Dining in Bangkok: Tonkatsu Raku Tei

Tonkatsu 1 Last weekend Tawn and I took a little time to get out of the house, run some errands, and see some friends.  This, despite the heavy load of work.

BK Magazine, a free English-language newspaper, published a list of what they consider to be the best five or six tonkatsu restaurants in town.  Japanese make up the largest expatriate population in Thailand and we live in the heart of the Japanese section of town.

Not too surprisingly, there is some really good and affordable Japanese food to be had.  In fact, every time I head back to the US, one of the things I specifically don’t want to eat (besides Thai food, natch) is Japanese food.

We decided to try one of the recommended restaurants: Tonkatsu Raku Tei, located in the basement level at the Citi Resort service apartments on Sukhumvit Soi 39.

When you walk in, it becomes very clear that Tonkatsu Raku Tei (Hey! They have the same initials as former Prime Minister Thaksin’s political party… conspiracy?) is the real deal because all the other diners are Japanese.  That’s a good sign, right?

What I really wanted to try was the tried and true standard of all tonkatsu: rosukatsu, made from fillet of pork loin, with a thin layer of fat along the side, breaded in panko breadcrumbs, and lightly fried.

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Served with two homemade tonkatsu sauces, an original flavor and a really good spicy one that tastes a bit like barbecue sauce but without the tomato, the tonkatsu was tender and not too oily.  The pork itself was a bit bland, although moist, and served as a neutral carrier for the sauces’ flavors.

One lesson we learned – sadly, after the fact – was that the sesame seeds in the bowl on the left and meant to be ground up, using the wooden pestle on the far right of the picture that we mistook as a chopstick rest.  Oh, silly us!

 

After lunch, we stopped by Scott and Jum’s house to see their new baby.  They live in an interesting townhome development that is very Grecco-Roman in its design.   Too bad I didn’t get a wider picture so you could fully appreciate the number of columns that adorned each building.

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P1090805 The baby, whose name I’m not sure how to spell correctly so I won’t try here, is very cute.  He’s a mixture of Thai and American heritage so has blended features.

He’s so low-key.  He didn’t really mind who was holding him, but apparently really hates being cooped up indoors and his fussing quiets when he is brought outside.

We drove Jum and baby over to a gathering of former United Airlines colleagues.  Tawn flew with UA for a few years around the turn of the century.  (That sounds old, doesn’t it?)  Sadly, we just received news that as part of their further cutbacks, United will be closing their Bangkok flight attendant base for the second time since the 2001 attacks.

The colleague’s house at which the gathering was held is up near the old airport.  It took a bit of driving to get to and we were confused and overshot it by a few kilometers.  Along the way, we passed the remnants of the elevated rail line that was originally going to run from the center of the city up to the old airport and then on out to the Rangsit area.

The project, which was operated by a Hong Kong-based conglomerate called Hopewell Holdings, ran into problems in the late 90s and the contract was canceled by the Thai government.  Due to the inability of the project to ever really gain traction, it became largely derided as the Hopeless Project.  All that remains of the project are a significant number of columns running along the Don Meuang Tollway.

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A sign of optimism, there were several housing estates built along the Hopewell right of way (which has a still-operating train line underneath it), including this slightly over-the-top property called Monte Carlo:

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So the trip to see Tawn’s colleagues was a good use of time if for no other reason than it allowed me to get an up-close look at the Stonehenge of Thailand.  Every so often, there is talk of reviving the project or using the surviving infrastructure to build the extension of the airport link (which is still another year or more away from opening) to connect both the old and new airport.

One final thing to leave you with, a very nice pizza I ate at Bacco restaurant, just at the other end of the soi from us.

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I think the restaurant makes its own ricotta cheese.  It was so good!

 

Your “K” Bank

Thai banking institutions have undergone quite a cosmetic transformation in the past few years.  Hardly surprising in one of the globe’s cosmetic surgery capitals where an afternoon bite can easily be preceded by a nip and tuck.  Within the last five years, the Thai banks have gone from boring to beautiful, with new logos, vibrant color schemes and careful marketing and promotion.

Thai Bank LogosSiam Commercial Bank, the 100-year-old original Thai bank, has its royal purple.  TMB, the Thai Military Bank, has a patriotic red and blue color scheme with an umlaut that is intended to represent two people working together (or two soldiers holding hands in a don’t ask, don’t tell sort of way).  Ayudhya Bank has a very “We Love the King” yellow for its color.  Kasikorn Bank, previously known as Thai Farmers Bank (“kasikorn” being an older word for farmer) has adopted a fertile green color and brands itself as K-Bank.

The competition between the banks is fierce and each works hard to convince consumers that they have something to offer you besides the miserable 0.25% interest rates.  (Which climbs to 3% if you lock at least 5 million baht into a 3-year certificate of deposit.)

