Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yourthai Rice & Noodle Bar in Melbourne, Australia

I'm on the move again with a touch down in Melbourne for a wedding with Abby, so of course we went in search of Khao soi and didn't have to go far (3 blocks from our hotel in the Central Business District) to find this fast foodish sit down Thai noodle bar.

They had quite passable Tod Mun Plaa (my all-time favorite street food in Thailand– fish cakes with kaffir lime leaves) but a bit overly processed and low on the all important kaffir lime leaves. Their Khao soi had plenty of vegetables– eggplant, mushrooms, cabbage, broccoli, baby corn, sprouts, mint, basil, and curry leaf, the latter a quite unique addition– and fried and thin egg noodles but no pickled mustard, lime, or fresh shallots to top it off and adjust taste. Broth was thick on coconut milk, not sour enough (with no supplementary lime to adjust it!), and still a bit watery despite an overpowering indian curry powder taste. Curry leaves, a pungent resinous leaf from India closely related to citrus that actually has little relation to the word "Curry" for a spice mixture even though they often appear in curries, were also a strange addition which I've never seen, but nice to find fresh in downtown Melbourne. The extra veggies were nice for me as a vegaquarian, but they should not come at the expense of the toppings that define this dish! Jack fruit smoothie was also tasty and a nice find, though definitely from canned jack fruit, not the delicate fresh fruit that inspired the tasty of juicy fruit gum.

Admittedly, we may be being extra critical about Yourthai since we had just come from the Mecca of Khao Soi, Chiang Mai, a few days before, so if your stuck in central Melbourne with a hunger for Khao soi, this might be worth a short visit, but not solely for the Khao soi, and if anyone know of any other good khao soi spots in Melbourne, please let me know for our next visit down under! All the other food in Melbourne was excellent, so there's got to be something else out there. Look for my reviews of the chocolate shops in Melbourne on my other blog, Chocolate from the Source, soon!

Yourthai Rice & Noodle Bar
255 Swanston StMelbourne VIC 3000Australia+61 3 9663 8010

Friday, September 10, 2010

Portland II: the Khao Soi Strikes Back

Another kind guest post from my friend Adam to compensate for my post slackingness from having an actual job (or 2) these days. I've also started another blog, Chocolate from the Source, on my chocolate explorations, bean-to-bar making, and the chocolate company I'm starting which seems to be taking time away from my khao soi hobby. :( But never fear, Adam is here to save the day! And he's being modest as we went to Sripraphai in Queens a couple of months ago and he was keeping up with the fast and furious pace of 13 esoteric dishes I ordered and he remembered the Thai phrases I taught him, so I trust him and his wife to know a great Khao soi when they see it!

Hello fellow khao soi seekers. I've been invited to guest blog today
to spread the word about a place I discovered in Portland, OR. First, my credentials: I may not be as hard-core as some around here, but I know a good khao soi when I see one. I've done Chiang Mai, I've done Rhong Tiam in NYC (before they moved and screwed up the food), and I've done Sripraphai in Queens.

We were randomly wandering around Portland on a road trip from British
Columbia to Burning Man. The guy at Powell's books (the disneyland of bookstores, if disneyland wasn't soulless and commercial) pointed us to a row of lunch carts nearby for a meal. One of them turned out to be a hidden gem -- Somtum Gai Yang. Somtum, as I knew, is green papaya salad -- my other favorite thai dish. Gai yang, Nat tells me, means grilled chicken. Didn't have a chance to explore what they had to offer in that department.

We ordered the
khao soi, somtum, sticky rice, and an iced tea.
Everything was perfect. The Somtum was perfectly balanced between sweet, sour, spicy, and salty, and the papaya was just the right crunch, but just soft enough to chew without chomping. Sticky rice was done right. And the main event, the khao soi, was remarkable. Creamy but not oily, spicy and flavorful, crunchy and sloppy. Plenty of pickled greens (I moonlight as a pickle fanatic). My wife Anya and I were fighting over the spoon.

Spice: Anya has a palate of steel so believe me when I say that this
joint was not kidding around. She was high as a kite for a good half hour after lunch. And these guys know the secret to making food super spicy in that subtle way that enhances the flavors rather than blowing everything away.

Ambiance: this is a lunch cart. Still, it's adorable, built to look like a little red caravan wagon. There are a few tiny tables on the sidewalk that you can grab if you're lucky or very intimidating. We shared a table with an interesting character, a veteran of the organics-vs-large-agribusiness wars who was stranded in Portland for a few hours. He was no stranger to khao soi either -- in fact I heard him thank the chef in Thai as he left.

Not bad for a little lunch cart on the street. Rock on, Portland.

