Iea Sae is the unpronounceable name of an old-skool Chinese-style coffee shop in Bangkok’s Chinatown. There are quite a few cafes like this in southern Thailand, and heaps in Malaysia, but very, very few in Bangkok, which makes this place somewhat special.
If you’re coming here for good coffee, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, but if you get a buzz from atmosphere, it can be a fun place. The shop is 60 years old (a fact written on nearly every dish and cup in the restaurant) and is outfitted with antique tables, an old tile floor, and some interesting murals on the walls. These furnishings could be purchased just about anywhere, but the thing that makes Iea Sae interesting is its patrons. The old Chinese-Thai men who frequent the cafe order a single cup of coffee and spend the next three hours doing their best to drink it as slowly as possible while arguing about politics, discussing food, smoking, and in the true Chinese tradition, carrying on with lots of hawking and spitting.
As far as I can see, they just serve coffee (some food items are written on a chalkboard, but they never seem available), and in the Chinese-Thai style, a cup or glass is always followed by a chaser of weak Chinese tea:
Thanon Phat Sai (This street runs parallel to Thanon Yaowarat, Chinatown’s main road, and is most easily reached via Thanon Phadung Dao. Iea Sae is located smack in the middle of the short street; simply look for lots of old men drinking coffee.)
02 221 0549
After all these years in Thailand I’ve still never really taken to the Thai breakfast. Jok, pureed rice soup, is about as delicious as the description sounds. Paa thong ko, deep-fried bits of dough typically dipped into crap coffee is a nightmare waiting to happen. And at home Thais generally tend to eat the previous night’s leftovers with rice. So when traveling to other countries in SE Asia I always keep an eye open for interesting breakfasts, and invariably I’m impressed: crispy roti and sweet teh tarik in Malaysia and Singapore; a steaming bowl of mohinga (a fish-based noodle soup) in Myanmar; and in Cambodia, rice and pork.
Known in Khmer as bai sach chrouk (literally “rice pork”), this dish is more or less as simple as the name sounds, but is much more delicious. There are two divergent schools of bai sach chrouk. Proper restaurants, invariably Chinese in origin, tend to deep fry their pork and serve it with sides of a porky broth and a sauce similar to a sweet Vietnamese dipping sauce (illustrated above). Preferable, in my opinion at least, are the more “Cambodian” places where after being marinated in soy sauce and palm sugar (and apparently sometimes garlic and coconut milk), the thin slices of pork are grilled over coals:
The result is sweeter and smokier than the deep-fried version. This kind of bai sach chrouk tends also to be served with a small dish of lightly pickled veggies, and is generally served outdoors, at makeshift stalls.
Regardless of the ethnicity of the vendor, all bai sach chrouk is served topped with heaps of chopped green onion, and is served over broken rice that, if you’re lucky, has been cooked in broth, as shown in this pic:
For a more detailed take on the dish, proceed to Phnomenon.
I’ve been having heaps of fun with my new toy, Nikon’s AF Fisheye Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED-IF DX. I was even more excited when I came across this article at Ken Rockwell’s site about DxO Optics Pro, a program that allows you to correct the distortion associated with such wide lenses. I downloaded the free sample and have been playing around with some of the images I took in Cambodia.
Here’s an pic from a market in Kampot, southern Cambodia, without any distortion correction:
Here’s the same image after DxO Optics Pro’s one button distortion correction:
And even cooler, if in Expert settings mode, you click on Max image, you get an even wider image:
I’m pretty sure I’ll end up buying this, especially if they add settings for my 18-35 f/3.5-4.5 D.
Much like Mexican, authentic northern-style Thai food can be very, very hard to find in Bangkok. A few mediocre dishes are sold at my neighborhood’s Tuesday market, and good khao soi is available if you’re willing to make the trek out to Viphavadee in northern Bangkok, but in general you’re hard pressed to find a tasty kaeng hangle or a pleasant kaeng ho. This is a pity, as when done well, northern Thai food can be among the best in the country. It is markedly more seasonal than other Thai cuisines, featuring the odd mushroom, green or fruit that is only available at certain times of the year, makes great use of a wide variety of indigenous veggies, and is porky, porky and porky. Which, I am told, is a good thing.
