds roll in), from a superb eating place as broad and exposed as a cruise ship’s deck, with no walls and barely any roof (for those on the top deck).
Fantastic stuff, and a real dining experience…but as I say, some would actually rather not leave home.
I recall passing one of those cramped closed-in places (suitable for a log fire, methinks) and hearing on the stereo the tinny strains of a wannabe - wait for it - Karen Carpenter. How…homely!
If I had to choose between that wheedling Karen Carpenter wannabe, and the head-thumping music they play at Or Tor Gor (the teen nightstrip), I would be hard pressed to say which is worse. At least the teen stuff gets your blood going.
I scoff, but then most of the tourists in Hua Hin are older and greyer than me. Maybe in those quaint musical surroundings some folk feel right at home, among the shiny lacquered furniture, tiny tables, scampering children and fried chips specials.
Since getting back to Bangkok the seafood just doesn’t taste the same, alas. Maybe I need to consult Bob the Food/Fine Music/Art/Culture Guru after all.
- Robert Halliday 1.11.05
A friend sent me a link to Tom Vamvanit’s recent (20 Oct.) entry in his blog, Sarasonteh, in which he gets quite upset about the article that R. W. Apple wrote chronicling a food sojourn that we made together in Bangkok in September. In it he takes me to task for offering “unreliable knowledge when it comes to local food,” dismissing the restaurants that Mr. Apple and I visited.
What intrigued me about his piece was that Mr. Vamvanij never seems to have eaten at any of the places named in the article. Correction: he was taken to the Soi Polo fried chicken restaurant by his parents when he was a child, but recalls that, although he was too young at the time to confirm his mother’s so-so evaluation of the food, he “certainly didn’t come close to dancing with delight.” This recollection is followed by his admission that he doesn’t even like Southern Thai-style fried chicken, and prefers his chicken prepared as Northeastern-style kai yaang. So even if the fried chicken had been of Nobel Prize calibre, he probably wouldn’t have done much dancing.
Then he goes on to explain away the Soi Polo restaurant’s great popularity over the almost 30 years that it has been in business. He admits that the restaurant is “an institution”, but then blows off this achievement by explaining that “popularity can be misplaced, and even if it originally isn’t, usually becomes in and of itself a commodity.” In the context of Bangok’s very Darwinian restaurant scene, this is pure balderdash. In Bangkok, the food city to end them all, a restaurant won’t remain “an institution” for long if it serves inferior food. Patrons with long memories may recall that the fried garlic and the chicken skin were perhaps a little crisper back in the days when Mae Kee herself was doing the cooking, just as the phat Thai served at Thip Samai, another institution, was a bit better back when the owner was at the stove. But it is still very good, especially when ordered around lunchtime when it comes almost sizzling from the frier.
A little later Mr Vamvanij sneers at Jay Fai’s splendid phat khee mao noodles as “stupid millionaire’s food”, again without offering any indication that he has ever actually tasted them. This time he is being The Populist (after previously making sure that we know that he has done most of his quality eating in Paris and, in the case of Thai food (“the one and only Pad Thai I’ve ever eaten in my life”) at the Thai Gardens restaurant in Middletown, Connecticut, USA!). Jay Fai’s phat khee mao, which is one of Bangkok’s great noodle dishes, costs several times the going rate for this dish, but is well worth the price. Most people, millionaires included, won’t be ordering them every day – but as a special, high-art treat now and then, ah! For the record, I never discussed phat Thai with Mr Apple, pace the “no doubt” remark in Mr Vamvanit’s final paragraph.
One final thing in connection with Mr Vamvanit’s “ideas and thoughts” on this particular issue. About half-way down I was astonished to read the following: “Jay Kee outsources the chopping of green papayas for Somtum to the soi’s motorcycle taxis, who may very well be Isaan [from Thailand’s Northeast] but are no less disgusting for that.” Mr Vamvanit seems to view humankind from a very lofty perspective, indeed, so lofty in fact that it makes me wonder just how he was raised and educated. There is some consolation in the realization that those motorcycle taxi drivers (who, incidentally, seem to be expert papaya choppers) would probably find Mr Vamvanit just as distasteful, with his Chez Michel and his Connecticut phat thai and his more-farang-than-the-farangs, dek nawk posturings.
