Jul 17 2012
After weeks of eating nothing but explosively flavourful and meat-heavy Thai food, the simplicity, freshness and veggie-prominence of Vietnamese cuisine is like a breath of fresh air. If looking for an inexpensive, local-style Vietnamese restaurant in Bangkok, Rom Ngao Indo-Chin restaurant just over the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi is an excellent choice.
Rom ngao is a Thai phrase that means “in the shade”, so the restaurant’s name translates to “In the shade of Indochina“. Given restaurant owner Sao Korn Dao Wieng’s fascinating story, it’s a deep name layered with feeling and history.
A native of Hanoi, Dao Wieng’s family moved first to Laos and later across the Mekong river to the northeastern Thai city of Nakhon Phanom to escape the brutal bombing and overall uncertainty of her home city during the American War. She and her family found Thailand to be sheltered or “shaded” from the bloodshed and strife that plagued Vietnam for much of the 20th century. After living among Nakhon Phanom’s thriving Vietnamese community for many years while also learning Thai, Dao Wieng opened her own restaurant in Bangkok in 1997, choosing rom ngao Indo-Chin as a most eloquent name.
She claims that hers is the only restaurant in Bangkok focusing on true northern Vietnamese food. As a quick disclaimer, while I enjoy the food of Vietnam and have spent some time in Hanoi, I’m no expert on regional Vietnamese cuisines. Before any of our orders arrived, however, I took note of a server dropping off a basket of fresh greens on ice, which is a fixture on any Vietnamese dining table. For me, it was a hint that we were in for a genuinely authentic treat.
As an appetiser, we started with nem nuong, a build-it-yourself platter of mildly pickled Vietnamese sausage (nem), fresh cucumber, raw Asian eggplant, garlic, chilli and a refreshing touch of not quite ripe starfruit. We wrapped our desired mix of ingredients in distinct north Vietnamese-style rice paper before dipping them in a peanut-based side sauce with ground chilli for some spice. It’s a deliberately simple but divine blend of crisp, cool and soft textures to go with sour, sweet and spicy flavours.
We then asked for a plate of chon gio ran salad, which featured slices of another north Vietnamese-style sausage mixed with a light lime-based dressing along with fresh carrot, onion, cilantro, scallion and fresh Asian basil on the side. While I consistently rave about the vibrant colours and bursting flavours of Thai salads like som tam, I must admit that chon gio ran was a welcome change with far more delicate tastes than most Thai salads.
For a main course, I went with a steaming bowl of chao canh with shrimp, a cousin to Vietnam’s famous pho which has been enthusiastically embraced by the Thais. With a mild but savoury broth flavoured with shitake mushroom (good enough to drink to the last drop), thin, round rice noodles, a few fresh shrimp with heads still on, and a sprinkling of fresh greens, I was not disappointed. After adding a drop of ground chilli from the table condiment tray, I momentarily forgot all about Thai kwit tieau nahm.
Rom Ngao Indo-Chin offers a distinct menu that’s lengthy enough to try something new every time. Next time we’ll go for the northern Vietnam style banh xeo, banh mi French-Vietnamese style bread stuffed with sausage, chilli, and other goodies, or one of the numerous other “banh” finger foods. Prices are very reasonable across the board — we paid just over 200 baht for three good-sized dishes plus bottled water — and many dishes are offered in medium or large sizes so it’s a good option whether dining solo or with a group.
With several vegetarian options — including a special, entirely veggie soup menu — this is also a great spot to enjoy a meat-free meal. All dishes are written in Thai and Vietnamese; there are no English explanations but pictures make choosing easier. After lunch or dinner, you might take advantage of the authentic French drip-style Trung Nguyen Vietnamese coffee, or the Vietnamese-style ginger tea to calm the stomach.
The well-lit, open-air fronted restaurant’s atmosphere is simple but cheerful with a handful of traditional Vietnamese rice hats hanging from white walls, cloth-covered tables with basic Vietnamese-style stools, and a TV casually on in the corner. Compared to similarly priced Bangkok establishments, we found the staff attentive and friendly.
The restaurant is located on Charoen Nakhon Road, which is also a great place for experiencing authentic Thai street food. Despite its close proximity to Krung Thonburi BTS (skytrain) station, this area sees few tourists and Rom Ngao caters chiefly to locals.
To get here, take exit 4 out of Krung Thonburi station then go straight at the bottom of the stairs. Walk about a half kilometre before turning right onto Charoen Nakhon Road; Rom Ngao Indo-Chin is another half kilometre down on the right, between sois 20 and 24. Apart from the words, “Vegetarian Vietnam Menu”, the green sign is written only in Thai, but it’s hard to miss the rice hats hanging from the facade out front.
Rom Ngao Indo-Chin Restaurant
Charoen Nakhon Road (between soi 20 and soi 24),
T: (024) 385 921; (086) 514 0908
Open daily 11:00 to 22:00
BTS: Krung Thonburi exit 4
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