Jocelyn Gecker, The Associated Press, September 2, 2014
BANGKOK (AP) — With its fluorescent bulbs and cafeteria-style tables, the Bangkok restaurant Raan Jay Fai wouldn't win any awards for interior decorating.
But that hasn't deterred Martha Stewart, one of the restaurant's many fans. After a visit and memorable meal, the decor guru called the restaurant's 70-year-old owner and sole chef — who is named Jay Fai — "the best cook in Thailand."
Michelin-starred chefs have come to the restaurant for tutelage in the art of traditional wok cooking over intensely hot charcoal braziers. Bangkok's well-heeled park their luxury cars outside, which is a good clue for first-timers who have trouble finding the small eatery since it lacks an English-language sign.
The owner presides over two flaming street-side woks and is revered by regulars for her renditions of ordinary Thai dishes. She is known and celebrated for her pad kee mao, or "drunken noodles," a steaming plate of chewy, seared rice noodles with crunchy hearts of coconut palm, hulking fresh shrimp and just the right amount of throat-warming spice. To eat it once is to be haunted by it and need to return.
Other favorites are Jay Fai's rad na, an unspicy cousin of pad kee mao, and her $25 crab omelet — which is packed with half a kilogram (1 pound) of fresh crab chunks and wrapped in a delicate egg binding.
The prices defy the belief that all street food is cheap. Noodle dishes at Raan Jay Fai (raan simply means restaurant) cost about $12 a plate, compared to roughly a dollar at most roadside venues. But devotees will tell you to eat at Jay Fai first, and judge later.
For a cheaper option, Jay Fai's neighbor down the street is Thip Samai, a noodle joint touted to have the best pad thai in Bangkok.
Whether that's true or not, there's no dispute about its popularity. A line forms outside at 5 p.m., when it opens, as a station of cooks churn out huge wok-loads of pad thai from a sidewalk kitchen.
Thip Samai's menu consists of eight types of pad thai. The traditional version costs 50 baht ($1.50). A variety called "superb pad thai," which has a reddish color from shrimp oil and comes wrapped in a thin egg omelet, is 80 baht ($2.50). For the carb-conscious there's "pad thai without noodles," with extra shrimp and tofu, also for 80 baht.
Thip Samai started as a food stall, then moved indoors in 1966. Its wood-paneled walls are decorated with vintage posters and pictures of its now-deceased founder who used to cook the dish for the late Queen Mother of Thailand. The Queen Mother suggested that a fresh coconut slush would pair nicely with the pad thai, the restaurant says. It's a delicious combination, as is its trademark fresh orange juice, served with an extra-thick straw to suck up the pulp.
A note for finding Raan Jay Fai or Thip Samai: Take a taxi. They're on a non-descript street in one of Bangkok's old neighborhoods, where skyscrapers and subways don't yet exist. Mahachai Road — or Thanon Mahachai in Thai — is near Chinatown and the Golden Mount, a Buddhist temple also known as Wat Saket. Neither is open for lunch or takes credit cards. It's best to go for an early dinner to avoid lines.
If You Go...
RAAN JAY FAI: 327 Mahachai Road at intersection with Samranrat Road in Bangkok, +66 (0)2-223-9384. Open 2 p.m.- 1 a.m. Closed Sunday.
THIP SAMAI: 313 Mahachai Road in Bangkok, +66 (0)2-221-6280. Open 5 p.m.- 2 a.m.
Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok contributed to this story.
This article was written by Jocelyn Gecker from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.