Thai street food: khanom tang taek

There was a time when I wrote a lot more about Thai street food. In the years since I had to stop working from home and started getting a real job, I’ve had a lot less time to write – but rest assured I haven’t stopped enjoying Thai street food! In the past few months, I’ve discovered a tasty treat that I had not encountered in more than ten years here: a snack named after a broken barrel.

Called “khanom tang taek” this snack is basically a pancake cooked in a deep pan, filled with shredded fresh coconut, black sesame seeds and sugar.

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Baked until crisp, it is folded in half (the breaking of the “barrel”) and served while still warm.

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It isn’t the fastest treat to make, perhaps one of the reasons you see so few street vendors making it. But the flavor and texture and wonderful and I count myself lucky to have a vendor who is regularly found at lunchtime across the street from my office.

 

Burgers in Bangkok: Daniel Thaiger

Note that Soi 38 has become much less crowded due to city inspectors enforcing zoning laws. Daniel Thaiger food truck is now at Sukhumvit Soi 23. Follow them at https://www.facebook.com/DanielThaiger/

Bangkok is a street food city. It is no exaggeration to say that there are tens of thousands of street food vendors. And yet the opening last year of Daniel Thaiger, a street food vendor usually found on Sukhumvit Soi 38, created a niche in an otherwise crowded market by selling American style hamburgers.

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Soi 38 is listed in pretty much every tourist guide book as one of the go-to places for street food in Bangkok. Located in the upscale middle stretch of Sukhumvit Road and adjacent to a BTS Skytrain station (Thong Lo), it is extremely easy to access. As the sun lowers on the horizon, street food vendors start setting up and most of them continue to serve until well after midnight. Because of its popularity, it is also crowded with foreigners and most restaurants have menus available in many languages. The food remains top-notch, though, despite no longer being a secret known only to locals.

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About forty meters into the soi, just past all the street vendors selling the usual Thai foods (congee, fried noodles, soup noodles, satay, sticky rice and mangoes, etc.), you will find the small Daniel Thaiger truck, alternating sides depending on the day of the week. A crowd, many of them looking suspiciously like hipsters, fills the sidewalk around the truck and seating is always a challenge. Diners are not just foreigners, though. A surprising number of Thais join the queue.

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One half of the couple behind Daniel Thaiger – Honey, pictured above in black with glasses – is the front of the house. She greets, takes orders, makes sure the few tables and chairs are kept clean, and checks to make sure you are satisfied with your meal. Which you are likely to be.

2014-01-31 05The other half of the team, Mark, mans the gas-powered griddle and oversees the production of about 140 hamburgers a night. A native Angelino (meaning he’s from Los Angeles, for those of you unfamiliar with the term), Mark’s concept of “hamburger” is definitely and thankfully shaped by the In-n-Out burger chain. Their focus – and his, too – is on quality, fresh ingredients. Mark hand-forms the patties each day and makes sure to check with his diners, asking how the food is and seeking their suggestions and ideas.

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The menu is very simple: plain burger (beef or pork), bacon and cheese burger, a pork-and-oat burger, grilled cheese, and tuna melt. When parked on Soi 38, they are unable to make fries due to not having access to electricity. But the truck also sells chips and bottled beverages. Above, is a two-patty beef burger with bacon and cheese. I always order medium-rare, which I think compliments the flavor of the high-quality imported beef. The fact that your burger is cooked to your desired level of doneness shows an attention to detail missing at most burger restaurants in town.

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With the truck open five days a week (closed Sunday and Monday), every few days Mark will throw a special on the menu. This evening it was a jalapeño mac-and-cheeseburger, which includes a nice little serving of spicy mac-and-cheese on top of the burger. This is an awesome combination. I’ve also tried and enjoyed the chili cheeseburger.

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Collaborating with a local producer of fine meats, they also offered a pastrami burger. Tasty, although the flavor of the pastrami gets lost in the beefiness of the burger. All in all, though, the hamburgers are top-notch. Not only the best in Bangkok, but perhaps the best I’ve had anywhere. They certainly satisfy my craving for In-n-Out.

The truck is usually open by about 5:30 and it is common for items to start running out by 8:00 and for Mark and Honey to shut down by 9:00. Follow them on Facebook for daily specials.

Noodles with Honey Braised Chicken

Street food is one of the things that makes Bangkok a real pleasure to visit or to live in. There is such a variety of food, almost all of it of high quality and flavor. A recent favorite of mine is a long-standing Sukhumvit Road staple: Guaytiaw Pikgai Sai Nampung. This is a typical noodle shop selling honey-braised chicken.