All this by way of saying that I stick by the recommendations that I made to Mr Apple. I think that no visitor to Thailand who has read the NY Times article and stops in at any or all of these restaurants will be disappointed.
Further down the page I find that I seem to have deeply offended “poststaffer”, whose stomach is already churning with rage by the third line of his comment at what he claims to be my advice: “not too much chilli, or it will blot out the other flavours, like looking into the sun when you’re trying to study a Monet.”
Read on and discover that “poststaffer” is so furious that within three paragraphs he seems to lose his thread entirely: “Even harder to swallow in noisy, smelly, sweaty Bangkok, where everything’s a struggle and I consider myself lucky if I can find an eating place quiet enough to hear the person opposite – never mind whether the chilli content of a dish interferes with my ability to ‘study a Monet’. What pompous twaddle.”
My remark was what more alert readers might have recognized as a simile. No real Monet was involved. One doesn’t take them to restaurants. What I was saying was that too much chilli overwhelms and eclipses the sense of taste at the expense of other flavours, just as looking at the sun dazzles the eye so that it would unable to appreciate the colours of an Impressionist painting, were one in the vicinity. If that’s pompous, I apologize. But is it clear now? No real Monet.
If “poststaffer” really does work at the Bangkok Post, he or she should know that one of the columns I write for the paper under the pen name Plalai Faifa is about DVDs. So it’s hard to know what to do with “poststaffer”’s opinion that “anyone with 2000 DVDs in his collection has too much time on his hands, and sounds profoundly bored.” Writing weekly columns about DVDs year after year one does find that they tend to accumulate in quantity. By now they form an excellent collection which I’m cataloguing to make available to students. Happily, acquiring, watching, writing about, and arranging all those DVDs, doesn’t leave me a lot of time to become profoundly bored.
“poststaffer” mentions that he or she has never read my food column because he or she “do[es] not need to pay outrageous sums of money to eat well.” The fact is, I stopped writing the Ung-aang Talay food column three years ago, but that when it was running it specialized in small, inexpensive restaurants, noodle shops (many, many of those), curry shops, streets stalls and the like – even fresh markets in Thonburi of the type he or she claims to frequent and cites as his or her badge of membership in the Pure Living Club.
The vendor in the NY Times photo that aroused “poststaffer’”s compassion (“The last picture has Mr Halliday talking to a vendor in Or Tor Kor market. I feel sorry for her. It looks like he is not so much having a simple conversation as he is performing (Bob Holding Forth)”) is a friendly durian seller whose kaan yaos are some of the best in town. We’ve been friends for years and we were having a simple conversation, during which the photographer quietly took the picture. So “poststaffer” need shed no tears for her.
“poststaffer”’s words are so full of venom that I can only conclude that I have personally upset him or her somehow without realizing it. It would be nice if, since we both work for the same publication, he or she would explain how, instead of firing off abusive comments to blogs using nicknames.
- RC 16.04.06
Old Buddhist saja to consider:
“Don’t let others lead your emotions” Enjoyment of food and wine is subjective, one man’s Parsian bistro is another’s Patpong Soi 1 seafood stall. As far as Holliday’s logic about the Polo chix restaurant standing the test of time, McDonalds is still strong worldwide since 1956, should that serve as an endorsement? There never seems to be a shortage of expats in any region, ones who purport to be the experts on music, dining, the entire scene.
About food and where to eat, let me offer this observation.
I started working in restaurants in 1974, have spent the time since working all over the world in the food and beverage industry. I try to approach each eating experience with an open mind and palate. Advice, ratings and reviews are influenced by so many variables, read them, consider them, then eat and drink with your senses, living in that present moment.
The food experience is rooted and dependent on that one brief moment in time, concentrating on all this other baloney seems to defeat the whole purpose
- poststaffer 21.04.06
I think we are aware, Bob, that no one takes a Monet to a restaurant. I distorted your meaning for the sake of making a sarcastic remark.
‘Too much chilli, and it’s like trying to study the colours of an Impressionist painting with the sun in your eyes.’
Is that better?
When I think of some of the rubbish I uttered over the dinner table as a young man, I really shouldn’t criticise. But
I just can’t imagine anyone saying such a thing, unless he was really trying to impress.