Classic Chinese-Thai near the Grand Palace
Touristy areas tend to send “foodies” scrambling down some “secret” alley in search of the nearest “authentic” restaurant. Situated directly across from the Grand Palace, however, century-old Ming Lee Restaurant‘s front-and-centre location has allowed it to slip under the noses of many Bangkok food “experts”. A local told us to try out Ming Lee’s Chinese-Thai comfort food, and we were very glad we did.
One of the oldest restaurants in Bangkok, Ming Lee was founded by a Chinese immigrant family not long after the King Rama V era shophouse that it occupies was built. It’s one of several restaurants now lined up across the street from the Grand Palace’s main entrance, and it’s the only one without an English sign. Others include a Subway and several Thai restaurants that aim squarely for the tourist trade, but Ming Lee has stayed true to its roots.
Seemingly unchanged since the 1930s, the restaurant’s classic ambiance relies on vintage European-style dark wood tables and chairs, tall swing-open wooden doors with wide oval windows, elegant patterned tile floors and old framed portraits of Thai royalty hung on off-white walls. High ceilings and adequately partitioned tables lend a sense of spaciousness.
The restaurant is fan-cooled, and during our visit the fan that was spinning directly above us broke and crashed violently down on our table. We chalked it up to the resident ancestor spirits getting annoyed with our smartphone fiddling. Despite Ming Lee’s proximity to Bangkok’s biggest tourist attraction, we were the only foreigners among the local clientele.
A single-page menu offers basic English descriptions like “Ox Tail Stew”, “Beef Salad” and “Roasted Duck”, with most dishes running a reasonable 80 to 120 baht. Though all three of the women working the full room must have been at least in their late 70s, service was snappy and food arrived faster than expected. After four generations of running the place, we guess they’ve had some experience.
The food at Ming Lee is an excellent example of traditional Chinese fare that gradually adopted Thai styles and ingredients. Their signature dish is mii grob, found on the menu under “Crispy Fried Noodles”. It’s usually too sweet for our tastes, but Ming Lee’s version with bits of caramalised garlic woven into the light, crispy noodles and sides of scallion, fresh lime, chilli and miniscule pieces of seville orange peel aroused an enjoyable balance of sweet and savoury.
Ming Lee is also known for beef, pork and duck that’s slow-roasted over a traditional charcoal stove. In the “Roasted Duck Soup” with breast, wing and neck bobbing in a mild and comforting shiitake mushroom broth, the kitchen’s century of perfection was evident. Yet the star of the show was the “Roasted Pork”, a back-to-basics offering of melt-in-the-mouth pork loin with a few green beans in a savoury brown sauce with a hint of sourness.
If coming from Tha Chang express boat pier, Ming Lee is the closest to the river of the restaurants and cafes that occupy a stretch of heritage shophouses in the two-storey cream yellow building with olive green trim across the road from the Grand Palace. The sign is only in Thai and Chinese, but you can’t miss the museum-like decor. Though this is an obvious choice as a lunch stop while sightseeing, Ming Lee’s food is worth travelling across town to reach. You might save a little room and head over to Nuttaporn for dessert.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
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