ThaiDay: Introductory course

Introductory Course (ThaiDay, 23/03/06)
One outstanding restaurant is Thai Food 101 for those looking for an overview of the cuisine.

I hadn’t eaten at Hualamphong Food Station for years, and had been meaning to include the restaurant in an article I was writing. Somewhat grudgingly (the restaurant was never easy to find the best of times) I set off to relocate it in the maze that is Sukhumvit Soi 34, but after 40 minutes of searching, came up empty-handed. After trying unsuccessfully to call the restaurant for directions, I went back another day, only to meet the same fate. It wasn’t until long after I had given up hope in ever having another meal at Hualamphong Food Station that I noticed that the restaurant had relocated virtually across the street from my house. And when I say relocated, I really mean it; the various wooden structures that previously formed the restaurant had been taken apart, moved across town, and reassembled at their present location alongside the Kaset-Nawamin Road.

I’m certainly not the only one who has had a hard time located Hualamphong Food Station. Over the years, many a visiting foodie and even a significant number of long-term Bangkok residents have undoubtedly had the pleasure of getting lost on the way to the restaurant. The leafy, rambling assortment of wooden buildings was one of Bangkok’s best-kept “secrets”, and although it was always more popular among foreigners, was recognized for its authentic and delicious Thai food. Hualamphong’s new location is a virtual carbon copy of the original Sukhumvit restaurant, but is located in area that is frequented almost exclusively by middle and upper class Thais; people who conceivably know their how mok nor mai from their nam phrik num, and I was curious to see if this somehow had an effect on the food.

Sitting down at Hualamphong’s wooden tables, the emphasis on good food is immediately evident; how many other Thai restaurants serve a complimentary amuse bouche? In this case it’s a long wooden tray with three kinds of chili dips and an attractive array of fresh vegetables, including such obscure regional herbs such as phak khayaeng and ton or. Hualamphong is best known for its takes on regional Thai cuisine, and the menu is a virtual culinary map of the country, including dishes such as the northern style sausage known as sai ua, an obscure jackfruit salad from the northeast, and budu song khrueang, a chili dip from the south. Although I commend the restaurant’s efforts to feature unusual dishes, I wonder how many diners actually order dishes such as fried ducks’ beaks, ants’ eggs, or the northern specialty, fried bamboo worms (although I’ll admit, the worms, 80 baht, are actually quite good).

Despite featuring dishes from every corner of Thailand, Hualamphong seems to be most confident in its execution of isaan food, and the best dish of our visit was the preserved pork salad mixed with crispy seasoned rice (80 baht), a dish of Vietnamese origin that Thais know as naem khluk. I’ve had this dish elsewhere numerous times, yet am almost always disappointed. This is a pity because the idea behind the dish is wonderful: a spicy/sour mixture of crispy deep-fried rice with fresh herbs, peanuts, and fermented pork. However, more often than not, the rice tends to be a gray, mushy pulp laced with alarming bits of pork skin. At Hualamphong there are still alarming bits of pork skin (it’s unfortunately a prerequisite in this dish), but the rice is crispy, tart and flavorful; the best version of this dish I’ve tasted yet. Another winner in the same genre is steamed mushrooms served with chili sauce (70 baht), a simple but delicious dish that features a variety of mushrooms steamed over a broth containing lemongrass, shallots, galingale and basil, and served with a piquant dipping sauce.

Slightly less successful are the restaurant’s attempts at southern Thai cuisine. Fried beef with southern-style chili topping (100 baht) employs stringy strips of beef that resembled isaan-style nuea daet diaow, and sadly lacked the requisite savory “dryness” of the original. Another dish with southern roots, spicy fried sataw (a pungent southern-Thai vegetable) with river prawn (150) was a disappointingly mild effort at a dish that is normally very intense. Indeed, much of the food at Hualamphong is somewhat toned town, but when it concerns Thai regional cooking this can be to the diner’s benefit, as it allows one to truly experience the flavors of the often unfamiliar herbs, fish and vegetables.

Another plus about Hualamphong Food Station is the restaurant’s excellent service staff. The waiters are friendly and helpful and appear to be confident about what they do. After several months in its new location, Hualamphong Food Station continues to be a restaurant that celebrates good food, and is one of the few places in town that recognizes the treasure that is Thailand’s regional cooking. And best of all, it’s actually possible to find.

Hualamphong Food Station
Kaset-Nawamin Road (near the second stoplight from either end of the road)
01 300 9700, 01 634 1892