Recently, K-Bank has launched a new campaign emphasizing how customer-friendly they are.  (In full disclosure, K-Bank is one of the two banks where Tawn and I have accounts, the other being the Singapore-owned UOB.  Yes, I am a Thai farmer.)

When you enter a K-Bank branch, there are complimentary bottles of K-Bank water to quench your thirst.

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And as the weather is so warm here, you might need to freshen up after entering the branch.  If so, please feel free to help yourself to the K-Bank moist towelettes.

P1090770But the K-Bank hospitality doesn’t end there.  There are also K-Bank condoms, free for the taking.  Yes, you probably saw that one coming, didn’t you?

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The thing about the “K-Condom” is that there is a terrible double-entendre lurking in plain sight.  The Thais have borrowed the word “cock” from English as a slang for, well, you know…

Since “cock” is a very harsh sounding word, they us the word เค (pronounced “kay”) as an abbreviation, much in the same way as in English we euphemistically refer to the “F-word”.  So that makes the K-Condom very much like saying the cock condom, which to a gaggle of juvenile boys would be hilariously funny.

(Have I mentioned that Thai comedies are quite sophomoric in terms of what is considered funny?  Bodily humor is considered the pinnacle of wit.)

Anyhow, after a week of politics both Thai and American style, I thought we deserved a laugh.  Have a good weekend.

 

Sarah Says Obama is a Racist

Interesting back-and-forth going on between me and another Xangan.  This featured post on Revelife (Christian Xanga) was about John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as VP.  The author surmised that perhaps she was chosen specifically because of her conservative Christian and anti-abortion position.  The author posited these questions:

“If you are pro-life, could you vote for a candidate who was pro-choice?  If you are pro-choice, could you vote for a candidate who was pro-life?”

“I guess I am also wondering, should abortion be the only factor deciding our presidential elections?”

 

Among the responses was this one from Big_Esh.  (Emphasis mine)

Well, he might support pro-life, and he might want that quality in his running mate, but I seriously doubt a veteran politician as he would choose his second in command based on one moral value.  The media, as I am sure everyone out there knows, tends to be liberal in how they portray everything that goes on in this nation, and of course they are going to pick McCain apart. 

Nevermind that Obama comes from what looks like a racist background and has no real clue how to “change the face of politics” (see his speech at the DNC for proof of that)…let’s attack McCain because of one value that his running mate happens to have. 

 

To which I responded:

Huh?  Obama comes from a racist background?  With a Kenyan father, a white mother from Kansas, and a very diverse extended family?  How do you figure that as a racist background?

 

To which she responded:

I am, of course, referring to that awful pastor who is so blatantly racist it makes my teeth hurt.

Say what you will, but if you sit and listen to a man spew out such hatred, and continue to show your support by your membership of his congregation, then you are in essence showing support for what is being preached.  People leave a church when they are offended enough, and this clearly didn’t bother him enough to leave.  I know he “denounced” such hate, but actions speak louder than words, and Obama continues to support that man.  Red flag…not to mention his wife said she had never been proud of America until Obama became a candidate…where the heck has she been living?

Being of a diverse background does not give someone a get out of jail free card for racism. And being black, or another minority does not give someone the right to be racist towards whites, although that seems to be more accepted these days.

 

I’m not sure where Sarah (the name Big_Esh gives in her profile) lives, but felt it was worth addressing some of her – what I preceived as – slips of logic: 

Thank you for responding.  Would you agree that Senator McCain’s “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” (sung to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”) would not be an accurate or fair way to encapsulate his foreign policy positions? 

Would you agree that even though Governor Palin doesn’t disown her daughter after it turns out she’s engaged in premarital sex, that it would be out of context to construe the Governor’s continued support of her daughter as an endorsement of her actions?

If you agree that we should try to judge candidates by considering their words in their original context rather than out of context, if you agree that it is okay for people to support those they are close to, even if they don’t agree with their words and actions, then I think you and I will agree that labeling Senator Obama a racist because of out of context comments his minister and his wife made, really isn’t a sound way to make decisions. 

Much in the same way that, even though I’m not a McCain-Palin supporter, I don’t think that Senator McCain is chomping at the bit to bomb Iran and I don’t think that Governor Palin’s support for her daughter is an endorsement of unwed motherhood and premarital sex.  Although I do have to chuckle, now that we have a good example of why “abstinence only” education isn’t so effective.

 

I’m wondering what her response will be or if she will have one at all.  It is frustrating that in this election, people seem to form their opinions more from pundits than facts.  I’m curious if she ever watched (or read) the sermons in context?  Surely we can agree that we need to have more substantive discussions.