So thanks to the keen nose of my food friend Aong, I was recently directed towards Maan Mueng, a restaurant in Bangkok specializing in the dishes of the north. Maan Mueng features a huge array of authenticly prepared dishes:
so even those who can’t speak Thai or aren’t familiar with northern Thai food can simply point to whatever looks good. And damn, does it look good. Witness:
Nam phrik khaa:
A nam phrik or “dip” of chilies and galangal that is typically served with steamed mushrooms (now is mushroom season up north) and beef that is boiled before being steamed over fresh herbs. Thanks to the copious galangal, known in Thai as khaa, this nam phrik has a truly unique flavour, and the beef was, unlike most Thai beef, tender and very edible.
This is a thick “mash” of young jackfruit and a chili paste topped with crispy fried garlic. Simple but delicious.
The famous northern-style sausage that is loaded with heaps of fresh herbs (lime leaf, lemongrass, garlic, etc.) and grilled. Spot on.
Nam phrik num:
Another “dip”, this time of grilled chilies mashed up with grilled garlic, shallots and fish sauce, and served with pork rinds and fresh and par-boiled veggies for dipping.
This is laap that has been fried with a chili paste mixture that includes the herb makhwaen, which provides the dish a distinct bitter/hot flavour. The meat includes lots of offal (the heart fans out there will love laap khua), and includes the ubiquitous but delicious crispy garlic topping.
Raw pork that has been buried for three days until sour. Much better than it sounds.
Here’s the spread:
Note the pile of greens on the left-hand side; Maan Mueng features an entire table stacked with fresh herbs and greens for its customers. And dishes are accompanied by perfectly-steamed red sticky rice.
Our meal ended with coconut ice cream:
a dish available just about anywhere in Thailand, but I’m sure this is among the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. The ice cream was incredibly creamy and light in texture, and was suggestive of the soft meat of young coconuts rather than the cloying coconut milk that is typically used.
Maan Mueng is located quite far from the center of Bangkok, but is in all regards considerably easier than going to Chiang Mai or Mae Hong Son.
Located between Ramkhamhaeng 152-154
8am-5pm (closed Tuesday)
02 728 0945
Ahaan isaan, northeastern Thai-style food, is available virtually everywhere in Bangkok. In fact, I’ll bet there’s more isaan food in Bangkok than in isaan! The vast majority of this food is cheap and informal, and is sold primarily to homesick working class immigrants. However, there is also a great deal of isaan food that is directed towards middle class Bangkok diners. Although this kind of food may not always be as “authentic,” it’s often much cleaner and more accessible.
Foon Talop, a wildly popular restaurant located in the Chatuchak Weekend Market is an example of the latter. The restaurant is as interesting in terms of its atmosphere as its food, with diners seemingly stuffed into every tight corner and waiters and som tam pounders screaming orders at each other:
Since it is isaan, of course you’ve got to order som tam:
which, although it’s made en masse in two gigantic mortar and pestles, is quite decent. We ordered som tam thai, som tam with bottled fish sauce, peanuts and dried shrimp. As with every restaurant serving this dish, it is made to order, and I ordered mine “phet priaow,” spicy and sour.
Another isaan standby is nam tok muu:
This is strips of grilled pork made into a “salad” along with roasted sticky rice, lime, fish sauce, mint leaves and shallots. Nam tok literally means “waterfall,” and refers to the fact that traditionally the drippings of the grilled meat are collected and added to the dish. I’m not sure if that’s the case here though.
These dishes are good, but I like Foon Talop for its slightly more unusual items, such as plaa som (pictured at the top of this post), a freshwater fish that has been stuffed with sticky rice and allowed to sour. The fish is then battered and deep-fried and served with heaps of crispy fried garlic. Absolutely delicious, except for the tiny bones that are almost impossible to avoid.
