Bangkok Post reviews
Off the eaten track
- Writer: Bangkok Post Editorial
- Published: March 15, 2013 at 8:44 am
Looks can be deceiving when it comes to flavour, as a venture into unknown territory reveals
The quiet and cosy Khrua Phak Plaa restaurant near the Krungthep Kreeta Sports Club.
You can usually be sure of a good meal if you're being taken to a restaurant you've never tried before by a friend who knows what you like. A recommendation from a co-worker with reliable foodie instincts will also generally lead to good things. But there's a lot to be said for playing it less safe, heading into unknown territory for a meal at a restaurant you've chosen just because you like the look of it.
As everyone knows, appearances can be deceiving. How many times has Ung-aang Talay's palate been brutalised by the fare at restaurants where, if the flawless decor were any indication, the kitchen should be performing miracles (the Sukhumvit area is a danger zone), while some of the best Thai cooking U-a T has ever tasted was served at food shops so unalluring in appearance that even a rat might think twice before walking in.
But this approach worked out well for U-a T and two friends on a recent weekday evening, when some random driving around led to a quiet neighbourhood near the Krungthep Kreeta Sports Club in Hua Mak.
Stir-fried fish with crushed black peppercorns and vegetables.
Shining invitingly on an otherwise dark and sparsely built-up soi was a restaurant called Khrua Phak Plaa. It consisted of a large veranda in front and a smaller indoor dining room with big tables that looked comfortable.
It looked like a place where customers could sit, enjoy the food, and talk for hours. The menu, with English translations provided, consisted of a single laminated sheet, printed on both sides and illustrated with photos.
Although the name of the restaurant translates as "Vegetable and Fish Kitchen", a number of seductively photographed pork dishes filled part of it. U-a T and table companions decided to stick to the fish and vegetables, however, and asked for pla muek nueng manao (steamed squid in sour and hot sauce), kung ob woon sen (shrimp baked with seasoned bean thread noodles), som tum Thai kung sod (sour-hot salad made from unripe papaya and fresh shrimp), yam takrai pla thawt (pieces of fried fish with lemongrass with sour-spicy seasoning), and nuea pla pad prik Thai dam (pieces of fish stir-fried with crushed black peppercorns and vegetables).
First to arrive was the som tum. At first glance it aroused some apprehension on U-a T's part. The portion was on the dainty side, with only two lonely-looking shrimps placed on top. Worse, the papaya had been shredded into rather thick, noodle-like strands, rather than hacked with a knife into the thinner, finer pieces that som tum lovers esteem. A taste dispelled most of these doubts, however, because sourness, a good blast of chilli heat, and just enough sweetness were properly balanced. The shrimps were fresh and firm, and the papaya so crunchy that it had probably been freshly cut. If U-a T had been in the kitchen, the papaya would have been prepared the traditional way by attacking the fruit with a long, sharp knife, but as it was, the som tum was more than satisfactory.
Shrimp baked with seasoned bean thread noodles.
Stretched out at full length on its pale bed of shredded cabbage, the steamed squid in the pla muek nueng manao looked a little funereal, but here again the first taste brought it to life. The lime, nam pla and chilli sauce poured over it in generous quantity set the tongue pleasantly ablaze and stoked the appetite for what was to come. The squid itself was a bit on the chewy side of ideal, but was fresh and flavourful.
Both of the fish dishes, the yam takrai pla thawt and the nuea pla pad prik Thai dam were made using the local catfish species called pla kot. In the yam, the meat had been cut into small pieces, lightly breaded and fried to help it keep its texture in the salad's moist mix of finely sliced lemongrass, shallots, mint leaves, and sour-spicy sauce. In the pepper stir-fry, the fish pieces were cut larger and the breading had kept its crispness in the potently spicy and aromatic pepper sauce that it shared with fresh green peppercorns, coarsely cut sweet spring onions, chillies, and sweet bell peppers. The breading on the fish pieces was thick enough to let them retain their crispness throughout the meal, but was not greasy or heavy. The combination of aromas from the fresh and ground pepper, onions, bell pepper and herbs was another of the dish's pleasures.
Goong ob woon sen is a popular dish that sometimes presents itself as a grease fest. The bean thread noodles are set on top of big pieces of pork fat in the pot before the dish is baked, and these can melt and saturate the noodles to an unappetising degree. Khrua Phak Plaa's version omitted these chunks of fat so that the noodles had the fragrance of pork fat but were not saturated in oil. Set on top of them were six large, very fresh prawns. The scent of fresh celery, a hefty slice of ginger, whole black peppercorns, coriander root, and prik hawm (a nice touch) harmonised to create a dish that was, together with the nuea pla pad prik Thai dam, one of the highlights of the meal. The shrimp were especially good when dipped into the small bowl of chilli and lime sauce that accompanied the dish. Strongly recommended.
Considering the high success rate that U-a T and friends experienced choosing dishes somewhat randomly, the rest of the menu deserves investigating during future visits. Service was prompt and friendly and the prices were surprisingly low, considering the quality of the food.