Somtum Gai Yang
Lunchcart row: SW 10th St. and SW Alder
Portland, OR 97205
Southwest Portland
(503) 522-9543

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Pilgrimage to the Mecca of Khao Soi: Chiang Mai, Northwest Thailand

I just came back from 5 weeks of field work in Thailand and Lao studying my favorite subject, food! It was glorious and at times a deranged existential hell to be force fed my favorite food in all the world, non-stop, all day, till I felt like I'd explode from the Khao Soi baby growing in my stomach. The Thais sure know how to eat! It seems they're either talking about where or what to eat, preparing food, in the middle of eating, or talking about how full and satisfied they are. I would be too if I got to eat this food every day. I just have to learn not to finish my plate each time.

There is no way I can visit Thailand and not make a trip to the Mecca of Khao Soi, Chiang Mai, in Northeast Thailand, near the infamous "Golden Triangle" of Thailand, Mynamar (a.k.a. Burma), and Lao, though for my purposes this golden triangle represents the epicenter of Khao Soi since it originated either from Mynamar or Yunnan, China, and is made quite well in all three countries of the Golden Triangle. Chiang Mai is a beautiful city with the old wall surrounded by a mote, beautiful crafts, several luxurious botanical gardens, kind people, and some of the best food in Southeast Asia. In addition to Khao Soi, they specialize in Yum Som-o, a tasty tangy salad of pomelo (or shaddock, one of the ancestors of grapefruit, minus the bitterness), which is made in nearly every corner food stand. Because of this convergence of several cultures, it seems they have perfected Khao Soi here, even if they did not invent it.

So for you, my faithful readers, I sacrificed the integrity of my stomach wall, risked explosion, and sometimes my sanity, and tried 8 different Khao Sois in only 3 days, often having it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! It was a scrumptious and heady few days I would gladly repeat in a second. Thank you so much to my gracious host Lisa for putting me up, scouting out so many great khao soi spots, and showing that you can go from ancient royal Thai food to break dancing in only a few hours in Chiang Mai. Hopefully she'll be doing some guest posts from the field filling in the myriad spots I didn't get to hit in my short time there.

Check this great video from Open Chiang Mai on 3 khao soi spots in Chiang Mai I mention. I'm honored that they mention me on their blog for reference. There's also a new mappy mashup thang over there on the right specifically for Chiang Mai. I also review 2 places in Bangkok, one not even serving Khao Soi, but quite worthy of a mention. For reference, 30 Baht (B or ฿) is about $1 when I wrote this post.

Just khao soi
0-5381-8641 108/2 Thanon Charoen Prathet Despite the name and the focus, this place is all ambiance and little attention to strong good flavors. When order you can choose the spice level, round or flat noodle, 6 different meats or vegetarian, Lanaa (no coconut milk) or "classic Chiang Mai" (coconut milk already added but still too low). I ordered a spicy, flat noodle, vegetarian, classic. Served on palate with many toppings: pickled mustard greens, sugar, fish sauce, extra coconut milk, chili oil, lime, fresh scallions, and one of the more novel toppings I've seen, banana slices to kill the spiciness at the end. Even though I asked for it spicy, it was way too mild. They didn't trust I wanted it actually hot which shows they're probably used to farang (thai for "foreigner") with delicate palates. Watered down farang khao soi. Beautiful surroundings but too much flare. Franchising if interested.
99 B med 150 B large.

Lam Duan khao soi
Charoen rat road south of Wat Fa Ham
Simple but excellent. Owner knew immediately we wanted khao soi. Made vegetarian no problem, though it helps to say "pom kin jeh" in Thai. The bowl of great smelling Khao soi that appeared quickly had a rich oily broth that was not very coconuty but still quite rich and good flat rice noodles. Toppings included were crisp noodles, lime, pickled mustard, and fresh shallots. There is zero ambiance here- plastic stools and table cloth but that puts all the focus on good food as it should be. People come for khao soi and satay. 60 B or 30 B, depending on the size.

Khao soi Fa Ham
Charoen rat road across from temple Wat Fa Ham.
They only serve a buffet with khao soi included but they were nice and gave us a 24 B single khao soi. Nicer open air ambience with wood tables & chairs. Thicker richer spicier broth but less flavor. Same simple toppings as above: crisp noodles, lime, pickled mustard, and fresh shallots. Hibiscus ice tea naan krajiab drink had salt but was tasty and refreshing. They also had us try chaploo tod, deep fried chaploo leaves (a relative of black pepper and betel leaves which have a very peppery smell and taste) sprinkled with sesame seeds, wish I could have those back here in Hawaii to go with my homemade khao soi!

Khao Soi Smir Jai
Charoen rat road north of temple Wat Fa Ham
Same basic toppings: crisp noodles, lime, pickled mustard, and fresh shallots. It had shorter fried noodles but much more of them. Spring onions were incorporated into the broth which was less spicy but with sweeter and deeper cumin & coriander spice notes. Many of the noodles stuck together, which is a good sign they are home made. Guava (called "farang" like foreigners, showing the fruit's foreign origin in the Amazon) and lime drinks were refreshing as well. This place is really a local fave as it was packed to the gills.

