Bangkok: Thai and a Touch of Proust
Beth Hughes, Special to the Examiner
June 2, 2000
Several hours before meeting a friend for dinner at Little Bangkok,
my mother called, hoarse with a spring cold, asking for "the
chili soup from that little place on the corner" and in the
same breath saying I wasn't to try to send a bucket or so of the
fiery cure-all back East via FedEx.
She'd experienced tom yum gai — a spicy-sour chicken soup
with mushrooms, lemongrass and lime juice — several visits
ago when I described it as my medicinal soup of choice. The good-taste
memory remained strong and soothing.
The food's like that — memorable, comforting and good —
at Little Bangkok, a locally appreciated feature of the Inner Sunset's
busy area around the Ninth and Irving intersection.
It's the kind of restaurant where a steady stream of hungry folks
comes throughout the day and evening, picking up to-go orders as
others hunker down around the dozen or so glass-topped tables under
a gilt altar laden with offerings and a portrait of Thailand's long-reigning
King Bhumibol Adulyadej. (Never, ever eat at a Thai restaurant that
lacks a portrait of the king. It's a real life rule.)
While waiting for my friend, a brace of preschoolers at a large
table nearby serenaded their adults with a very soft rendition of
"Do You Know the Muffin Man." I people-watched, thinking
how lucky I am to live in a neighborhood where I can find the kind
of Thai food that reminds me of working in Bangkok, and is served
with the same kind of smile.
No, Little Bangkok does not offer that ubiquitous barbecued Bangkok
street snack, flattened squid on a stick. Nor does your take-away
order come in clear plastic bags closed with a rubber band, a mode
of transport adopted here for goldfish on the move from shop to
home. But if you're craving the kind of food you had while exploring
a soi off Bangkok's Sukhumvit Road, or after a few hours poking
about a night market in Chiang Mai or a day on the beach at Hua
Hin, this just might be your kind of place, pad Thai with a touch
A proper Thai meal starts with a soup. Even if Little Bangkok isn't
fancy, mind your manners (that means eating with only a fork and
spoon, which is the utensil you eat from) and enjoy any one of the
seven soups on offer ($6.50-$8.50).
I'm partial to the varieties with a spicy-and-sour broth, but there
are cold summer nights when those with a coconut milk base are perfection
in a bowl.
Sometimes I decide on a soup based on what else I want to eat.
The key to a good Thai meal is balancing the flavors. Chili-hot
with subtle ones to avoid discomfort, sweet with sour, a series
of combinations you should select to satisfy the nose, eye and palate.
Which is exactly what we did recently. Singha and Elephant beers,
downed with beef satay sated our hunger and convinced my skeptical
friend that this little unassuming place rocked. The peanut sauce
warmed the mouth; the marinated cucumber salad cooled it. The tender,
charred beef eased off the stick. Bliss.
We decided to forgo my favorite standbys — the transcendent
minty chicken, ($6.50) the earthy and honest pad Thai ($6.50) that
is one of the best versions in The City, the lovely larb ($6.50)
and perfectly seasoned Panang beef ($6.50). Onward across new food
frontiers we boldly ate.
Chicken with bamboo shoots and basil in yellow curry sauce ($6.50)
avoided the often cloying sweetness that can mark a mediocre yellow
curry. This exuded a perfume that hinted of India, and the Thai
skill at adopting new ingredients, while recalling the lunchtime
smells in Pahurat, Bangkok's wholesale fabric district. Salmon with
vegetables in red curry ($7.50) that wasn't too hot, allowing us
to taste the fish. Sauteed tofu with eggplant ($5.50) …..
well, I've never met an eggplant I couldn't love. Each dish was
different and delicious, although the salmon seemed a tad dry in
the thinner parts of the filet.
But who's complaining? That was the only dish we finished because
we were saving room for dessert, Thai-style tapioca (dessert caviar
with sweet corn throughout, $3.25), and a fried banana with vanilla
ice cream ($3.00). It was a tough call; mango sticky rice ($3.25)
is one of the world's best food groups.
That's not the end of Little Bangkok, however. You can waddle out,
lugging your leftovers and wander the neighborhood for a stroll
in Golden Gate Park, some good shopping (cash after lunch, window
after dinner) or browsing in any one of the nearby bookstores. Locals
may complain that the neighborhood is changing for the ritzier,
and they're right, but that doesn't mean it isn't still walkable
and interesting. Several gift shops compete to amuse passersby with
their window displays. And clothing shops like Alaya make you wish
you hadn't eaten quite so much.