This will not come as a surprise to my coworkers in Pasadena who get dragged to the restaurant Saladang every time I am in town, or the people in Atlanta who end up at one of a handful of Thai restaurants such as Tamarind or Nan, but I love Thai food! There is a lot to love about Thai food–the noodles, the meat dishes, the curries. They all tickle the palate with a robust variety of flavors and the combination of dishes between appetizers and dessert can be a magical experience. With a rich history of consuming Thai food and a memorable visit in 2003, I was excited to get back to Thailand and eat some more. What I was not expecting was the added benefit of coming from places like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
In the other Southeast Asian countries we had to watch what we ate. I mentioned that we didn’t buy much off the street in an effort to keep our stomachs in top working condition. We knew that things would be better in Thailand when only 5 minutes after crossing the border, we passed a truck filled with pork that had been quartered and sealed in plastic, putting it beyond the reach of air, flies, and other bacteria-forming agents. In previous countries pork had either been alive or carved into pieces and left resting on a vendor’s stand in the sun. When we got to Bangkok, we noticed the street vendors used plastic gloves when handling food, another big improvement, since we had seen plenty of hawkers wipe their noses, take out the trash, and use the bathroom before serving customers. The biggest change we noticed was that the street vendors washed their dishes in buckets of hot water with…..soap! While we didn’t throw all caution to the wind, we did agree that street food and local restaurants were now on the menu.
Eating street food or meals in local markets came with an additional benefit. In China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, we limited ourselves to eating in restaurants. These were inexpensive ranging between $15 and $25 per meal for all 6 of us. Each day we ate one or two of these meals and bought snacks at grocery or convenience stores. When we moved to street food, we started paying local prices. We were now able to gorge with 8-9 entrees, an appetizer or 2, and individual drinks–no sharing–for $6-7. Each street stall makes its own specialty such as fried chicken, bbq pork, papaya salad, or bugs. In the market there are small restaurants who will make your dishes to order. These short order chefs are astute and quickly make multiple dishes. Anne and the little kids are big fans of Pad See Eew. Mac and Dax are connoisseurs of fried rice and I pretty much try anything. Some of my favorites are pork knuckle in cinnamon and anise brown sauce, peppers and chicken, and any kind of spring roll. In Thailand my stomach began to expand as I was once again able to indulge in healthier portions and a greater variety of foods. I was not ready, though, for the amount of food I was going to eat in Chaing Khong.
At the little border town between Thailand and Laos, we found a cheap hotel, ($12 for 2 rooms) and struck out find a place to have dinner. We had heard rave reviews about a Mexican place on the river. I checked it out, but their $5-7 per entree seemed grossly overpriced compared to the local food. Down the road we found a barbeque place. It was packed with Thais: packed with tourists doesn’t equal good, but packed with locals usually means great. At each table a charcoal pot sat below a dome-shaped grill where you cooked your own dishes. To my delight, it was an all you can eat ($2.50 for adults, $1.25 for kids). We piled a few plates full of meat and sat down to cook and eat. Anne and I quickly realized we had a problem. Kieran and Asher were too little to handle their own food so we would had to cook theirs first before we could secure our own sustenance. We tried a number of meats, including jellyfish and Thai spam. After tasting many we honed in on a couple that were our favorites–sesame beef and chicken in a light sauce were the big winners. We piled more plates with these two meats and began cooking again. This time Anne and I were looking forward to eating more than we gave away, but the little two just kept eating. A third time I went back and piled plates high with meat. This time Kieran and Asher were done. One of the problems with them being “done” is they are really done, not just with eating but with dinner. They started to wander and get themselves in trouble, so Anne grabbed a few more bites and herded them off to the hotel, leaving hers, Kieran’s, and Asher’s plates half full. The big boys and I decided this was our opportunity to eat unhindered. We went back with a fourth set of plates and then a fifth. The big boys hit their limit and I was starting to feel the strain on my belt as well. We were not very far into our fifth plates when the boys, who are still small dogs compared to their father, wanted to go join their siblings and mother. I let them go while I waited around for the bill. The bill came and there was a little bit of a problem. Apparently the sign on the buffet says something to the effect of you will be charged 100 baht (~$3) for every hundred grams of food you leave on your plates. The numbers, “100” and “100” were the only things I could understand. I don’t like to be surprised with hidden fees, and looking around at the half full plates, I imagined this would put a serious dent in the day’s budget. I told the waitress to wait a little while before weighing the damage and I got to work. It took me another 20-30 minutes but between a few pieces of meat on the floor, a few more pieces hidden in the soup and sauce bowls, and a vision of Takeru Kobayashi, I ate until I cleared the plates. I called the waitress over, paid the bill, and triumphantly waddled home.