Another interesting dish is kuay jap yuan, literally, “Vietnamese noodle soup”:
A delicious pork broth containing thick round rice noodles, chunks of the Vietnamese sausage known in Thai as muu yor, strips of chicken, and topped with crispy fried shallots. Simple but good.
Chatuchak Weekend Market (the restaurant is located along the outside edge of Section 24, on the Kamphaeng Phet II Road side.)
On the surface, Mae Sot is one of the least likely food destinations in Thailand. However those in search of something unusual will certainly be rewarded, as because of its location near the border with Myanmar (Burma), Mae Sot is in many ways more Burmese than Thai. This has led to a variety of dishes and ingredients that are rarely seen elsewhere in Thailand. This is especially evident in the town’s morning market (pictured above), where I began my day with a breakfast of mohinga:
the famous Burmese noodle soup, which in Mae Sot is sold from several basic restaurants near the market:
The mohinga was OK, not nearly as good as some I’ve had in Yangon, but considering this is one of the few places in Thailand where one can get the dish, I was happy. The strips you see in the top of the soup are yuak kluay, the inner pity stem of the banana tree, an essential ingredient in mohinga. Upon ordering the dish, the vendor also crumbles a deep-fried lentil cracker into the soup.
Other interesting things to eat at the morning market included this delicious Burmese sugar cane sweet:
another rarity in Thailand, samosas:
and fresh eels:
There were also some interesting things to see, such as the Burmese shoppers and shopkeepers themselves:
After exploring the market, we stopped by Wat Chumphon Khiri where we had a snack of lephet thoke:
the Burmese dish of pickled tea leaves mixed with deep-fried nuts, tomatoes, shredded cabbage, lime juice, sesame oil and garlic. There were lots of other Burmese dishes for sale at the grounds of this temple.
Lunch was another dish of probable Burmese origin, khao soi:
Made here by Muslims, an ethnic group that is quite evident in Mae Sot. The khao soi was average; undoubtedly better is hkauk hswe, the Burmese predecessor to khao soi that is sold at the same shops that sell mohinga.
So if you’re looking for an exotic market and even more exotic food, I’d highly recommend Mae Sot.
My photos grace the food & drink chapter of Lonely Planet’s most recent Vietnam guide. I’m also responsible for writing the food & drink chapter of the soon-to-be-published Greater Mekong guide, and will be co-authoring the upcoming Bangkok guide, as well as the Bangkok chapter of the upcoming Thailand’s Islands & Beaches guide. Whew!
There are many dishes of Chinese origin in Thailand, as well as a great deal of food using Chinese ingredients, but Chinese food as the Chinese eat it in China is quite rare. Thus my ears perked up when my trusty partner in food, Aong, mentioned that she knew a good Yunanaese restaurant.
In reality, Kuaytiao Naam Ngiaow is something of a hodge-podge of Chinese cuisines, ranging from Taiwanese to Szechuanese, but the most interesting dishes are those of Yunanese origin. The owner comes from the Yunanese community of Doi Mae Salong in remote Chiang Rai Province, a town known for the noodle dish that serves as the restaurant’s namesake. Like the food, the restaurant’s clientèle was authentically Chinese, and the menu items were written on the wall in Chinese characters.
Before we even had a chance to sit Aong had already ordered mii phat, fried noodles:
This was the first dish that arrived, and upon tasting it, I knew that this restaurant was going to be special. The noodles had a deliciously smoky wok hei and lacked the oiliness of lesser fried noodle dishes.
I like green things that are fried with salty things so I ordered a dish of yot thua lantao, pea greens, fried with oyster sauce:
The greens were fried the way the Chinese do so well; cooked but not soggy or wilted. Tons of garlic and dried chilies didn’t hurt either. At this point, things were going very well.
Things got even better when we received my favourite dish of the meal: Szechuan-style tofu:
A variant of this dish, tao huu son khrueng, is quite popular in Thailand, but doesn’t come close to this version, which was strong with the numbing/hot flavour of Szechuan pepper.
And last but not least, we ordered nuea phae naam daeng, goat in red sauce:
A stew-like concoction served over a layer of steamed bok choy. I liked this one a lot as it reminded me of a very similar oxtail dish I had once eaten in Macau. The broth was thick and tasty, and loaded with red wolfberries, which a Chinese chemist once told me are good for the eyes.