Bao Bao Vegetarian
Chiang Mai Lamphun Road and Ratuthit Rd.
This was Lisa's nice discovery. Their serving had light crispy fried noodles and the toppings were simpe lime, pickled mustard, and cilantro. I was happy that I could get a vegetarian version with some extras in it like veg "fish" ball and fake duck. The light refreshing broth had star anise and was thin but flavorful. Perfect for vegetarians.

Tops market Khao soi stand.
Kad Suan Kaew "Central" mall, Huay Kaew rd.
Great selection of toppings with scallions, lemon basil, cilantro, roasted chili paste, whole chilis, sprouts, lemon grass, cilantro, sugar, fish sauce. Broth a bit thin could have used more coconut milk. Needed a fair bit of spicing up. Even with all those toppings. Nice surroundings since you can get many other local foods like khao niao mamuang (sticky rice with mango), dried bananas (the nice soft ones, not the boring dry chips we get in the states), yum som-o (spicy pomelo salad), som tam (green papaya salad), and delicious iced drinks of marmalade fruit (nam matum), lemongrass (nam takrai), hibisicus (nam krajiap), and lime (nam manao).

Kao soi Islam
Thanon Charoen Prathet 1, Near night market road
Nice coconuty broth with red chili oil tints but a bit low on spices. Round soft and fried noodles that taste a bit like lomein noodles and their pickled mustard is sweet, which is strange but interesting. Standard basic toppings- fresh shallots, scallions, pickled mustard, and lime plus sauces standardly at table which give you quite a variety: dried hot chili, siracha sauce, nam pla prik (chili and fish sauce), and nam prik som (vinegar chili sauce). Definitely a deviation from the norm and a bit hard to get used to but tasty. 60 Baht.

Raan Pic ohn
Around Wat Pan On off of Rachadamnoen Rd.
A tasty and very fruity broth with a novel flavor and great toppings that included fried shallots (my favorite and the only place I saw them with Khao soi in Chiang Mai). Light refreshing broth low on coconut but high on flavor. A divine combo of profane and profound- Khao soi and delicious Tod mun pla (kaffir lime leaf fish cakes) in styrofoam bowls in front of a gold temple. The fish cakes quickly became my favorite walking street food in Thailand with their spicy herbiness offset by the sweet, refreshing taste of the vinegar chili sauce.

Soi Sukhimvit 49, Bangkok, near Asok Skytrain station Almost like the Denny's of Thailand with the placemats touting whole lobsters, Hawaiian ice cream sundaes, and New Zealand oysters. Very clean, with a bakery attached, and a freezer full of many items on the menu to take home and nuke yourself dinner.
Khao soi had fried noodles, pickled mustard, fresh shallots, lime, and chili oil to top it with. No veggies or anything but stock and noodles (and chicken if you want it), but the broth was quite flavorful and rich. Perhaps a little bit salty or MSG-y, but I finished the whole bowl down to the last drop. If I was stranded in Bangkok with no Khao Soi, I'd be happy to go to this place since there supposedly many locations around town, though it's hard to figure out exactly where from their website, possibly because it's all in Thai.

Chote Chitr
146 Prang Pu Thorn off Thanon Tanao 1 block north of Banting muang, near Kao San Rd, Bangkok, far from Skytrain or metro
Great smoky banana blossom salad (yum hua plee), roast green eggplant salad (yum ma khuea), spicy sweet orange curry with snakehead fish and vegetables including wing beans and daikon (gaeng som plaa chawn pak). Hard to find but keep asking and you'll find it. Cab drivers don't know alley and might keep pointing you towards Kao San rd, the backpacker ghetto, one block north. The green grilled eggplant had a delectable smokiness that cut through the sourness of the sauce and contrasted the saltiness of the large prawns, small shrimp, and chicken. The orang curry with snakehead fish (no coconut milk) was a little bit thin and one dimensional in it's sourness despite that this is touted ad one of Chote Chitr's signature dish. This place is a pain to find as the taxi drivers have no idea where this place is 2 blocks from the backpacker central, Kao San road, so they keep wanting to take you there. Look it up on google maps, print it out, and take it with you, and show the driver and people on the street the map with the thai names.

Wow, I'm getting both hungry and full writing about all this mindblowing food. And that's not even mentioning the incredible Isan food- laab (or larb as it's sometimes written), sup naw mai (bamboo shoot salad), khao laam (sticky rice and coconut grilled in a bamboo tube), pad dok salit (stir fried pakalana flowers), and much, much more. But that will all have to wait till I write the cookbook!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Klong in the East Village

I usually discount all the restaurants on St. Marks st. between 2nd and 3rd avenues, just keeping my head down and trying to get by all the sunglasses and head shops without incident. Not to mention that it's often hard to see into the semi-subterranean restaurants set back from the street hidden behind the knick knack shops. So I have Roopa of the Raspberry Eggplant blog to thank for notifying of Klong in the comments to my Tale of Two Khao Soi's post. I had never seen, heard of, or noticed Klong before and neither had my friend Sienna who came with me and even lives only a block away.

