TOM VITAYAKUL recalls the halcyon days of Bangkok’s old-school independent Chinese restaurants and highlights a few of the remaining gems in which to feast the senses.
Almost every weekend during my childhood, my parents would take the whole family for lunch at one of Bangkok’s traditional Chinese restaurants. Among these were the Golden Dragon in Sukhumvit Road, Hai Tien Lo in Sua Paa Road, Tien Tien on Patpong, and So Bo Lo in Wang Burapa, where steaming dim sum was served from trolleys in true Hong Kong style.
These legendary stand-alone restaurants specialized in regional Chinese cuisines ranging from Cantonese and Chiu Chow to Szechuan, Hainanese, and Hakka. In my memory the dishes were all scrumptious. During dinner their private rooms were filled with the agreeable noise of bouncy conversations, gossip, and laughter. If their walls could talk, they would tell intriguing stories of weighty business negotiations and deals struck, of marriage proposals made and family anniversaries celebrated.
However, with the onset of the real estate boom of the 1980s and 1990s, these dining venues either went out of fashion, were not able to afford spiralling rents, or were forced to move when landlords sold out to property developers. One of the oldest, Hai Tien Lo, which opened in 1932, was closed in 1988. It re-emerged for a while in a hotel on Rama IV but closed again recently. Both Sala Thai on Mahesak Road, and Kuan Ah, a popular Hainanese spot formerly at the corner of Rama IV and North Sathorn, have relocated to more affordable premises on Rama 3 Road.
In the meantime, many five-star hotels have opened Chinese restaurants within their premises. These new outlets are lushly decorated and provide silver service. Refined ambience seems to be what diners savour, but how I long for the unassuming décor of the old guard and the days when service was simple yet genuine and the food came without much presentation and pretention!
There are countless Chinese restaurants spread over Bangkok. Some of the older ones still maintain their retro furnishings, such as Scala, named for the cinema under which it is located. This is a Siam Square institution dating from the 1970s, as are New Light, Iata, and Kirin (or Ghilane if you pronounce it the Thai way). New Light was one of the first coffee shops opened in Bangkok and it is still going strong. From their extensive menu of Chinese, Thai, and Western dishes, baked rice with minced pork and Chinese black olives, one of the signature offerings, is served with aplomb to a loyal clientele.
In the Silom-Surawong area, everyone knows the Shangrila Restaurants. These are not connected in any way to the Shangri-La Hotel on the river. The first branch opened its doors on Silom in 1969, the second on Thaniya Road in 1980 and the third in Chinatown in 1989. Since then the group has expanded to casual Chinese dining and Japanese cuisine.
The exterior and the interior designs of the Shangrila outlets are more eye-catching than other traditional restaurants. Chinese-style pavilion and rooflines juxtapose with modern settings. The colour red, signifying power and happiness, heavily adorns these faux palaces, so too gold to represent wealth and prosperity. Dragon and phoenix motifs, symbolising yin and yang, grace the walls among art and handicraft pieces from China. Here the cuisine is classic Cantonese. At lunch barbecued meats and myriad dim sum choices are prepared à la minute. They showcase highquality ingredients such as live seafood and fresh vegetables. Spiny lobster comes as sashimi and can be cooked at the table in a steam boat. The fat from the head and flesh is used to swiftly stir-fry rice angel hair, which oozes wok qi.
Towards the end of the year hairy crab imported from China appears on the menu. The plump steamed and moist crab flesh and crab roe tingle the taste buds. Another delicious variation is to have it fried and glazed with salted eggs. You can also indulge in whelks and Chinese eels taken ultra-fresh from live tanks, while succulent abalone steamed with garlic deserves all the stars. Aromatic Beggar’s chicken should be pre-ordered. Wrapped in lotus leaves and baked in clay, moisture and flavour are wonderfully preserved. Peking duck – a
perennial favourite – and braised ham hock served with steamed buns are also superb. Finally, finish the banquet off with fried taro balls covered with watermelon seeds.
Shangrila group is also well-known for its moon cakes. These are specially prepared for the full moon night in September at the apex of the Mid-Autumn Festival every year. In 1989 the group teamed up with Sermsuk Company and Central Department Stores to create a truly gigantic moon cake. Six metres in diameter and weighing in at 2,500 kg, it rightly earned a place in the Guinness world records. It was later cut into 13,000 portions which were sold to raise money for charity.
In the Pranakorn area near Ratchadamnoen Road, huge crab claws are still displayed in the glass cabinets of Paan Fah Restaurant. Since 1937 millions of succulent mud crab claws have been served and devoured at the restaurant. The rest of the crab is offered as a separate dish. As this is a Hainanese outlet, one simply must order Hainanese chicken and fragrant
rice cooked in chicken stock. Other signature dishes include fried pork intestines, fried seafood sausages, Hainanese-style stir-fried ten vegetables, a hot pot of fish heads, and rice sautéed with crab meat. For the ultimate nostalgic experience, ask to be seated in a wooden benched booth in the main room with electric fans whirling above.
Numerous Chinese restaurants have Peking duck on the menu but none of them compare to that which is served at New Great Shanghai on Sukhumvit Road near Emporium. Established several decades ago, its décor has not altered much since I first visited and thankfully the cuisine remains first rate. Before feasting on the duck, start the meal with hot hors d’oeuvres of drunken chicken, deep-fried prawn toasts, stir-fried fish maw, and Shanghai glass noodles with sliced pork. Here they also prepare some Szechuan dishes, including spring onion cakes to pair with stir-fried beef with soya sauce and chilli. These have the traditional flavours that remind me of much-missed lunches at old Bai Mai Daeng or the Red Leaf on Petchburi Road.
In 2010 the crispy skin and tender meat of New Great Shanghai’s Peking duck earned it the no. 1 spot as the best in town on the CNN Go website. The restaurant’s version of duck san choy bow is sautéed with sliced snake beans. Other recommended dishes are fried duck with garlic and pepper and duck soup with pickled lettuce.
Back on Surawong Road, Tangjaiyuu from Chinatown opened a new branch a few years ago. The original has been around for more than 65 years. Live seafood swims in tanks in front of the restaurants. A variety of dim sum is available at lunch. While waiting for the main event, peanuts and preserved lettuce provide a piquant distraction for the palate. Here the pièce de résistance is steamed mud crab with minced pork and Chinese black olives. Juicy and luscious, it is always a winner.
Other musts are gigantic fried prawn rolls, stir-fried rock lobsters in chilli and salt, steamed snow fish filet, wide rice noodles prepared in the gravy of the fish filets and salted black beans, and sautéed mixed nuts served in a nest made of taro. Fried and glazed in sugar, taro reappears as a devastatingly delicious signature dessert.
I’ve come to realise that the bottom line is to enjoy these places while I can. Despite serving up sumptuous fare in a congenial atmosphere, they may not be around in the future. So stuff the calorie and cholesterol count and bring me another duck!