This is a bowl of “dry” noodles (broth served in a separate bowl on the side) with a wing and drumstick. Some bean sprouts and chopped long beans. Many different types of noodles are available. I chose giam ee, a hand-rolled rice noodle similar to German spätzle. I like it because it is easier to eat than long noodles and holds onto the seasonings better, too.

The chicken is very tender, sweet and flavorful with the hint of honey to it. You can also choose other parts of the chicken if you prefer breast meat, for example. There are other ingredients available, too, in case you prefer further customization. Here in Thailand, the noodle shops are all about customization!

More a picture of Tawn than of the shop, but you can see that it is neat and tidy, even though it has been opens for many years. The walls are hung with newspaper clippings, family photos, and photos of His Majesty the King. The laminated table tops have worn with age but are kept sparkling clean.

If you are interested in visiting, the restaurant is in Sukhumvit Soi 20/1, a small dog-legged alley that connects to Sukhumvit road just about 10 meters west of the mouth of Soi 20. The restaurant is the fourth or fifth shop in on the right-hand side. You will see the aunty cooking just outside the front of the shop, the smell of the chicken beckoning you.

 

StrEAT Food Park in San Francisco

One of the more interesting dining experiences on my trip to the United States was the StrEAT Food Park in San Francisco. The renaissance of street food trucks – no longer the “roach coaches” of my youth – has swept many major cities and San Francisco has been no exception to this foodie trend. In June 2012, a permanent street food truck park opened in the city’s edgier South of Market district.

The park is located just beneath a freeway overpass across the street from the Costco warehouse store. Each day, up to ten different vendors park, following a rotating schedule. The range of options is overwhelming: from Spanish-Filipino fusion to Japanese sushi, gourmet Vietnamese sliders to Korean tacos, Italian word-fired pizzas to Indian curry. The website and twitter feed lists which vendors will be present and the park is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

The facility includes plenty of tables and chairs, restrooms and sanitary stations, and a 100-seat covered seating pavilion for those days when the weather is inclement. The crowd is varied but local high tech and bio tech firms are well-represented. Free bicycle parking is provided, encouraging environmentally friendly transportation.

Spoiled for choices, I finally settled on Roli Roti, a truck specializing in rotisserie chicken and porchetta, crispy roast pork. Open more than a decade, Roli Roti claims to be the country’s first mobile rotisserie and their focus is on sustainably raised meats and organic produce. While the chicken looked and smelled amazing, I opted for the porchetta and arugula sandwich.

The sandwich offers a generous – hearty, even – serving of juicy pork with very crispy skin, an onion relish with a tanginess that cut through the richness of the pork, and huge mound of baby arugula that looked like it has climbed out of the field a few minutes earlier, it was so fresh. 

The sandwich was served on a wonderful roll that sopped up all the juices. Sure, it was too big to eat like a real sandwich, and I had to take it apart and eat with a knife and fork. But it was a pretty tasty lunch, all for about $12 including a side of potatoes.

The roast fingerling potatoes sit underneath the rotisserie, where they are bathed in the drippings from the chicken and the porchetta. Sprinkled with rosemary sea salt, they are addictive.

No doubt, the StrEAT Food Park will be a destination to which I will return again and again on future visits. After all, there are so many different types of food to try and so little time. Many thanks to SF-based Xangan Jason for introducing me to this gem.

 

Need a Remote Control?

Most of the time, the vendors occupying any particular stretch of sidewalk are fairly consistent. The shoe repairman is next to the roti sai mai vendor, who is next to the steamed corn and peanuts vendor, who is next to the magazine vendor.

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But the other day, I looked to the street below the Thong Lor Skytrain station, and saw a vendor whom I had never seen before. For a few moments I stared, trying to figure out what, exactly, the vendor was selling. Finally, I descended to the street for a closer look.

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Sure enough, he had a table full of remote controls: remotes for air conditioner units were in the back and remotes for various other electrical appliances were in the front. There must have been a few hundred different models. This struck me as odd, because demand for remote controls must not be very high. It also struck me as odd because, since I had never seen this vendor here before (or since, for that matter), how would people know where to seek him out?

“You know, I need to get a new remote control for the Betamax player. I’ll just wander the city under I come across a remote control vendor.”

Doesn’t seem likely, does it? 