The place looks like one of thos trendy modern half-nightclub, half-Thai restaurant places with the full metal furniture, blasting music, and the menu full of graphic designy goodness, so I was a bit wary at first but when I asked the waiter where the Khao soi was on the menu, he knew exactly what I was talking about and directed right to the floating market curry noodles described as "Rice noodle with hard-boiled egg, fried shallot, bean sprout, and scallion in light curry broth", $8-10 depending on choice of meat. I've never seen this as a name for Khao Soi before and it doesn't make much sense to me since khao soi is not served exclusively at the floating market in Chiang Mai. Nonetheless, I've seen so many names for this dish I was unfazed, so I ordered it with mock vegetarian duck.

They advertised their happy hour even though we were there at 8 pm, so we both ordered the basil mojito, which was pretty tasty with the nice Thai twist of Thai basil instead of the standard mint for only $5. This could almost be considered a more native SE Asian cocktail since all the ingredients originate from the area: the limes, the basil, and the sugar from sugar cane which is actually native to Papua New Guinea rather than the Caribbean as is often thought. I've become really interested in mixology, classic cocktails, and novel twists on cocktails like the ever-so-tasty bramble (which I make with Central Park-picked juneberries and call the Ramble) and a Pomelo Pomegranate Sidecar I recently came up. In my surf band The Aquamen, where we name all our songs after cocktails, we often explore the history of the drinks (like the gin and tonic, which has a somewhat ethnobotanical/medicinal origin as a British combo of medicinal gin, quinine for malaria, and lime for scurvy created in India) or have to come up with new mixes to go with the songs. This happened when I wrote a song called Siberian Sidekick which was half Russian folk song and half spaghetti western/Rawhide sounding, and I searched for a cocktail that would go with this. All I could find was the Moscow Mule which is ginger beer or ginger ale, lime, and vodka. Well l'm a gingeer beer fanatic so this sounded great to me, but I not a big fan of vodka, due to its complicity in the death of the cocktail tk, so I switched it up for my favorite liquor, gin, instead. This turned out to be a great, refreshing drink, and became an instant hit with all my friends. The only problem is it's very hard to order this drink in any bar as very few stock ginger beer and it's just not the same with ginger ale. So imagine my excitement when after cooking Khao soi for my friend Ben and his wife (see? it all comes full circle eventually, despite the long digressions), Ben took me to the Lower East Side Australian bar Barramundi where my friend Z is working. Now I'd heard from another recently returned Aussie friend that a rum-based version of the Moscow Mule/Siberian Sidekick, the Dark and Stormy, was the national drink of Australia or at least Queensland territory because of the ginger-beer maker Bunderberg there. So I asked Z if he had ginger beer for making Dark and Stormies, which he in fact did. So I asked him to try whipping up a Siberian Sidekick with it, which he did and he loved it and said immediately that he'd add it to their already eclectic and lengthy cocktail menu. I'd love for them to be randomly inundated by orders for the Siberian Sidekick, so everyone go there and order one, especially on Monday, Friday, and Saturday when Z works there!

After that little ethnobotanical/cocktail (ethnomixological?) interlude, back to the food. I didn't try Sienna's green curry chicken though she seemed pretty happy with it, so I'll move right on to the main event. The Khao Soi arrived in an appropriately deep bowl to hold plenty of tasty curry and stacked with a good bunch of fried noodles so these were both promising signs. Breaking through the mound of fried noodles revealed some nice chunks of mock vegetarian duck, sprouts, and noodles, but not much else in terms of veggies, especially the the oh-so-good pickled mustard greens which give such a nice zing to the curry. The lack of this and other toppings on the side to add like the lime was made up for however by the depth of the curry broth, tending a little bit more towards the star-anise, musky side of things. It was hard to resist slurping down all the broth even though I was getting full from all the noodles.

This was definitely the most authentic Khao Soi I've found in the East Village, garnering it 4 stars. Even without knowing much about the other food, with the excellent Khao Soi and refreshing cheap drinks, Klong is definitely worth a visit. Perhaps ducking into the restaurant off of busy St. Marks makes it feel all the more like visiting some trendy noodle shop off a crowded Bangkok street. Setting is everything, right?

7 Saint Marks Pl
New York NY 10003
between Bowery and 2nd ave.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thai Tony's in Prospect Park and a successful defense

Well, I finally did it! Yep, now I'm a an honest to goodness PhD, though I should probably spell it Fud since that's what I mainly thought about and procrastinated with by cooking instead of writing all these 9 long years. To celebrate my successful defense I went out for amazing electronic robotic gamelan (courtesy of Taylor Kuffner), a free Deerhoof concert, and of course, Khao Soi! It was quite a night of food and musical celebration with Balinese gamelan, New Zealand savory pies from Dub Pies, Indonesian food from Java Indonesian Rijsttafel, and finally Thai food.

