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Some Bangkok Eateries May Be Hard to Find, but Persistence Proves Rewarding--and Cheap

July 29, 1990|MAX JACOBSON | Jacobson is The Times' Orange County and San Fernando Valley restaurant critic and a free-lance travel writer.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Most visitors to this city, one of the eating capitals of the world, have their own personal cravings for Thai foods. Unfortunately, they are usually content to satisfy them at major hotels and restaurants. I recommend a more soulful, and vastly more economical, approach.

Food stalls and snack stands line every major crossing. What's more, almost any Thai dish you can name has a restaurant in this city that is famous for its preparation.

I picked out four of my favorite dishes and set about finding their prototypes. The effort proved to be more than I bargained for.

Thais are extremely welcoming, but the farang, or foreigner, who makes an unusual request is often taken lightly. Getting a Thai to tell you about one of his favorite haunts is a dicey proposition.

I asked several locals about a few restaurants whose names I had gotten from Thai friends in California, and rarely succeeded in more than raising eyebrows. "Are you sure you really want to go to that place? That food is only for local people."

Persistence ultimately prevailed. Whenever thwarted, I consulted Bangkok's handy (and mysteriously transliterated) English-language phone book, using Kun Tavee, the owner of my guest house, as the puzzled go-between.

Go-betweens are an utmost necessity when seeking local addresses in a city such as Bangkok. You'll need the address written in Thai, and directions, too. (Taxi drivers are programmed to home in on the big hotels, like pigeons.) Eventually I got to every place I was looking for.

My flight from Los Angeles took 17 hours, and I was starving when I stepped off the plane. The local time was 12:06 a.m., and I had yet to learn that finding small restaurants would be no mean feat in the wee hours. I learned fast.

Pad Thai--fried, flat noodles with a variety of toppings--are typically eaten by Thais for late supper. Late supper in Thailand means 1 a.m. I rummaged through my pocket for the name of "the best pad Thai restaurant in the world"--well, so said my Thai friend Lucky--and fished out Lucky's rumpled business card. The back read "Tip Samai-fried noodles."

My taxi driver, like many of those in Bangkok, was an Isarn from northeast Thailand and didn't know the city like a native. "Tip Samai, pad Thai," I kept repeating; my driver stopped every five minutes or so to confer with another driver. We got there in just under two hours.

It was next to an Esso station, had standing-room-only (all the tables were full), and three gigantic woks protruded onto the sidewalk. The odor of frying noodles almost knocked me over, and the chefs were shouting like auctioneers. I wondered what time I would go to bed.

Then I remembered how hungry I was. Exotic ingredients like shallot, varieties of dried shrimp, minced bamboo, ka or galangal, leeks and tofu were being dumped nonstop into a jumble of noodles by busy women, then woked to a sizzle. Glowing embers bathed the street in light.

The noodle mixtures are magically wrapped in thin omelets, then served. I can't remember ever eating anything so intensely satisfying. The subtle taste of smoke and herbs permeated every bite, and the noodles were soft and yielding. The sum for this princely dish, called sai took yang (the works) in Thai, is about 60 cents. Have it with shaved ice with vanilla bean and young coconut for 30 cents extra. Then sleep like a baby.

I awoke with a jolt the next morning to some syrupy iced coffee and grumbled to myself about the northeastern taxi driver. Then I thought about one of my favorite Thai dishes that was also from the northeast. Isarn are wonderful cooks, famous for a dish with an unpronounceable name, khoa neou nua yang, sticky rice with charcoal-grilled beef. A few phone calls and I was on my way.

Ironically, Galapaprueck Restaurant has made its name among Thais for Western desserts: Brownies, cobblers and layer cakes are the first things you notice as you walk in.

It's a bright, clean place, located in Bangkok's Silom district, just off the main soi (street) and always completely full for lunch. Waitresses sport little red bow ties and dowdy aprons. Nothing on the menu costs more than 45 baht ($1.80 U.S.).

The beef everyone orders resembles London broil, sliced sideways and fanned out on the plate. The taste is overpowering. Thais use hardwoods in grilling, and the meat is perfumed with flavors reminiscent of hickory and apple.

It is plated with a burnished chili sauce, eaten in escarole leaves with mint, cabbage and a clump of sticky rice. The tastes are sublime.

This may be Bangkok's best restaurant to experience Thai sausage as well. Northern sausage is crispy, virtually greaseless pork sausage that pops when you bite into it, slightly sweet with lots of heady anise.

Northeastern sausage, eaten with fried rice, is heavier and tastes like pickled pig's feet with concentrated garlic. Watch out for the tiny chili pods in the rice. Even a dragon would have trouble digesting them.

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