Roadside stalls step up to the plate

They abound all over Thailand and while the quality of food on offer can be hit and miss, gems can be found.

'Roadside warriors" is a great title for the intrepid vendors that cook food-to-order at stalls and shops beside many roads and lanes in every province throughout Thailand. But not all who buy their food hold it in high esteem. Many customers don't really like this kind of eating and settle for it only when they have no other option.

The reason so few people hanker for these cooked-to-order dishes is usually the same -- there's a lack of variety and choice. Regardless of whether the stall is on Ramkhamhaeng Road, Samsen Road or at some street-side location in Nakhon Nayok, the choice is often between fried rice, an omelette served over rice, kai/muu phat kraphrao raad khai dao (chicken or rice stir-fried with basil, chilli and other seasonings served over rice and topped with a fried egg), kai/muu phat phrik kaeng raad khao (chicken or pork stir-fried with spicy seasonings and served over rice), kui tiao raad naa (rice noodles topped with meat or chicken in gravy), phat see iew (rice noodles stir-fried with soy sauce) or phat Thai.

In addition often customers have reservations about the cooking skills of the vendor. The meat in phat bai kraphrao (Thai basil with minced meat) is mistakenly cut in chunks, for example, rather than chopped or minced fine, or too little basil is used. The phat see iew is sometimes too dry while phat Thai can be unappetising and badly cooked.

Often cooked-to-order stalls are also not equipped to deal with lunchtime crowds. Office workers pour out of their buildings around the same time and descend on these stalls. The cooks can only prepare one dish at a time, which often means a long wait for customers. In these instances it's best to order noodles, khao muu daeng (rice topped with Chinese red pork in sauce) or khao man kai (Hainanese-style chicken and rice) as these dishes take less time to prepare.

There are times when a cooked-to-order streetside lunch can't be avoided. When travelling far from your usual neighbourhood and no restaurants or cafes can be found there's almost always a food stall nearby.

For many cooks who make and sell food-to-order, these shops and stalls are usually their first experience in the food business. Sometimes a housewife will open a stall to earn extra income for the family, with the added bonus of cooking at the stall for the family. Or sometimes the vendor is simply someone who has the required space in their home and spots a business opportunity.

Setting up does not require a big investment. The necessities include a glass case for displaying vegetables and other ingredients, a cold chest for keeping ingredients fresh, a gas stove, kitchen equipment such as a wok, pots, a spatula, tableware, and tables and chairs. Finally, of course, are the ingredients themselves.

Location is another consideration. If cooking from home is not an option vendors can set up a small spot by the side of the road that can be rented inexpensively for temporary use. This approach is probably best as it avoids the bigger financial commitment of renting a shop space long-term.

Running a made-to-order streetside food business requires a lot of endurance. Vendors have to make tiring trips to the market to shop, while profits from selling the dishes can be small. Charge too much and customers won't buy.

Vendors also need to manage business and personal expenses and the profit made. If vendors overspend, and have no money left to buy ingredients, meaning they close temporarily, customers will look for their food elsewhere.

Despite all these issues food cooked-to-order should not be dismissed as inferior or unappetising. In fact many professional restaurant chefs began cooking food-to-order at stalls in local communities.

These cooks usually started their ascent to star status by way of a few simple steps. Vendors who formerly sold only fried rice may decide to offer tom yam koong as well, or perhaps another dish such as a spicy kaeng paa (hot curry made without coconut cream) or kaeng khio waan muu haeng (a spicy, coconut cream-based pork curry) over rice or plaa phat phrik Thai dam (fish stir-fried with black pepper).

A kui tiao raad naa phat see iew (rice noodles stir-fried with dark soy sauce and topped with meat in gravy) seller might introduce Thai-style sukiyaki or a variety of dishes served with rice such as plaa duke thawt krawp phat khrueang kaeng (fried catfish with spicy seasoning) or an omelette with onion, fresh basil and chillies mixed in.

If the cooking is good and keeps improving, with the menu expanding from time to time to include new dishes, customers will keep coming back. Vendors should maintain a reliable schedule and let customers know in advance when they will be closed.

One cooked-to-order stall that grew to be a big restaurant success is Paa Song in Baan Huay Thaa Chang at Tha Yang, Phetchaburi. (To get there, drive from Sai Paak Thaw Road in Phetchaburi for about 3km until you come to Lao Soang village). The seasoning paste used to make the hot kaeng paa (Thai curry) includes ma-khwaen seeds (similar to Szechuan pepper), making for a delicious and unusual version of the dish. Plaa thuu sote thawt (deep-fried fresh mackerel) and muu saam chan thawt see iew (three-layered pork fried with dark soy sauce) are also available.

Lung Sao, a restaurant located opposite the entrance to Wat Jet Samien in Amphoe Photharam, Ratchaburi has also experienced similar success, growing from a roadside stall. The plaa duke phat phet (spicy stir-fried catfish), khua kling muu (a very spicy southern-style stir-fry of minced pork and seasonings), chicken tom yam and kai tom khamin (chicken stewed with turmeric and other seasonings) are especially good.

Then there is Laan Nee on the bank of Khlong Aw, which intersects the 12km-long Sai Ratchaburi-Thaa Raab Jet Samien road at about the halfway point. The canal is easy to spot with a police booth right near it. Try the hoy thawt kratha rawn (fried shellfish), the khao raad naa kaeng khio waan haeng (a spicy coconut cream curry over rice) and the dry sukiyaki.

The Pae Phochana restaurant set beside Khlong Talat Rahaeng at Lat Lum Kaeo in Pathum Thani has a number of dishes that keep customers coming back, among them the tom yam khaa muu (pork leg tom yam), luuk chin plaa kraai phat chaa (patties made from pounded fish meat stir-fried with spicy seasonings), plaa chon daed dio thawt (deep-fried, semi-dried snakehead fish) and a house style of kae kuen made by wrapping seasoned minced pork in tofu paper and deep-frying.

While these restaurants started off simple before developing into venues with sterling reputations, they are the exception. Most cooked-to-order places begin, and remain, as stalls where people in a hurry can get a quick, make-do meal. But, for the lucky few, roadside stalls are a great training ground for better things.

Ffast food: 'Hoy thawt' and, above, 'khao raad naa kaeng khio waan haeng' at Laan Nee.

As you like it: 'Tom yam kai', 'khua kling muu' and 'muu phat hawm yai' at Lung Sao restaurant in Ratchaburi.

Order's up: The spicy 'kaeng paa' curry at Paa Song restaurant in Phetchaburi.

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