One of Bangkok's real culinary pleasures is the experience of stepping into an unremarkable-looking little food shop and finding a dish that is done really well. Food-alert types will know that this is something that happens much less frequently these days than it once did, but most will have a mental shortlist of little places that rarely disappoint, perfect for inviting special friends for impromptu informal meals.
ABOVE Rice soup with sea bass.
TOP Sea bass noodles with sour and spicy broth.
A week or so ago a friend of Ung-aang Talay's with a well-tutored palate suggested a visit to a tiny shop _ just four tables _ where he said some unusually good khao tom plaa kraphong (rice soup with sea bass meat) was to be had. Set in the front of a recently-built apartment complex called the Baron, Khrua Khun Mae (Mother's Kitchen) is not the kind of place that will stop you in your tracks by appearance alone. It is a narrow shophouse with highly antiseptic-looking stainless steel tables and chairs and the usual stove and glass case for ingredients, also in shiny steel, in front.
But then you notice, on the large, illuminated sign over the entrance, the words khao tom plaa kraphong and kui tio plaa kraphong (noodles with sea bass) filling most of the space, spelled out in a font even bigger than the one used for the restaurant's name. Clearly, Khrua Khun Mae sets great store by its sea bass, and rightly so.
Khrua Khun Mae is run by an elderly woman _ the Khun Mae it is named for _ and her daughter. On the evening of U-a T's visit, only the daughter was there (her mother usually prepares the noodle dishes), and was really being put through her paces cooking to order each dish for four full tables of customers. Even so, among the tableful of foods that U-a T and friend sampled, there was only one disappointment.
From the menu on the wall, U-a T asked for khao tom plaa kraphong, kui tio plaa kraphong, plaa luak jim (lightly boiled pieces of sea bass with a dipping sauce), khao muu ope yawt phak (roast pork with Chinese broccoli shoots over rice) and kui tio tom yam nam khon plaa kraphong (sea bass noodles with sour and spicy broth).
Lightly boiled pieces of sea bass with a dipping sauce.
The sea bass rice soup fully justified its prominence on the sign. The fish pieces were very fresh and sweet, the rice firm without being hard, and the broth fragrant with garlic and fresh coriander. The flavour of the fish was so good that U-a T skipped the accompanying dipping sauce.
It was a simpler version of the dish served at, say, Chiang Kii off Yaowarat, where the noodles and fish share the bowl with dried shrimp and cubes of spiced pork with dried tofu chips on the side, at a much higher price. But Khrua Khun Mae's more basic recipe left nothing to be desired, and U-a T will certainly be returning for more.
The kui tio shared the virtues of the khao tom. As a rule, U-a T sets expectations low for noodles at roadside shops, anticipating them to be on the thick and flabby side rather than thin and chewy in the manner of the marvels served at Jay Fai at Pratuu Phee. The good quality and texture of Khrua Khun Mae's sen yai came as a pleasant surprise, another easy recommendation.
Perhaps best of all was the plaa luak jim _ lightly boiled pieces of boneless sea bass sprinkled with fried garlic and other seasonings, served with a chilli sauce that enlivened the fish without overwhelming it. Once again, this was a simple dish that depended largely for its success on the quality of the fish meat, whose delicacy was enhanced by the aromatic, slightly salty seasonings and the scent of the fresh coriander scattered over it.
The one real disappointment was the kui tio tom yam nam khon plaa kraphong. For some reason the texture of the sea bass was very different here, overly soft, almost gelid in consistency. The broth combined sweetness and slight tartness appealingly, but was ruined because the coconut cream traditionally added to make the nam khon version of tom yum dishes had again been replaced by dairy milk.
U-a T finds solace in the certainty that there is a special place in hell for whomever it was who originated this vile practice, which has spread like a plague to infect so many Bangkok restaurants. Of course it is much easier to open a carton or can of milk than to extract coconut cream and use it while it is still fresh, but consider the toll this substitution takes on the taste and fragrance of the dish upon which it is inflicted. Stay away.
Venturing away from the sea bass dishes, U-a T was impressed by the tenderness and flavour of the roast pork in a sauce that was sweet, but not excessively so, and brought to life with a nice zap of sourness.
Khrua Khun Mae has no ambition to be the kind of shrine to the art of khao tom plaa represented by Chiang Kii or, perhaps, the famous place at the Phlap Phla Chai intersection. There is no need to drive across town in drop-dead traffic to try it. But if you are anywhere near Lat Phrao 130 near mealtime you'd do well to stop in, especially if you stick to the sea bass dishes.
Khrua Khun Mae on Lat Phrao Soi 130.
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