 

Food in Bangkok: Samosa

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Normally I write about entire meals but there is one street vendor in one corner of Bangkok that sells a single item that is so good, that my mouth waters as I write this.  The vendor, Raspal Singh, makes samosas, the deep fried Indian pastry filled with a potato mixture and served with a complementary sweet and sour sauce.

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Mr. Singh’s stall is nothing more than a single cart parked alongside a wall in a small soi (alley) immediately to the south of India Emporium, a small shopping center in Pahurat (Little India) on Chakrapet Road.  This is not far from Bangkok’s Chinatown and the Old Siam shopping center. 

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All day long he prepares batch after batch of the samosas (they also prepare tikki – which is the filling fried up without the pasty wrapper) and you can only get them to go.  They’re so tasty, though, that eating them by the side of the road is perfectly acceptable.  Why would you want to wait and let them get cold?

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The filling is made of potatoes mixed with loads of spices.  It is a great example of vegetarian food that has rich, satisfying flavors.

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The secret to any successful fried food is that the oil has to be fresh and at the proper temperature.  Too hot and the outside burns before the inside cooks.  Too cold and the whole thing becomes greasy.  Mr. Singh is the master of the boiling oil-filled wok, turning out an endless stream of perfectly cooked, crispy but not greasy samosas.

If you find yourself in the heart of old Bangkok, craving a snack that will satisfy but leave you eager to return, you should head down to Little India and seek out Mr. Singh’s samosas.

Many thanks to Chawadee Nualkhair (www.bangkokglutton.com), author of Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, for leading me to this gem. 

 

Uncle’s Egg Noodles on Ekamai

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How good would a bowl of bamee, the ubiquitous and simple Chinese-style egg noodles, have to be in order to justify a wait of ten, twenty, or even thirty minutes?  For many residents of Bangkok, they would have to be as good as Uncle’s.

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While practically everybody knows about this noodle shop, I only learned about it by reading Chawadee Nualkhair’s “Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls,” a handy and well-written English language guide for anyone who is serious about eating good Thai street food.

You can find Uncle’s noodles (the stand also goes by the name “slow noodles” because of the wait) at the corner of Ekamai and Ekamai Soi 19. His cart is built on the back of a small pickup truck, a nifty arrangement that reminds me of the food trucks of Los Angeles, except with no Korean tacos. You have to place your order by writing on a pad – in Thai, of course. Best to have a friend come with you, write out your order in advance, or as Khun Chawadee suggests, if you are brave you can just copy the previous customer’s order!

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The menu is quite simple: bamee (egg noodles) served either in soup or dry, with barbecue pork (“red pork”) and pork wontons. The ingredients are on display: your guarantee of freshness. Say, what are those black things in the display case? Nothing like a few phallic good luck charms to ensure good business. It seems that they’ve worked!

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All of the seating is on the sidewalk, either on the Ekamai side or heading down the side soi. Orders to go are welcome, too. I’ll say that the location is a bit of a curse from an enjoyment perspective. There are a lot of big trucks traveling on Ekamai at night and the smoke and fumes take away from the experience. The stand doesn’t open up until after 8:00 each night, so at least the gridlock of cars isn’t there anymore. That might be worse.

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Every noodle shop in Thailand – and I do mean every – offers customers condiments to dress their own noodles. Dried chili flakes, sugar, vinegar with chilies, and fish sauce (sometimes with chopped chilies). This allows each customer to perfect the seasoning.

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Here’s my bowl of bamee with barbecued pork, chopped pork, fried pork fat, and a special ingredient: soft boiled egg. Pork-a-palooza! If you order the red pork at a rice and red pork stand, boiled egg is a standard condiment. However, at a noodle stand, the soft boiled egg is an unusual addition.

The question is, what makes this particular bamee so special? As I mentioned, people will wait up to thirty minutes to eat it and, honestly, at a certain level I think that bamee is bamee is bamee. But, there are a few things that separate good from mediocre bamee: Noodles are fresh, tender, and flavorful. Broth has a rich flavor. Ingredients are of high quality and are fresh. Uncle’s noodles has all of these qualities. The addition of crispy fried pork fat adds a little extra texture that is very flavorful, and the boiled egg is a nice addition, too.

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We also ordered a bowl of wonton soup, which featured beautiful fresh wontons with a tasty interior along with some more of the red pork and chopped pork. Something that set the wontons apart is that the wrappers were especially delicate and thin, not chewy at all.

All in all, Uncle’s noodles are well worth searching out, although the location makes for a less than ideal dining experience.