I've been really sad that two of my favorite nearby Indonesian restaurants, Borobudor Cafe and Soho Eastanah Indonesian, closed in the last year, leaving only 5 Indonesian restaurants I know of in NYC. Guste Bagus who ran Borobudor started a great Balinese bakery called Pinisi , that serves the excellent Ghost Chili Cupcake, made with the hottest chili pepper in the world, but there's no savory traditional Indonesian food like burbur injin (sticky coconut black rice pudding), gado gado (veggies with peanut sauce), or tempeh which the Indonesians invented. So I've been excited to try Java Indonesian for ages, and while walking there I glanced in at the Thai Tony's takeout place on 7th Ave down the block, and saw 'Kao Soi' on the menu board. After a tasty and sweet snack of achat (pickled veggies and fruit), es campur (color fruits and jelly shake), and coconut pudding and a conversation with the sweet owner there, I decided I had to stop back at Thai Tony's and get their Khao Soi to go, since I might never be in this neighborhood again before I leave NYC.

I can't tell you anything about the other food there since this was all I got, but the ambiance is nice, with the more modern feel of Pukk or Terminal Thai, and they were nice enough to give it to me directly in the glass jar I always seem to carry with me without looking at me too askance, avoiding any plastic packaging at all. This place is mainly for takeout though, with only a few bar stools up front. If you want to sit down, it might be better to go to their other branch in Kensington, though I'm not sure they serve Khao Soi as well. I have heard that the 7th Ave. Thai Tony's is undergoing renovation, but should reopen sometime in mid-December.

Not a huge amount of toppings to speak– fried noodles, raw shallots, some sprouts– but this may have been because of its to-go status. Perhaps eating there would have led to a more elaborate presentation. But the broth was nice and tangy, perhaps a bit salty, but nothing to shake a stick at for a quick bite to eat and run. I actually ate most of it enjoying the free Siren Music Festival in Coney Island RIP. I would definitely go back here if I was in the hood, definitely worth 3 stars, though relatively nearby, I think AM Thai Chili Basil in Kensington is much better.

For those of you interested in local food, tropical fruit, SE Asia and my ethnobotanical and culinary tours of Bali, I did a radio interview with KCRW's Good Food's Evan Kleinman last month about foraging for food in Central Park and foraging for fruit around the world, which you can listen to here, about 23 minutes into the show.

Thai Tony's
447 7th Ave
Brooklyn, NY‎ 11215
(718) 788-3610

Monday, July 14, 2008

Rhong is Right in Greenwich Village

Sorry I've been so incommunicado recently, but I have several good excuses: I've been showing up on New York Times videos about delicious mangosteens, replanning the trip I'm co-leading to Bali in September to taste those delicious mangosteens, finishing my Ph.D. thesis and I have my defense this Friday... and, more pertinently, I've been getting scooped by the NY Times Dining Section.

Several months ago now (wow, has it been that long since that existential experience?) I'd found Rhong Tiam on LaGuardia in the Village listed on menupages as serving Khao Soi. So when I found myself nearby with my friend Jeff after a Moth Story Slam, we checked it out. I was crossing my fingers that I could keep my good reputation as making the best restaurant recommendations to Jeff whenever he's in town, and it seems like I did with this one. We were both blown away in several ways: how good the food was, how hot the food was, and how empty the place was for how good the food was. Granted, it was a rainy Monday night at 10 PM, but still! There should be lines out the door at this place. To rectify the situation, I hurriedly reviewed it on where my pseudonym is ephramzz, and, surprisingly, it had almost no other reviews. I couldn't imagine that I'd actually gotten to this place first of all the blogging Thai food fanatics in NYC, but apparently I had.

Then the New York Times seemed to pick up on the chowhound review in their glowing review of Rhong Tiam 3 weeks ago, since they mentioned "chowhounders" several times. I'm glad they did the review because I was worried that the restaurant wasn't crowded and needed more business, but now it's going to be too crowded for even little ol' me to get in there! Well, hopefully, they'll remember my weird questions about the ginger-relative Kra Chai in the eggplant with bamboo shoots dish and let me sit on the Vespa scooter they have sitting out front and eat off the dashboard.

You can read my review of the rest of Rhong Tiam on chowhound, but what really interests you all here is the quality of the khao soi! So let's get to it. This is one of the best, if not the best Khao soi on offer in NYC, up there with AM Thai Chili Basil and Sripraphai, but with all the yummy ingredients and toppings and more: mung beans, pickled mustard, red onion, crispy noodles, egg, baby corn, spinach, and tofu. Just missing the fried shallots I suppose, but it was so spicy and good that I paid no attention. Perhaps I was in super-endorphined state from the heat of the shredded fried catfish with green mango dish especially, but I've been back since and taken the spice a little mellower and the Khao Soi was still incredible. It is substantial, thick, creamy, flavorful, tangy, with a nice heat, pretty much all you could want from a dish of northern-Thai-yellow-curried-noodle-goodness! The waiter said it's always that spicy, that it just depends on the dish. We didn't try the "heat challenge" they offered, but felt we were heat challenged ourselves. The chef was supposedly from Chiang Mai, hence the presence of Khao Soi on their menu. Thank god for the presence of Khao soi and everything else on their menu!

