The south end of Banglamphu quickly sloughs off the frat boy reek of the Khao San Road and becomes a rather charming neighbourhood. Apparently there are some trendy parts, which we made a foray into by going to a couple of rather cool bars (of which, more later) but mostly it feels quiet – or as quiet as you can reasonably get in an Asian metropolis. We came down this way partly to eat at Chote Chitr, an old shophouse restaurant that’s been written up in a lot of venues. Unusually, it features both in budget travel guides and in very upscale publications. My friend K gave me a fancy culinary journal that featured it and since my Bangkok guide also listed it with a helpful map, we figured it would be worthwhile but possibly very touristed. By here’s the odd thing: while Chote Chitr does cater to foreigners with an English language menu and distinctly tourist-oriented prices, neither the restaurant nor the leafy square it abuts are overwhelmed with tourist business.
The streets around the square are full of shop houses, with distinctive green painted doors, some more local cafes and others shops selling DVDs, hardware, army surplus, rubber gromits and more. Some are thriving businesses while others are clearly treasuries of old junk that are the domain of their elderly owners and don’t especially seek customers. There aren’t a whole bunch of tourists and it’s a really pleasant way to pass some time meandering around the cool covered pavements.
The square itself was full of local workers eating lunch outside, at tables set up around two or three favoured eateries. Later, a whole bunch of high school kids showed up on a drawing lesson, setting up all around with big sketching pads, some taking some time out for ice cream and gossip. The whole scene was a breath of fresh air after the chaos of much of the city, and things were pretty chill inside Chote Chitr too. We were the only customers when we showed up, though the owner’s dog Lucky 2 was holding down the fort.
The place gradually filled up as we ate and I’m sure if you came on a Saturday it would be crowded, but part of the charm of the place was its leisurely atmosphere. But only part of the charm. The real excitement of course is the food, which didn’t disappoint. First came wing bean salad. Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of the wing bean, which is sadly difficult to source in London, so of course I couldn’t pass it by on a menu. The salad was amazing, full of tamarind sourness, shallot sweetness, sesame seeds, and the fresh crunch of the vegetables. There were also pork and shrimp in the mix. The dressing was so very good and it entirely won over Mr Lemur who had not been feeling like spicy salad when we ordered.
Next up was ah mok, or steamed fish curry in coconut leaf. Whereas the salad was a totally new dish to me, this was more of an excellent rendition of a standard. I’ve eaten ah mok a bunch and cooked it fairly often. What stood out here was how many basil leaves were used. The entire base of each banana leaf bundle was filled with a basil layer which gave the dish a strong aromatic quality.
Perhaps the real surprise of the meal was the mee krob or crispy noodles. Now, I knew Chote Chitr was famous for this dish, which was why we ordered it, but I was somehow still not expecting all that much. Mee krob is a dish that I’d honestly never experienced done well. In Thai restaurants, it’s often a starter because nobody really wants to eat a whole dish of heavy deep fried noodles. It can be dry, greasy and a little boring. Now I know how very far from correct those renditions were. From our first mouthful, we stared at each other in wonder. The noodles are crispy when you bite them but immediately melt into something soft, sweet, even a little gooey, yet light and completely not oily. They’re magical! The dish comes with chicken, shrimp and an array of vegetables to offer savoury flavours and different textures, all of which are lovely but they’re fundamentally an excuse for these divine noodles.
However famous Chote Chitr gets, it retains a certain rough and ready quality. The decor is old fashioned, in keeping with the shop house style, and our food arrived haphazardly. I don’t suppose health and safety would be thrilled with the dogs who more or less kept out of the kitchen, but only more or less. But the fancy magazines who have written it up are quite right: the food at its best is spectacular. And if the restaurant is hardly a secret, the lovely little neighbourhood around it still seems to be. It was a fantastic final meal in Thailand. Next stop, Vietnam!