"Everybody told me I couldn't do this, because I'm kind of a hot-headed person," confides Jay Fai with a wry smile. Her trademark ski goggles are propped up on her forehead, revealing a face caked in powder and rouge, with a smear of lipstick. Even in Bangkok's notoriously unforgiving climate, there isn't a single bead of sweat to mar the dignified septugenarian's makeup. A gold amulet sporting a likeness of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej hangs around her neck. "But I went and did it anyway. Sometimes you just have to be the first to start something."
Jay Fai, a nickname loosely translated as "Sister Mole" for the prominent growth on her face, started her eponymous shophouse restaurant nearly 40 years ago, when Bangkok was a different world. There were, as she points out, no hulking shopping malls, no skytrain, and no brake lights lined up in traffic jams stretching out to the horizon. Since then, this humble shophouse has become one of the city's most-revered culinary institutions. Chefs and restaurateurs sing Raan Jay Fai's praises and patrons queue up nightly for heaping portions of phad kee mao talay (drunken noodles with seafood), poo phad phong karee (stir-fried crab with yellow curry), and her legendary khai jeaw poo (crab omelet).
Her eatery's popularity is all the more remarkable given the fact that her prices are on par with far fancier tables in town. That omelet clocks in at Bt1,000 (USD 30). It's in flagrant defiance of the social expectation that Thai food here ought to be cheaper than other cuisines, yet that hardly seems to ward off customers. I was curious to see if a streetside shop with fluorescent lighting and plastic chairs could warrant the hefty price tag, so I called up an old friend, Panida "Poupee" Paethanom, to come test it out with me.
"Of course, many people told me that I was crazy, because they said it was too expensive," Jay Fai tells us as she rises from her seat and heads outdoors to man the wok. Even after all this time, she's essentially a one-woman show. A pair of assistants help her with the more menial tasks, but she alone hovers over the flames of a blazing charcoal brazier, rolling a mass of crab and egg in boiling oil without batting an eye. "But I think we should value our own seafood and cuisine the way the Japanese and other cultures do. I pay my staff well and I use the best ingredients. If people don't like the prices, they can go elsewhere."
Despite her lavish prices, Jay Fai hardly grew up surrounded by luxury. When she and her seven siblings lived together in this sleepy part of Old Town, they subsisted mostly on what her parents made by selling jook (rice porridge) and rad na (broad rice noodles in gravy) from a cart.
"When I was growing up, I had to take care of everything. I did odd jobs just to keep the rice pot full," she says. As a middle child, she learned quickly to look after everyone else. Though she was a good student, she was too concerned with making ends meet to study further and went on to open a successful tailoring business. Everything was going well until she lost it all in a fire that burnt her shop to the ground. After commuting to work in another shop proved too frustrating, she started helping her parents out with their small street food business. "I'd been making good money. After the fire, though, I was so depressed. I found that when I started to cook, I felt better—it was something new, something different."
It wasn't long before she started to do things a little differently at the street cart as well. Street food is a rare egalitarian aspect of life in the city, one that is equally beloved by billionaire property tycoons and taxi drivers. A number of the customers coming to her parents' stand were wealthy enough to pay a bit more, so she decided to give them a reason to do so.
"I wanted to do something different, so I went down to Nakorn Sri Thammarat, a pier down in the south. I found this shop that steamed their crab instead of boiling it. The flavor was amazing—the meat flakes right off the shell. So I cut a deal with them," she remembers. According to her, if the supplier can't procure massive, male crabs up to his standards, he simply won't sell anything. "Little by little, I started to introduce better seafood at my stand and raise the quality."
Rather than deter regulars, the shift earned the restaurant a loyal following. It's not hard to see why. The portions we order are enormous and topped with glistening rings of snowy squid and prawns that could double as teenage lobsters. There's an attention to detail here as well that many holes-in-the-wall lack; the thin gravy clinging to the koi see mee (crispy wheat noodles topped with seafood and dried mushrooms) tastes of a rich, slow-simmered seafood stock and there's a satisfyingly smoky char to the phad kee mao. Unlike most khai jeaw, which tend to be flat, our omelet arrives as a tidy cylinder with a shallow dish of Sriracha. There's just enough egg to bind this fluffy mass of crustacean together. Given that the restaurant sometimes stays open until 2 a.m., this might be the most decadent drunk food in town—especially since a bit of booze would make the price more palatable.
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"Cheaper plates of koi see mee (Chinese-Thai wheat noodle dish with dried mushrooms and gravy) tend to have a strong MSG aftertaste," remarks Poupee in between mouthfuls. I've had the greasy-spoon versions bogged down with cornstarch, but the rich sauce clinging to these noodles is in a whole different league. "You're not paying for the setting or the service here, but you can tell all the money goes into the food."
Sadly, the iconic eatery's days may be numbered. Although Jay Fai saved up enough to buy her own shophouse, thereby staving off developers, she has no intention of passing the business on to the next generation, or anyone else for that matter.
"I have children, but I don't want them to take over. This is very hard work and I made enough money to send them to study abroad," she says. "When I decide not to do it anymore, it will just end."
Even after years of building up the business for most of her life, she speaks of the inevitable without a trace of sentimentality. For the time being, she takes pride in her work and in the fact that customers are willing to spend a bit extra for something that is truly good. In a country where the government continues to put pressure on street food vendors and where skyrocketing rents and ingredient costs make it increasingly challenging to make a living selling traditional foods, she believes in challenging others to recognize the value of their own culinary heritage.
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"People should appreciate what Thailand has right now, because someday we may not have this anymore," she says. "With the street food, it feels political. The government can't get money out of the big people so they squeeze the little ones. But this culture is important."
In the end, our final tally was a whopping Bt3,150 ($94) for a full-on feast, though a pair of slightly less gluttonous diners could easily satisfy their cravings for half that. Steep? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.
Raan Jay Fai; 327 Maha Chai Road, Bangkok; +66 2 223 9384