I've got a few more old Khao Soi reviews up my sleeve from all this time not blogging about it (what? You think I laid off eating the stuff too? No way!), so those will be coming out soon, right after my defense. Wish me luck!

Rhong Tiam easily gets all 5 stars for its delicious Khao soi, and for every other aspect of the restaurant (other food, service, ambiance), so get there as soon as you can, but perhaps call first or go on an off night, since it will still be fairly crowded from the NY Times review.

Rhong Tiam
541 Laguardia Pl
New York‎ NY‎ 10012
between Bleecker and Houston
(212) 477-0600

Sunday, April 27, 2008

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus and Portland is not a New York neighborhood, but they do have stellar Khao Soi there

This week we're going national with a guest post from Tom out in the Pacific Northwest on a place in Portland, Pok Pok, that I've heard great things about, while I try to finish off that all important dissertation and try not to get distracted by making chocolate:
I'm a friend of Nat's from when he first started a supper club to "go eat some food on Tuesdays together" in New York City back in 2000. Along with styles such as Indian and Ethiopian, our group enjoyed Southeast Asian restaurants like Tara Thai (137 1st Ave., Manhattan), Cambodian Cuisine (87 S. Elliot Place, Brooklyn), and Tibetan Yak (7220 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights). Since I moved to Bellingham, WA from Manhattan in 2003, Nat asked me to act as nonresident contributer to this blog. We both had read positive reviews of the Thai restaurant called Pok Pok, which is in southeast Portland, Oregon. So I was excited to sample the fare during a road trip (for those interested read more about my carbon offsets for the drive) to southern Oregon. I also wanted to partake in my first Khao Soi!

The Whiskey Soda Lounge portion of Pok Pok is downstairs, and there's take-out and table seating upstairs. The lounge has tight quarters, which turned out to make the meal feel more communal. Because of my fairly central location sitting in the lounge at the bar, the staff buzzed around me while I smelled and eyed the spicy tidbits near by. The wait staff and bar tender were friendly and knowledgeable about the ingredients. One waiter suggested I eat my Khao Soi using chop sticks and a large spoon, much like the variety of Japanese udon wheat-noodle soups I sometimes eat. My mild-curry brew was multifaceted, and the utensils were helpful to sift through the many layers. From the menu:
Khao Soi Kai, Northern Thai mild curry noodle soup made with our secret curry paste recipe, natural chicken on the bone and house-pressed fresh coconut milk. Served with pickled mustard greens, shallots, crispy yellow noodles and roasted chili paste. Chaing Mai specialty with Burmese origins. Vegetarian [option]

I'm sure you all know that "Kai" is a common English spelling of the Thai word for chicken. My vegetarian version contained oyster mushrooms, which were meaty and satisfying. There was fresh cilantro on the side, along with the pickled mustard greens, shallots, and roasted chili paste. I consumed all the garnishes concurrently with broth. The combination of mustard greens, tofu, oyster mushrooms, rice noodles, and crispy yellow noodles was a daring textural counterpoint, while the roasted chili paste blazed with flavor.

I also drank a glass of Thai iced tea, and a bottle of Chang beer; when I overdid a dab of chili paste, the milky tea helped extinguish the spice on my tongue. Halfway through the mixture of tastes made me feel euphoric. By the end I had feasted on the entire, sizeable bowl, but I was craving more. It's clear to me why Khao Soi is a common Thai street dish; it's an audacious and epicurean treat!
Pok Pok
3226 SE Division St

, OR 97202
Get Directions

(503) 232-1387

Thanks, Tom!

For other things Thai food related, there is a fun little video on the New York Times where I talk about my first trip to Chiang Mai and extol the virtues of my favorite fruit, the Mangosteen, which you might enjoy.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mingala Burmese in the East Village

It wasn't till I made a post searching for new places serving Khao Soi on chowhound that I realized I'd been overlooking my favorite (only?) Burmese restaurant in New York, Mingala. Of course! I should have known that given the origins of the spices from Myanamar and the name 'khao soi' from the Burmese 'kow suer' for 'fold-pull', referring to the action of pulling the noodles integral to the dish (and not “to enter the lane” or 'big mountain' as many have attempted to interpret the name as Thai words), that this place must serve it. I'd been going to Mingala for years for their great green tea salad, made from the hard-to-find-in-NYC fermented green tea leaves. Don't let me get started on this extremely addictive dish, which I could start another whole blog on if there weren't so few Burmese restaurants in NY. I got my friends in San Francisco hooked on this dish from Burma Super Star and they would curse me as they would dream about this dish after having it and practically sleep walk to the restaurant to get it in the days before ambien and the sleep snacking epidemic. Actually you might need some sleeping aids after having the green tea salad since it packs some serious caffeine as your basically eating whole tea leaves which have more caffeine by weight than coffee beans even though when brewed coffee has more caffeine extracted. But I would advocate a nice herbal brew of catnip, hops, passion flower, valerian, chamomile, and skullcap to help fall asleep blissfully instead of pills, as long as you can wrest the catnip from your cats!

