When the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) announced its crackdown on the city's street food last year, the world went nuts. What would happen to Bangkok's beloved street food vendors?
There's another source of culinary treasures in town, and they may be at risk of extinction as well—not because of government regulations, but because the next generations in line to take over these family businesses might not be down to run restaurants.
My friend Sillapat "Ton" Tangsuknirundorn, a passionate Thai food aficionado, took me to see some of Bangkok's most cherished, at-risk shophouse restaurants in Sam Phraeng.
"Sam means three, Phraeng means junction. Three Junctions (Phuthon, Nara, Salpasart) are named after princes in King Rama IV who used to live in palaces there," Ton explained. Chinese immigrants eventually moved into the neighborhood and started small businesses. "Some opened food stalls and vendors which made the area one of the very first food spots in Bangkok history," Ton said. According to Ton, as time went on, the government sectors moved to other parts of town, causing many neighborhood shops to shut down.
Today the quantity of shophouse restaurants is low, but the quality is still high. All around the neighborhood you'll spot signs offering descriptions (in both Thai and English) of historic places. Inside these places, you'll see framed restaurant reviews, or photos of a recent Andrew Zimmern visit. No secrets here, just great food. Here are a few of these not-so-hidden gems.
Samong Moo Thai Tham (ไทยทำ )
Thai Tham looks like one of those hole-in-the-wall places that cliché millennials like myself look for when traveling. It opened in 1957 and has remained famous since for its pig brain soup, or samong moo, with fish and pork balls. Every Monday through Friday, owner Sudjit wakes up at 4 am to prepare the soup from scratch. Thai officials from the multiple government offices in the area flock to the place to dine in or take their pork brain to go.
To properly eat the dish, according to Ton: First scoop up some soup, then some rice, then dip your spoon into a personalized mixture of Thai chili powder, sugar, and fermented soy sauce before slurping it all up.
Udom Potchana (อุดมโภชนา )
Udom Potchana, much bigger than Thai Tham, is known for two signature dishes: a Chinese-style curry rice and a fresh crab spring roll. The homemade curry calls for nine different herbs, and meat that's been cooked gently for more than a day, until completely tender. The family's third generation is keeping this 82-year old institution going today. The family started cooking from a tiny stall until they saved enough money to buy its current building.
READ MORE: Bangkok's Iconic Street Food Stalls Are at Risk of Vanishing
Nuttaporn Coconut Ice-cream (นัฐพร ไอศกรีม )
At any given time in Bangkok, you're bound to be hot AF, making all 24 hours of the day a good time for ice cream. Nuttaporn is best known for its coconut ice cream, although they've moved on to include more flavors like mango, Thai tea, chocolate, and more. It takes about an hour to make a single batch from scratch, which Nuttaporn has been doing for 70 years.
Customers first choose their flavor, then their toppings. Ton informed me that the woman scooping our ice cream said that foreigners are usually scared of trying different toppings, and tend to stick to corn and peanuts. Even though beans, sweet potato and palm fruit didn't initially sound appetizing to me, an idiot farang, it turned out to be a delicious order.
Oon Yen Ta Fo (อ้วนเย็นตาโฟ )
There's a lot going on in yen ta fo. The sour soup glows pink thanks to a fermented tofu paste and Thai chilies. A bowl of it comes complete with squid, pork, greens, tofu, fish balls, and noodles. The shop starts preparing the ingredients the night before from seven to nine o'clock, third generation family member Nun told us.
Khanom Bueang Phraeng Nara (ขนมเบื้องแพร่งนรา )
Somsri Hiranwathit has been cooking the thin, crispy pancake khanom bueang since taking over the business from her mother-in-law. "She used to be a cook in the residence of the prince," Somsri's son told us of his grandmother. A fourth generation works at the shop part-time now, but doesn't sound keen on doing the job full time.
We watched Somsri finish the pancakes—one a savory version with shrimp, and one sweet with pumpkin and coconut. A young girl inside the house went to the fridge and grabbed a drink. "Is that the 4th generation?" we asked Somsri's son. "That's the 5th," he said.
Bua Loy Kate Kaew (บัวลอยเกดแก้ว )
Even though some of these restaurants may struggle to keep their businesses in the family, that doesn't mean Bangkok's source of excellent food will be running out any time. The city is filled with entrepreneurs hungry to set up delicious new businesses.
Ooy made shoes to support herself until she one day decided to start making bua loy, a warm sort of dessert soup made with creamy coconut milk. The sweet, thick broth is decorated with bits like salted egg, poached egg, sweetened rice balls, and diced taro.
As Ooy scooped up the colorful ingredients, a film crew rolled up to interview her. It might not be a secret, but it's still pretty excellent.