COVID Kills Street Food Vendor Recognized by Michelin Guide

Thailand’s famed streetside food scene is struggling to survive lockdown measures and a deadly third wave.
August 6, 2021, 7:24am
Chinatown Bangkok
A general view shows the main street in Bangkok’s Chinatown at night on Sept. 16, 2020. Photo: Mladen ANTONOV / AFP

When renowned noodle shop owner Charnchai Tangsubmanee died from COVID-19 last month, his four adult children were left in shock and despair. 

The 73-year-old who presided over Bangkok’s iconic street food cart Guay Jub Ouan Pochana, which was included on this year’s prestigious Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand list for the third time in a row, lost his battle with the virus just about three weeks after testing positive. 

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“At first, I was shocked because it all happened so quickly. I never thought that it would kill my dad,” Jitrapat Tang, Charnchai’s second daughter, told VICE World News in tears on Wednesday. “But everyone has to be brave. Now that he’s gone, we all have to fight to fulfill my dad’s dream.”

Owner of Guay Jub Ouan Pochana

Charnchai Tangsubmanee at his noodle shop in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Photo: Courtesy of Guay Jub Ouan Pochana

Bangkok has long been recognized as one of the best places for street food in the world. But it only recently started making international lists after chef and crab omelette specialist Jay Fai became the first street food stall to be awarded a Michelin star in 2017. She was later featured on a Netflix show, while other local Thai favorites filled up the guide’s Bib Gourmand recommendations.

According to Guide’s website, the Bib Gourmand is “not quite a star” but is a “just-as-esteemed rating that recognizes friendly establishments that serve good food at moderate prices.” In Bangkok, there are currently 60 Bib Gourmand restaurants and carts. 

Located on the main Yaowarat Road in Bangkok’s historic Chinatown district, Guay Jub Ouan Pochana, also known as Cinema Guay Jub, is little more than a stall in a small shophouse with seating spilling out onto the sidewalk.  They’re known for their rolled rice noodles in a thick, aromatic broth. More than 50 years old, it regularly saw long lines of customers before the pandemic. The distinctive red Michelin placards are proudly plastered on a glass partition.

The stall, which has reopened since Charnchai’s death on July 10, is now managed by Jitrapat and her three other siblings.

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“My father really loved this business. He had been selling noodles since he was 11 years old,” Jitrapat said.

Guay Jub Ouan Pochana

Ingredients at Charnchai’s noodle store. Photo: Courtesy of Guay Jub Ouan Pochana

Charnchai tested positive for COVID-19 just a week after he got his first jab of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the family said. Charnchai’s wife also tested positive for the virus around the same time but made a rapid recovery. After the news of his death, online condolences poured in, with one mourning the “food legend” in a Facebook post.

The vendor is among a growing number of street vendors killed in Thailand’s third and worst wave of COVID, which is devastating restaurants and businesses. According to local media reports, at least five other renowned street cart vendors have died in the new surge, which topped 20,000 daily cases for the first time this week with nearly 200 deaths, much higher than in previous waves.

Guay Jub Ouan Pochana

Charnchai’s noodle store with Michelin honors. Photo: Courtesy of Guay Jub Ouan Pochana

Since street vendors are not covered under a social security scheme, they are considered “informal workers,” a group which has been especially battered by the pandemic due to the lack of income security as well as social protection measures. The informal sector accounts for more than half of the kingdom’s employment or over 20 million people. 

Somyos food.

A dish at Somyos. Photo: Courtesy of Somyos

Somyos, another street food spot and a first timer in this year’s Michelin Bib Gourmand list, said they experienced an 80 percent loss during the third wave of the pandemic largely due to limited hours imposed by the government. 

In order to curb infection, the government reimposed a dining-in ban in Bangkok and limited operating hours until 9 p.m.—and later reduced it to 8 p.m. That gives stores that only operate late at night, like Somyos, a short window.

“We start selling around 6 p.m., which only gives us about two hours,” said Adun “Somyos” Srirarak, the owner of the store, which sells Thai dishes with Chinese influences.

“The only reason we’re still open at all is to take care of our staff. They have regular expenses to pay, like rent. So that’s why we’re still pouring money into the store and fighting for it to remain open.”

Khanom Bueang Wan Phueng Noi

Making the crepe-like snacks at Khanom Bueang Wan Phueng No. Photo: Courtesy of Khanom Bueang Wan Phueng No

Exasperation about the reduced operating hours is shared by Yupadee “Pheung” Kittawee, owner of traditional Thai dessert cart Khanom Bueang Wan Phueng Noi, which was also included in the Michelin Bib Gourmand for the first time this year for its crispy and aromatic crepe-like coconut and egg snack. 

“This wave is especially challenging because of the lockdown measure. We usually operate from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. We’re trying to set up shop earlier now but our ingredients take a long time to prepare so we can’t do much earlier” Yupadee told VICE World News on Thursday. “Now, by 7:30 p.m., we already have to pack up.” 

Khanom Bueang Wan Phueng Noi

The crepe-like snacks at Khanom Bueang Wan Phueng No. Photo: Courtesy of Khanom Bueang Wan Phueng No

“I have so many responsibilities and with the limited hours, I honestly don’t make enough to live,” she said, adding that she’s hoping for more people to be vaccinated so the country can finally open up again. Only about 13 percent of the population has received two doses, compared to 39 percent in neighboring Cambodia and 53 percent in the United States.

"I was so happy to have been included in the Michelin guide this year. It brought us so many customers. We were doing so well before the pandemic but now, it’s so quiet,” she added. 

Follow Teirra Kamolvattanavith on Twitter.