Bangkok Post reviews
Coming on strong
- Writer: Bangkok Post Editorial
- Published: November 16, 2012 at 8:21 am
Appealingly informal eatery showcases Isan-inflected dishes
Last weekend a shared craving for Isan food sent Ung-aang Talay and some friends to Lat Phrao Soi 101, where there is a branch of the Tam Mua restaurant that had impressed a food-alert neighbour of U-a T's strongly enough to inspire him to mention it twice. It turned out to be an appealingly informal place with customers seated on square stools rather than chairs, simple decor, and the the kind of relaxed atmosphere amenable to long sessions of eating and talking.
The food at Tam Mua is not so much authentically Isan as Isan-inflected. Most of the dishes on the menu have the proper regional character without getting brutal about it, and some prominently-featured items originated very far from Thailand's Northeast. But the insidious sweetness that has been creeping into much Bangkok restaurant cooking over recent years has no place here, and the flavours of chilli, lime and other aggressive ingredients can come on very strong.
U-a T and friends asked for servings of nam tok kung (a sour and spicy salad-like shrimp dish), kai saeb (a chilli-intensive version of fried chicken), larb het sot (larb made with pieces of mushroom), pla krapong nueng jaew (steamed sea bass with boiled vegetables and a spicy dipping sauce), het thawt saam kloe (breaded fried mushrooms), and tom yum pla kot khaang (a sour and hot fish soup).
Tom yum pla kot khaang, a sour and hot fish soup.
The kai saeb was served fresh from the frier and too hot to touch. This meant that when it cooled down enough to be eaten the breading on each piece was still crisp, and the seasoning in it gave it a mouthwatering aroma. It was also very spicy, and a close look revealed tiny flakes of chilli mixed in with the batter. The chicken had been cooked just long enough to keep it tender and juicy, and would have been ideal if it had been a little less greasy. Still, a fiery variant on fried chicken well worth ordering.
Both yum-style dishes were good enough to more than justify U-a T's neighbour's claims for the place. The nam tok kung was freshly-made with khao khua (raw rice that has been scorched in a pan and pounded to a coarse consistency) that kept its nice crunch and toasty flavour until the dish was finished. Firm, bite-sized shrimp were mixed with shallots, chopped coriander, spring onion and other herbs and potently seasoned with plenty of lime and both fresh and pounded dried chillies. The nam tok shared the plate with a bouquet of mint and basil and a crisp cucumber spear.
The mushroom larb was even better. A variety of different kinds of mushrooms contributed textures that ranged from chewy to crunchy, and once again there was plenty of fragrant khao khua mixed in with the chopped herbs and shallots. As with the shrimp nam tok, the chilli and lime in the sauce had enough zap to make their point at full force on a ball of sticky rice dipped into it.
Tam Mua boast on their website of being experts at making yum-style dishes, and few who try these dishes will dispute the claim.
Pla krapong nueng jaew, steamed sea bass with boiled vegetables and a spicy dipping sauce.
U-a T found less to admire in another mushroom dish, the het thawt saam kloe. Pieces of mushroom (a variety that had the firm texture of oyster mushrooms) had been dipped in batter and deep-fried, but it seemed to U-a T that the mushrooms and their oily, starchy coating didn't have much to say to each other, especially since the batter that was used was tasteless and lacked the attention-grabbing spiciness of the one that brought the chicken dish so vividly to life. The sweet sauce served together with it did little to make it more exciting. This item looks tempting in the photo shown on the menu, but skip it and try something else.
The steamed seabass was very fresh, with sweet, juicy meat that responded well to the sour-spicy dipping sauce that accompanied it. Tam Mua fill the rest of the plate with a selection of boiled vegetables that included wedges of nam tao, a local gourd that U-a T has a soft spot for but does not encounter often enough in dishes like this one.
The restaurant's promise in its slogan of offering ahaan rote saeb ("foods with intense flavours") was borne out as truthfully in the tom yum pla kot khaang as it was in the two yum dishes. Chilli-shy types will be scared off before even tasting it by the numerous dried prik chee faa and fresh prik khee nuu chillies floating on the surface.
The broth delivers on their warning by being some of the hottest and sourest, with these two tastes skilfully balanced, that U-a T has found in tom yum served in a Bangkok restaurant _ in other words, utterly delicious! It flavoured big pieces of fish meat that had been added in quantity, as well as vegetables that included, surprisingly, tomato wedges. Strongly recommended.
All in all, a fine meal enjoyed in comfortable surroundings during the course of a long and pleasant evening. Definitely a place to have on your list if you are in the Bang Kapi area.
Tam Mua was very crowded on the evening of U-a T's visit, so a phone call in advance would be a good idea. Service is quick and well informed, prices in the mid range; the meal described above for four, without alcohol, came to under 900 baht.