Ending on a high note

I just returned from a two-week trip to Southeast Asia, and I have lots to tell. I'm going to give an overview of the best dishes I had along the way, across Thailand (Bangkok and Chiang Mai), Vietnam (Hanoi), and Singapore. But first, I'm writing about our last day in Bangkok—the city where we began and ended our travels—when, thanks to a few recommendations and insistences from trusted friends, we hit the nail on the head in choosing where to eat both lunch and dinner.

Around 1:30 pm we hopped on the BTS Skytrain by our hotel, then walked a few blocks to an open-air Isaan joint on a quiet strip of Silom, the business district where many banks are headquartered and office buildings reside. You can spot it by its shamrock-green awning. Look closer, and you'll see a boss som tam lady manning her station on the left side of the storefront. On the right, another lady treads between her streetside grill (where the other day, she was searing a slew of whole fish slathered with salt and stuffed with limes) and a cavernous pit filled with the restaurant's prized roast chicken, broken into parts and ready for consumption.

Four or five standing fans, dispersed throughout the space, do their part to create a hospitable environment for diners. But when it's 95 degrees and humid, you'll be sweating into your som tam; there's no way around it. The menu is blown up, pasted on the wall, and entirely in Thai, so it's crucial that you either know the names of the dishes that you want or are equipped with pictures to show the non-English-speaking staff.

We ordered delicious renditions on some of our favorite northern Thai dishes: larb moo and two types of som tam—a classic version and an eccentric one, with chunks of corn and whole grapes. Plus, perfectly crispy grilled chicken wings and silky grilled pork neck, both meant for dunking in a sweet-spicy chili sauce textured with rice powder. All of it was served on a colorful array of small plates, from Pepto pink to baby blue.

Dinner was over in the commercially concentrated area of Phrom Phong, at an eastern Thai restaurant that's not fancy per se, but definitely refined and spirited. Upon arrival, you're given a small glass of sweet Thai tea, which is refilled throughout your meal as a counterbalance to spice, plus a couple of menus covering everything from cocktails to signature dishes and seasonal offerings. I started with a jasmine and pandan leaf-infused Old Fashioned, which was a useful aid in tackling the abundant food offering.

We ordered well: more pork neck (this time stir-fried with green curry paste and nubby peppercorns), egg custard with sweet minced pork, a Thai-spiced cumber salad laden with the restaurant's homemade fish sauce, massaman curry with chicken and durian, and my personal favorite—tiny, deep-fried chicken wings covered in a mess of fried lemongrass and served with a slightly sugary, neon-orange hot sauce. I can't call myself a fan of durian, but the dish is a specialty of the house, and it worked.

When everything arrived on our table, almost all at once, there was one thing missing. An instant later, a waitress appeared harnessing a basket underneath one arm, using her other to fill our plates with giant spoonfuls of steaming rice. Flawless service meant that the moment one of us had cleared that base, she was back to offer more. The only downside? We were so full that we couldn't fathom dessert.

Fortunately, my sweet tooth was already satisfied from earlier that day. In between meals, we acquired a perfect mango sticky rice—Thailand's best dessert—in the food court of a luxury mall. It was juicy and gooey and creamy and sweet; that is to say, we ended on a high note.

Som Tam Jay So
Soi Phiphat 2, Khwaeng Silom, Khet Bang Rak,
Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10500, Thailand
+66 85 999 4225

Sri Trat
90 Sukhumvit 33 Alley, Khwaeng Khlong Tan Nuea, Khet Watthana,
Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10110, Thailand
+66 2 088 0968

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