Interesting quote that I came across while preparing this entry.  In the May 5, 2008 edition of the Huffington Post, Lara Cohen, news director at Us Weekly, which is regularly lambasted because of its focus on supermarket tabloid concerns, turned the criticisms back on the mainstream media and their coverage of the Reverend Wright controversy:

“The true hallmark of sensationalized journalism is ginning up controversy to drive sales, and for the mainstream news media Wright was a tailor-made tabloid icon. With newspaper sales at record lows, network news ratings tanking and 24-hour news channels desperate to fill up all 24 hours, Wright’s outbursts were the mainstream media’s equivalent of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch—a train wreck no one could turn away from. And so they milked it, regardless of the impact on the very race they were supposedly covering objectively.” 

 

The Skinny and Wide Rice Noodles

Okay, I’m about to write a “normal” entry but first, let me give you just a bit of an update on the Thai political situation:

The information I gave yesterday about the Election Commission recommending the dissolution of the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP, which Prime Minister Samak heads), turns out to be correct.  Originally, I didn’t see it reported elsewhere but have now found several Thai sources that confirm it.

I’ve heard from supporters on both sides of the conflict as well as from people who are sitting in the middle, unimpressed by the extreme actions of both sides, and I’m thankful to all of them for sharing their insights and opinions.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD, the anti-government protesters) have made the first intimations of a possible compromise to end the confrontation, but their number one requirement is that Prime Minister Samak resign and dissolve his cabinet.  Not surprisingly, Samak refuses to do so.

Things are moving very slowly towards some possible resolution, emphasis on the “slowly” part.  The Election Commission’s recommendation, should it be approved by the Constitutional Court, would largely moot the conflict as the PPP would be dissolved and new elections would have to be called anyway.

If I was to try to give you some sense of the general feeling in the country about the way towards resolution, the Bangkok Post’s front page commentary in Wednesday’s edition might encapsulate it.  The full commentary is here but the bullet points are as follows:

  • Prime Minister Samak declaring a state of emergency was a wrong-headed ploy to retain power.
  • Kudos to the army chief for keeping the army out of the political wrangling.
  • Yes, the PPP did win the right to govern (Samak’s main argument), but the Election Commission’s recommendation notwithstanding, the Samak government has made many unconstitutional mis-steps in the past seven months since taking office.  For this, they should step down, allowing the coalition government to form a new cabinet.
  • Yes, the PAD has the right to protest (the PAD’s main argument) but their actions such as closing down three southern airports have gone too far.  Additionally, they must respect democratic principles.  The call from some of their leaders for a non-elected government is not acceptable.

So that’s where things stand: at an impasse.  We’ll see how the next few days develop but I’d place my money on an eventual resignation by the Prime Minister and the calling of snap elections.

 

How is this affecting you and Tawn?

This is a common question I’ve received and thank you for expressing your concern.  Yesterday I received a call from a friend who is to travel here next week for a conference.  Worried about what he’s seen on TV, he was going to cancel his trip for fear of his safety.

Let’s make this clear: there is no danger in visiting Thailand nor in living here.  There is no reasonable prospect of violence or danger in the near future that would effect visitors or residents.  Fears of a Rawanda-like genocide or a Balkan civil war are completely misplaced.

What you see on television is the narrow width of a camera lens, pointed at the most dramatic and newsworthy thing it can find.  If you could pull back to a very wide angle, you would see that life in the city and the nation are continuing as normal.

 

An old friend reopens

Long before I moved here, Tawn took me to “the red noodle shop” (real name, Yen Ta Fo) which was located next to a driving range further down Sukhumvit.  The shop eventually closed as development took over that area, but the owners continued to ply their trade at outlets in malls around the more suburban parts of the city. 

Recently, though, good news: Yen Ta Fo opened a branch in Ploenchit Centre, located a two-minute walk from Tawn’s office.  Taking over a defunct Haagen Dazs and a poor imitation of a NY-style deli, Yen Ta Fo is attracting the crowds for lunch.

Their specialty, the red noodles (below), is a mixture of wide rice noodles, mixed seafood, and a slightly vinegary sauce.  I don’t personally care for it as it is too vinegary for me, but Tawn loves it and lots of other people were ordering it, so I consider it a shortcoming of my tastebuds.

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I had a great dish of pork spareribs (below) that had been stewed until the meat just jumped off the bones.  The sweet-spicy sauce is so satisfying and made for a perfect rainy afternoon meal.

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On the side we ordered the Yen Ta Fo version of chicken satay (below).  They prepare their chicken with a spicy curry paste rub that adds a lot of flavor and a fair amount of heat, instead of the usual continuous basting of coconut milk.  Their sticky rice (in the basket) was a little undercooked, a bit more “tough” than “sticky”. 