Well done, Aong.
Kuaytiao Naam Ngiao
466 Soi 20 Mithuna, Thanon Pracharatbamphen
(The easiest way to reach the restaurant is, beginning from Huay Khwang MRT station, take exit #1 for Pracharatbamphen Road. Get in a taxi and immediately turn left into the aforementioned street. Continue until you reach an intersection where you’re forced to turn right or left; turn left and the restaurant, identified by Chinese letters, is about 500 m up on your left side.)
02 690 3174
Along with having one of the longest restaurant names in Bangkok, Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao must also serve some of the city’s best Chinese food. The restaurant is one of a Singapore-based franchise that has branches all over Asia. Bangkok’s branch opened about a year ago, and always seems to be packed during lunch time. It was my turn to impress Aong with my restaurant choice prowess, and I thought this place, with its excellent and authentic Chinese noodles, would do the trick.
We began with Shredded celery with dried beancurd and sesame oil:
The dish was served chilled, and was flavoured with little more than sesame oil and perhaps a drop or two of soy sauce. The celery and carrot carried this subtle flavour, and also provided the dish with a deliciously crunchy element.
But this was just a starter, and the real reason people come here is for la mian, fresh, hand-pulled noodles:
We split a huge bowl of Hot and spicy ‘La Mian’ with Sichuan preserved vegetable and minced pork. The noodles come to the table coated with a layer of oily broth redolent of Szechuan pepper and cumin:
Immediately after receiving your bowl, you’ll be approached by an employee wielding a pair of kitchen shears who will ask if you want your noodles cut. I would recommend this, as the noodles are very long, and otherwise you’ll end up getting most of the oily broth on your shirt. The noodles, no doubt made minutes earlier (you can see the noodle pullers at work behind the counter) taste fresh and soft, and are surprisingly light. The broth is spicy, sour (from the pickled veggies) and salty.
These were followed by the restaurant’s other namesake, Xiao long bao, steamed, broth-filled pork dumplings:
which Aong and I agreed were average at best. The wrappers were thin and tore easily, making it a messy and difficult dish to eat, and the pork filling seemed disproportionately large.
The only possible complaint I have would be that much of this is cold weather food, and this being Bangkok, it wouldn’t hurt the restaurant to turn up the air conditioning a few notches just for atmosphere!
Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao
Urban Kitchen (located in the basement of the Erawan Bangkok)
494 Thanon Phloen Chit (Phloen Chit BTS station)
02 250 7990
Chiang Kii, a old-school restaurant located in Bangkok’s Chinatown, is known for serving Bangkok’s most expensive khao tom plaa, rice and fish soup. A 250 baht (about $8) bowl (pictured above) includes heaps of very fresh fish (I believe it’s pomfret), tiny cubes of sweet/salty pork, dried shrimp, preserved white radish, dried galangal, a pinch of bitter greens, strips of dried tofu, and a garnish of deep-fried garlic; a simple dish, based on simple, but high-quality ingredients.
Each bowl is prepared by an elderly couple:
who tend to speak Chinese to each other (and, incidentally, Thai with a strong accent). Considering the cost of their product, they take their work very seriously, and each order involves a fair bit of consultation and discussion, with some customers ordering variations such as less rice or more fish (I asked for oysters). It took the man several minutes of concentrated work to turn out my bowl, which was served with a tiny bowl of tao jiao, fermented soybeans, the obligatory condiment.
The broth itself was inobtrusive, and required the saltiness a few spoons of tao jiao would supply. The fish was both copious and incredibly fresh, the reason, I suspect, for the dish’s high price tag. As a whole the khao tom was very good, but I have a feeling that if it weren’t for the essentially unrelated factors of atmosphere and the whole ‘ceremony’ associated with preparing the dish, I might feel slightly ripped off. As it is though, I’ll certainly be back come pay day.
54 Soi Bamrungrat (also known as Thanon Yaowarat Soi 12)