As good as it looks

Cooks at a simple Chinatown eatery display a keen sense of timing and handle their ingredients deftly

You have to hand it to the Yaowarat area for its ability to keep cultural invasion and pollution at bay. The lone McDonald's that opened there a few years back packed up and left some time ago _ a first for Bangkok? _ and even 7-Eleven has only made minor inroads.

Hoon Kuang restaurant with some of its favourite menus taped to the inside of the door.

Just as impressive is the Darwinian mechanism in place there that allows good restaurants, no matter how modest, to thrive for decades while others with less capable kitchens wither and die fairly quickly. It's a pleasing contrast to other parts of town where suddenly fashionable restaurants flare up like supernovae and then, yielding their trendy clientele to hot new places, gradually fade until when they do finally close few people notice.

This happy fact was reconfirmed for Ung-aang Talay recently by a meal served at an unassuming-looking place on Yaowarat called Hoon Kuang. U-a T and a couple of friends were in Chinatown heading toward a favourite restaurant for a dim sum lunch, but were brought to a halt by a seductive photo of curried shrimp sharing a platter with some lightly scorched, perfectly stir-fried rice noodles.

Khlui poo , spring rolllike cylinders with crabmeat and herbs.

That arresting image was taped to the inside of Hoon Kuang's glass door. The dim sum was forgotten and U-a T and friends went inside and ordered a plateful of the shrimp and noodle dish, sen yai raad naa goong pat phong karee. Astoundingly, the dish set down in front of U-a T looked exactly like the one in the photo (how often does that happen?) and tasted as good as it looked.

After a brief study of the menu, orders were then placed for pat khanaa moo krawp (Chinese broccoli stir-fried with crisp pork), khlui poo (spring roll-like cylinders stuffed with crabmeat and herbs), pla pat phrik thai dam (fish meat stir-fried with fresh peppercorns) and pat pakkaad khao (stir-fried cabbage).

First, the curried shrimp. The menu lists it under the kui tio raad naa category, meaning that the strongly flavoured ingredients are poured on top of the accompanying noodles, but in this instance the two main elements were actually served side by side on the plate, with sprigs of lightly boiled Chinese broccoli and a fresh coriander garnish.

This was as it should be, as the sen yai noodles, which had spend just enough time in the pan to brown them slightly, releasing a delectable flavour and aroma, would have been compromised if the curry had been ladled over them. The curried shrimp, too, were excellent: not too salty or oily, with the curry sauce fragrant and flavourful, but not intense enough to eclipse the taste of the very fresh, firm shrimp.

U-a T will be making many more visits to Hoon Kuang just for this dish, which is memorable in the same way as Jay Fai's pat khee mao. Is there any higher praise than that?

Chinese broccoli stir-fried with crisp pork.

A sharp sense of timing was also evident in the way the pak khanaa had been fried. The vegetable had been left on the fire long enough to bring out the sweetness and juiciness that heat releases, but not so long that its crunchy texture was lost. The salty, garlicky savour of the sauce enhanced it further and everything would have been perfect if the skin on the moo krawp had been truly crisp. U-a T recognises the difficulty of frying crispy pork in sauce and having it retain its crunch, but has seen the feat pulled off more than once, most recently at a market stall. Still, an admirable version of this simple dish.

Juicy pieces of sweet bell pepper gave a special appeal to the pla pat phrik thai dam. Firm white fish meat (pla kraphong khao), cut into bite-sized pieces, was stir-fried with the peppers and fresh peppercorns, in quantity. Sliced chillies, pieces of straw mushroom, garlic and aromatic herbs blended in a salty, slightly sweet sauce made for a harmonious combination of tastes and textures. U-a T especially appreciated the fact that the fish pieces appeared to have been fried separately first to brown them lightly, then stir-fried with the other ingredients. Recommended.

The pat pakkaad khao was another simple dish, white Chinese cabbage stir-fried in sauce with garlic and a few slices of shi'itake mushroom, made exemplary by a keen sense of timing and temperature in the frying.

The vegetable was softened to absorb the sauce, but not enough to lose its character to overcooked mushiness.

U-a T and friends had selected the khlui poo (crab flutes) from a number of spring roll-like dishes listed on the menu. They were long, thin, and very crisp, filled with a crabmeat mixture that had been scented with pak chee farang. Accompanied by the usual sweet sauce, they came across primarily as a snack, but one whose crispiness and tasty filling made them hard to leave alone _ and they disappeared quickly.

U-a T's fantasy of having happened on a hidden gem in Hoon Kuang was quickly dispelled when a table companion, the culinary explorer A.B., pointed out that the entire wall behind U-a T was plastered with slobbering reviews of the place from the Thai-language press, capped off by a "Shell Chuan Chim" plaque. Its excellence will probably be old news to many readers, but those who don't know it and want to give it a try will find the service is quick and polite, something we take for granted in Thailand until we travel abroad, and that prices are moderate, with most dishes costing 100-200 baht.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Ung-Aang Talay
Position: Reporter