I don't know how I'd overlooked this noodle dish on Mingala's menu so long, but then when I check on the advice from chowhounder GingerSpice, yep, there it was: Swe Taung Kow Swear room temperature egg noodles, chicken cabbage, coconut milk, onion, coriander, twist of lemon and crispy noodle on top, a perfect description of Khao Soi if I'd just bothered to read it. I coaxed my friends Becca, Cassie, and Robert into going there without mentioning the Khao Soi, though it was easy since Cassie and Robert, both visiting from out of town, were recovered green tea salad addicts from SF and Burma Super Star, and I swear that whenever Robert visits NY a few times a year, he only goes to Mingala, and no other restaurants. Cassie will hopefully become my Chicago Khao soi correspondent if she can make it to the other side of the city for it.

Maybe since it was getting late and we didn't want to be kept up all night, we didn't order the green tea salad for once. Instead we ordered in addition to the Kow swear some thousand layer bread, tamin let-thoke (cold rice noodle salad), and some other tamarind thoke salad, the last two of which we couldn't tell apart at all aside from one having more rice and the other more noodles. I was bit disappointed with these other dishes this time around at Mingala, being nothing in comparison to the Rangoon night market noodles, Basil Soybean, and Mango vegetables that I usually get. I'm not sure whether it was an off night there or if it was those dishes. Both were pretty bland and needed a good amount of hot sauce to spice them up.

The Kow Swear was totally different from the Thai version I'm used to, but as this is the first Burmese version I've had of it, it's hard to know if that's just Mingala's version of it or the Burmese always prepare it like that. It had a few of the toppings I love like the fried shallots and mung beans, but lacked much curry and sourness from the lime and pickled mustard greens, again needing hot sauce to enliven the dish. Perhaps if we'd asked for some lime to squeeze over it, this would've helped, but otherwise just a novelty to order if you want to try the full gamut of Khao soi. Now I just have to find the Lao version of it. Too bad the only Lao restaurant I can find in NYC has its menu solely in Chinese, so I may just have to go hang out there all day and night till someone orders something remotely Khao-soi-looking so I can point at it!

Definitely check out Mingala for their other dishes, but don't make the Kow swear the first or only dish you order. Unfortunately, the other Upper East Side branch of Mingala does not serve the Kow Suer.

Mingala Burmese
21 E 7th St
New York‎ NY‎ 10003
(212) 529-3656
between 2nd and 3rd ave.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Udom Thai in Prospect Heights

Finally back to the matter at hand, namely coconut milky, curried, fried noodles and shalloty goodness! This is one of the few Thai restaurants serving Khai Soi that I've discovered merely by happening by and taking a glance at the menu, rather than hearing about it from a friend or finding it online. Did you know that now lets you search for a particular dish name on menus of thousands of restaurants? This is difficult with the myriad permutations of Khao Soi's name, however, and they only cover Manhattan and part of Brooklyn. I did find two new places this way that serve it, however: Blue Chili and Rhong-Piam, now added to the map at the right. So otherwise I need all you new and old Khao soi fanatics out there helping me find these new places not listed on menupages, like Udom. I finally made the journey out to Brooklyn Heights to give Udom a try last week with my friend Becca who lives in the hood and who initially got hooked on the dish with my version of it.

Udom is a relatively standard version of the more modern, hip Thai restaurants sprouting up all over town with bright, warm colors and spiffy fixtures. I'm undecided yet as to whether this decor incarnation has any effect, bad or good, on the food. The other dish we ordered, a spicy eggplant stir-fry with basil was pretty tasty and nicely spiced, and the coconut water with chunks of coconut meat, though not taking any prep on the restaurant's part, was a nice offset to the heat of this dish and the Khao Soi.

When the dish in question arrived on our table and on our tongues, it had us divided, most likely because it was the sour, limey version which I love, vs. the musky, anisey one which I think Becca is a fan of. Granted it didn't have all the toppings and lacked a bit of depth in the curry flavor, but I know a proper amount of lime goes a long way for me as it's my natural form of MSG, making everything taste better, even the nasty ripe papaya (though I adore Som Tam, the unripe green papaya salad, more on that at the end of the review). We got the mung bean sprouts and pickled mustard greens on this one not all the crunchy fried nutttiness of the noodles and shallots. There also wasn't much of the tangy broth to speak of since it was in a shallow plate instead of a bowl, which was too bad as this makes the flavor. But they of course did not call it Khao Soi (but rather egg noodles with yellow curry or something to that effect), so I suppose I can't expect the complete dish.