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Beyond the Yen Ta Fo restaurants, the family has a series of more upscale establishments with the name Mallika.  Website here.  No doubt we will be back to Yen Ta Fo regularly.

 

P1090742 On the other side of Tawn’s office is a block of traditional shop houses.  These four-story buildings housed a shop or small restaurant in the ground floor and then residences above. 

There was one restaurant to which we regularly went, and Issan (northeastern Thai) style place that served wonderful grilled chicken. 

Sadly, the shops have been closed down and the entire block is being demolished.  Not sure what will replace it but the property, on the corner of Ploenchit (Sukhumvit) and Whittayu (Wireless Road) is next to the Plaza Athenee Hotel, kitty-corner to the British Embassy, and is one of the more valuable locations in the city.

I predict another office tower / mall / condo complex.  Anyone know for sure?

On the left is a picture taken from the Skytrain Ploenchit Station platform.  It isn’t quite wide enough to show everything but the sidewalk is the dark strip in the lower left.  The stairs leading down from the Skytrain station are the white-lined area in the edge of the lower left.

People used to congregate on the outdoor patios where the umbrella still stands, eating at folding tables during the lunch rush.  Now it is being taken down, story by story, building by building.  You can see how much has already been done in the picture below.  The Plaza Athenee is just behind (to the left) of the low-rise pink building.

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Let’s hear it for ongoing development.  It is a shame that old buildings and family-owned small businesses end up closed to make way for progress.  The only positive to this is that the location, adjacent to a mass transit station, is a good place for denser development.  Unfortunately, the development will benefit primarily those with money, not the lower income families who used to earn a living there.

 

One final construction shot, this one from the huge site next to the Asoke Skytrain station.  The excavation has started and I was tickled to see that one of the cranes bears a warning in Japanese.  I imagine it isn’t much help for the construction workers, who primarily come from upcountry Thailand.

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Do you know what it says?

 

Update on the Update

Nothing much happened overnight; there is a still a lot of tension in the city.  Schools throughout the metropolitan area are closed for three days, even thought only about 40 schools in the centre of the city are affected.  (“Equity” is the reason given.)

It is overcast and even as I type, the first big drops of rain are falling.  The army commander insists “the door to a coup is locked”.  Parliament must find a peaceful resolution.

A quasi-retraction: the “update” I gave yesterday was based on an AP report I received through Yahoo News.  You may recall it announced the Election Commission’s unanimous ruling that the People Power Party should be dissolved.  As the largest party in the governing coalition, that would have forced the government to be shut down and new elections called. 

However, I have been unable to verify that news through any other source.  There is no mention on Thai websites, in either Thai or English.  Looking back a half-month I find a similar report on the website for The Nation, an English-language paper.  That may have been a preliminary announcement or else the AP is late in its reporting.  I’ll let you know how that plays out.

I have some non-protest related items to post but have a lot of work to do today.  In fact, I was up at 3:00 am for calls with the US.  If time allows, I’ll post later today or tomorrow.

 

State of Emergency Declared in Bangkok

Update Below

The confrontation between anti- and pro-government protesters reached a boiling point early Tuesday morning, when the police-enforced separation of the two groups by a distance of several hundred meters was breached.  In the resulting melee at least one person was killed.

At 7:00 Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Samak announced a state of emergency in Bangkok, invoking a controversial article in the new constitution that was seen as being insisted upon by the military transitional government during the last coup.

Under this state of emergency, the commander of the Army has been given authority to enforce the state of emergency, which prohibits gatherings of more than five people for political purposes.  The paragraph requiring everyone to remain at home has been exempted so that business can continue as usual.

There is a story in more detail on The Nation’s website here.  There is also a shocking video that appears to shows anti-government protesters (in the yellow shirts) beating pro-government protesters who are lying on the ground, unable or unwilling to defend themselves. 

For balance, though, there is no way to identify absolutely who is who, but I think when it comes to the point of people on either side beating people who don’t even have the strength to raise their arms in defense, that’s way too far.  Let’s use the political process and peaceful protest to change the system, not violence.

 

Update

At about noon Tuesday, local time, it was reported that the Election Commission, as part of an ongoing investigation, has ruled that the People’s Power Party committed electoral fraud in the December 2007 election and should be dissolved.  The PPP is the party of Prime Minister Samak and is considered, for all intensive purposes, to be simply a rebirth of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, which was dissolved after the 2006 coup.

The Election Commission voted unanimously for the dissolution and the case will be forwarded to the public prosecutor’s office, who will determine if it should be forwarded to the Constitutional Court for a final ruling.

This certainly adds some fuel to the fire, but over the past several months, the judiciary has appeared to be relatively independent and fair.  My hope is that this will help bring about a resolution to the immediate conflict and encourage everyone to play by the rules of the game.  In other words, the constitution.