The French have Auguste Escoffier to thank for codifying their national cuisine at the turn of the last century. In Bangkok, things have remained a lot more organic. While headline grabbing chefs like David Thompson (Nahm
) and Jason Bailey (Paste
) have taken to digging through old tomes in search of ancient recipes, the culinary traditions of Bangkok’s Sino-Thai shop-house restaurants remain passed down through the family. The dining room may be little more than tiled walls open to the street, folding tables and some plastic stools. But the secret recipes and techniques are nothing short of extraordinary.
A majority of Bangkok’s most venerable eateries were started by immigrants from the Chinese mainland. One such establishment, Prachak
, has been proudly showing off its Chinese-style roast duck and char siu
(barbecue pork) in front of the shop for over 100 years. Its owner, Sanguan Mahasirimongkol, now 71, has an impressive academic background as a chemistry lecturer. When his grandfather could no longer run the business, the dutiful grandson transitioned from beakers to woks. Although not in the kitchen, Sanguan is a common presence at Prachak, and his youngest daughter—in pure Chinese tradition—is behind the cash register. Filial piety aside, the restaurant’s centennial traditions produce a crispy skin on the pork along with a depth of flavor seldom found elsewhere. The duck is equally good, but its gravy, which gives off the fragrance of Thai herbs like lemongrass and ginger, nearly steals the show.
The red and gold sign above Udom Pochana also reads in Thai and Chinese. But the 67-year-old chef-owner Suwan Rungrojsuwan never had time for higher education and still handles the cooking and serving himself. “I have been doing this since I was 16,” says Suwan while chopping roast pork. The old-style curry and beef stew are the family’s pride: the meat is a tender bomb of umami, the curry’s heady aroma irresistible. “We do everything from scratch and have always kept the recipe and cooking methods the same.” Now, his daughter is learning to take care of the shop. “We never hire staff,” he says with obvious pride.
The 80-year-old institution Foo Mui Kee closed in early 2016 when the sisters who owned it grew too old to continue serving up their legendary oxtail soup and ox tongue stew—both a perfect balance of fatty, savory and tart. Their recipes are truly unique, an exciting mix of Chinese and Western traditions. “Our father used to work with Western chefs at an embassy,” Lerdluck Tabloga, 70, says. His legacy lives on thanks to one of the 13 siblings of the previous generation of owners. He opened Agave over 30 years ago, following the same cooking techniques and philosophy as the original Foo Mui Kee. Today, his daughter, Chuleekorn Vorayingyong, a doctor, likes to help out. “I’d like to continue the restaurant if it has a chance to survive,” she says. “The only way to keep these kinds of old eateries alive is to reach out to younger people so I started a social media presence for us. We’ll have to see if there’s still a market for it in my time.”
Down the road, at Silom Restaurant, it’s equally touch-and-go. In 2012, the second generation shuttered the 70-year-old Silom Road institution. However, about a year later, the third-generation heir picked up the pots and ladles to open a new venue on Borommaratchonnani Road. It, too, serves a unique brand of Chinese-Thai-Western fusion in the shape of a signature curry with buttered bread, tenderloin salad and its own ox tongue stew. All three are beautiful bouquets of aromas and flavors which balance the rich, savory notes of butter and beef with Chinese herbs and Thai spices. As for the next generation, it’s still too early to tell if the heir, who just graduated in economics, will return to the restaurant later in his career, as seems to be the tradition in such cook shops.
The other age-old cooking tradition in Bangkok comes straight from the royal palace. Court chefs were notoriously secretive about their recipes, and some launched veritable institutions building on their time spent cooking for the palace. One such venue is the 92-year-old Potsapakarn, which is known for serving Rama V-era recipes such as mee krob (crispy fried noodles), saeng wa (non-spicy Thai salad) and nam prik (chili paste). Tensions run high at Potsapakarn, as one branch of heirs to the ancestral royal cook feels they have not been given their share of the spotlight when the restaurant blew up on the country’s TV channels and magazines.
Today, the fourth-generation owner who currently works alongside her mom won’t even share her name with the press. “Whenever we got coverage, there were always some relatives complaining about it—they don’t work here, yet they act like they own the place,” she says to explain her low profile, a situation which could cost Potsapakarn its very survival. “Though we have such a little space, there’s still a cost to keeping it open. We don’t want to talk about the future of it yet. Just keep it running each day.”
Bangkok diners, too, are to blame for the shaky ground these venues stand on. Saksun Harnjeerapunya, the third generation of the 73-year-old Thai restaurant Mitr Ko Yuan says sales have dwindled, at the capital’s notoriously fickle middle class chases the latest opening imported from Melbourne or Ginza. Nor does anyone want to toil away in the burning glow of a red-hot wok. “It’s a tough job and we open daily, only ever closing during Songkran,” says Saksun. “I have two kids, nine and four years old. They’re still very young. If they don’t want to do this, I completely understand.”
You’ve been warned. Time is running out for Bangkok’s most storied restaurants. Their flavors may live on in the hallowed kitchens of fine-dining royalty like Nahm, Paste and Bo.lan, who have dedicated themselves to breaking the secrets of Bangkok’s greatest cooks. But you’ll be paying a very different price for the privilege.
Agave 61/127 Rama 9 Soi 7, 02-248-2150. Open daily 11am-9pm
Mitr Ko Yuan 186 Dinso Rd., opposite Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, 02-224-1194. Open Mon-Fri 11am-2pm, 4-10pm, Sat-Sun 4-10pm
Prachak 1415 Charoenkrung Rd., 02-234-3755. Open daily 7:30am-8:30pm. BTS Saphan Taksin
Potsapakarn 443 Tanao Rd., 02-222-2686. Open daily 11am-7pm
Silom Restaurant 7/4, Borommaratchonnani Rd., 02-236-4442. Open daily 10am-10pm
Udom Pochana 78 Soi Phraeng Phuthon, 02-221-3042. Open daily 7am-3pm