Udom is definitely worth hitting if your in the hood since the nearest Khao Soi is at least a mile away in either direction at Em Thai in Carroll Gardens or Am Thai in Kensington.

Udom Thai Restaurant
661 Washington Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11238
corner of St. Marks Ave.
(718) 622-8424

Ok, so you made it this far, you must want to know more about Som Tam, or green papaya salad. Although I consider myself a fruitaholic and have tried over 200 different species of fruit, domesticated and wild, in my travels around the globe (yes, I keep a list of all these fruits, call me crazy!), there are a rare few fruits that I don't like, papaya being one of them, unfortunately. Ripe papaya just smells a little too close to ripe feet for me, if you know what I mean. It is served for breakfast so often in Bali, that when I was living there, I got used to making it palatable by smothering it in the juice from the tasty little limes they have there, and realized lime juice could make everything taste better, even the nasty papaya! I love, however, the Som Tam salad common in Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Cambodian food, made from shredded unripe papaya, carrots, tomatoes, peanuts, cilantro, chillis, cumin, sesame oil, fish sauce, vinegar, and palm sugar as its main ingredients. I often hunt down the green papayas in New York's Chinatown to make this dish myself, especially when I can make it vegetarian, substituting the fish sauce mentioned in this post and leaving out the dried shrimp.

So it was to my great dismay when I did my ethnobotanical fieldwork studying medicinal plants in the Peruvian Amazon with the Asháninka indigenous group where the papaya is actually native to, that I saw perhaps hundreds of papaya plants loaded with ripening fruit and not much else to eat. I tried to think of how I could divert these fruits before they wound up on the table in front of me, but I didn't want to be rude and say I didn't like them, when our hosts were being so gracious in taking care of us in the this little village of 25 people, with few other food resources besides wild game like turtles, wild turkeys, and majás, the second largest rodent in the world behind the capybara. I then remembered how much I loved green papaya salad which I hadn't seem made in Peru, so I thought I'd show them how to make it, get them hooked on it, and then all the papayas would be eaten in their green state before they reached their full ripe nastiness! And it was perfect since many of the ingredients like tomatoes, chillis, and culantro (or thorny cilantro) are native to or growing in the area.

Well, my plan worked, perhaps a little too well. The Asháninka loved the green papaya salad, but instead of making it themselves I was inundated with green papayas with someone bringing me a few from all around the village every day, asking me to make it for them. I almost didn't get my field work done due to introducing this popular Asian dish to them, but in the end I was happy I didn't have to eat that cursed ripe papaya. Any anthropologist who goes to study in this village after me is going to be quite confused as to why a South American group is making a Southeast Asian dish! That will give someone plenty of material to theorize on in their Ph.D. thesis.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Foodie Blogroll

Click to Join the Foodie BlogrollYou might notice a new link on the right for the Foodie Blog Roll. Why did I join? Because I'm definitely a foodie, I have a blog, and that's how I roll, er, I mean I've discovered many wonderful food blogs on the list, like, for instance Roopa's beautiful and delicious Raspberry Eggplant where she bakes the most delicious cakes and South Indian food, which shares many spices with Southeast Asian food and Khao Soi, the subject of this here blog. Which I'll get back to toot sweet as soon as I finish that there dissertation I'm working on and some chocolate I've been cooking up, another obsession of mine.

Two other blogs that I love on foraging for and preparing wild food , the reason I got into ethnobotany in the first place, are Feral Kevin, a kindred soul in Oakland, CA collecting acorns and mugwort in the Berkeley hills as I used to do, and Sunny Savage's Wild Food Plants blog, where she makes all kinds of deliciousness from prickly pear pie collected in Southern California, to making soup with stinging nettle, one of my favorite and most nutritious wild greens. She's going to have a TV show called 'Hot on the Trail with Sunny Savage' and will be on the Veria DISH network sometime later this year which I'm excited for! My friends Wendy and Mikey are painting their Greenacre Hotsprings eco-motel with that same prickly pear Sunny mentions instead of eating it. They're also doing some really cool stuff with growing plants in cold winter boxes under low-power but high-photosynthetically-useful LED lights.

Another food blog I've been obsessed with recently is Carmella's Sunny Raw Kitchen, as I've been eating about 3/4 raw food for the last year, though I may not have let on. I still can't live without the occasional Asian dish (as you may have noticed from this blog), and someday I may try to convert Khao Soi to a raw recipe, but in the meantime, I've been loving Carmella's inspiring collection of delicious recipes like Mediterranean flat bread, Tropical Cheesecake (exactly, with no cheese and no cake, but still delectable), and raw burgers made with Burdock, another plant you can forage for in abundance here in New York while removing an invasive weed, rather than pay the $5/lb for it at the health food store. The recipes Carmella collects are so good I can hardly get them to the plate or the table without eating them all straight out of the blender, and I feel really full of energy after eating them.

Hope this has given you some insight into what I've been cooking recently. A post on Udom Thai Restaurant in Prospect Heights coming soon!