Fiery, pungent flavours of the south
Fear not if Southern Thailand isn’t on your travel agenda. The fiery and pungent flavours of the south are on full display at Phuket Town Restaurant in Bangkok’s trendy Thong Lor area. The little kopi-shop style cafe has always caught our eye from outside, but we were taken aback by how terrific the food turned out to be.
Taking its name and theme from the historic capital city of Thailand’s only island province, the restaurant is run by a native Phuket family. The cramped air-con dining room is outfitted with round wooden tables, colourful paintings of Phuket town scenes and Chinese lanterns hung from an oversize chandelier. Though some won’t appreciate the corner TV, we liked how its mix of cartoons and news contributed to the casual atmosphere. True to the south, tasty Thai iced tea is served along with bitter coffee with sweet condensed milk, several juices and a few beer options.
The focus is on food, with important Southern Thai ingredients like cumin, turmeric, coconut and pineapple figuring prominently. Dishes like stir-fried pork with pickled bean curd reflect Phuket’s Chinese influences. Yet the majority of the seven-page menu features curries and chilli pastes, some intensely flavoured while others, like the popular khanom jeen nam yaa puu (crab curry with fermented rice noodles), prove that Southern Thai food can be mild too.
The deep-fried chicken wings doused in cumin and served with black sticky rice looked tempting as a starter, but we couldn’t pass on pak mieang kai. This mild dish, which we noticed was ordered by practically every other table, starred the wide and earthy pak mieang (also spelt lieang) leafs that grow in the south, stir-fried with egg and some spotlight-stealing dried shrimps in a scorching wok. Topped with fried garlic and shallot, the dish was hearty without being oily, mellow tones cushioning the bold flavours of other dishes.
Though we’ve heard good things about the sun-dried shrimp paste, we opted for the slightly more daring nam prik pla ching chang. This funky relish is based around deep-fried kata, a tiny sardine-like fish that’s eaten head, tail and all. Fresh chilli, lime and fish sauce helped create an intense flavour profile leaning towards the salty and with plenty of heat. The brown paste was spooned on to acacia leaf omelette along with steamed and fresh veggies like wing beans, okra and white turmeric.
Nearly changing our minds in favour of the presumably rich Phuket pork belly stew, we thankfully stuck to a plate of pad pak sataw kung, or prawns with stink beans in a delicious brown sauce. With their unmistakable aroma, the astringent beans were bright green and fresh, wading in a sauce rich with roasted garlic, red chillies and dark shrimp paste. If you’re on a first date, maybe hoping for a first kiss, it’s best to avoid this one. You know what: forget the kiss. The stink beans are that good.
We also sampled the pla kapo cumin, a mild fish soup flavoured with slices of orange cumin and lemongrass. The only dish out of the four that wasn’t worth writing home about (lemongrass overpowered cumin), the pale yellow broth and very fresh silver pearl fish was welcome between bites of the spicier dishes. Next time we’ll go for the whole pla-mong fish deep fried with cumin to a golden yellow.
From a selection of nine Chinese-Thai dessert bowls, we ordered the traditionally Phuketean oh-aew. The main ingredient is a clear jelly made from banana and some kind of boiled seed, rounded out by crushed ice, red beans and a red sugar syrup. Even though we thoroughly enjoyed it, we couldn’t help but wonder if the custard apple ice cream with milk or black sesame dumplings in ginger tea might have been ever better.
Our experience at Phuket Town Restaurant was outstanding. The food was fantastic, and we appreciated the unpretentious vibe in an area with no shortage of hi-so establishments. Discreet servers were snappy, delivering the first two dishes within a few minutes of our order and serving the mains after no more than 15 minutes. Portion sizes are medium and prices reasonable for the quality, with appetisers starting at 90 baht and mains fetching between 150 and 350. The five dishes plus a Thai iced tea and water cost us 1,100 baht, including tax and service charge.
Phuket Town Restaurant is a 15-minute walk from Thong Lo BTS Station and Sukhumvit Road, on the east side of Soi Thong Lor at the corner of Thong Lor Soi 6. Reservations are a good idea in the evenings, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. Several other great Thai options in the same price range are found in this vicinity, including Supanniga Eating Room and Soul Food Mahanakorn.
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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