The sun is lowering in the evening sky as my watch ticks slowly, moving towards twenty 'till five. Somehow, it is still just over 100 degrees. I'm perspiring in the sweltering heat. Attractive, I know. Luckily, being in a country where you don't know a single soul or the language makes you immune to any eavesdropping on possible discussions of the “foreign girl melting while waiting for food.”
The line inches forward a couple paces. Thankfully, I have the fourth place- the file was already starting to wrap around the block's corner and into a neighboring side street. It had been far too hot for my taste to walk the 15 minutes to Koh San Road, so I’d wandered the opposite direction down my hostel’s alleyway to what seemed to be a “local only” neighborhood. I’m not sure what drew me to this “hole in the wall” restaurant (it’d been quiet and empty at first), but my instincts typically never let me down and so I ventured in. Plus anything that can accrue a waiting file of all natives that long can’t fail as quality grubbing.
I see a few locals grabbing bottles of orange juice and some form of a white slushie from a cart at the front of the restaurant. I’m not quite sure what the white icy-consistency is, but in this heat, anything below 40 degrees looks like a god sent. I smile at the elderly, sweet natured woman accompanying the cart, motion to the white slush and then indicate with a finger for one. She scopes the cool, iced goodness into a cup and hands it to me, exchanging the bills in my hand with a slurpy straw.
Shuffling forward a bit more, I stick the straw in the cup and take an embarrassingly large swig, almost chocking at the shock of cold. I think my thirst was a little more desperate than I’d realized, but- oh my goodness. Heaven. The mystery beverage is frozen, slushed coconut water- likely sweetened with coconut sugar or cane sugar and blended with long STRIPS OF SILKY COCONUT MEAT - my favorite part. There is a very good chance I will be having a second one of these with my meal- especially considering I might have already, almost finished this one..
My watch says it’s five ‘till now. I look up, and it begins. The chaotic ballet of the workers, street chefs and hostesses all running and weaving past one another- balancing bowls, plates, spoons and wooden chairs. It’s mesmerizing; how they don’t trip or spill anything is beyond me. Teamwork right there.
I look up when I feel someone staring at me, the host is smiling kindly, waiting. “Oh!” I smile back and move forward. I motion with my hand again holding up my pointer finger. “One.” He grins and nods, leading me into the restaurant, then motioning for me to pick a table of my choice against the left wall. I select a two person table snuggled into the back corner so I can people watch. Don’t judge, you know you are guilty of this too- foreign turf is especially fascinating.
The open walled restaurant is filled with simple wooden tables and chairs, outdated decor and wood paneled walls- crowded and cluttered with framed clippings from various newspapers and magazines boasting praise of the locale’s cuisine. It seems the restaurant has maintained the original decor from its opening more than 50 years ago. I can discern now it is no secret that Thip Samai has been winning the hearts of culinary hedonists from around the world ever since. Instincts spot on.
I decided on shrimp pad thai and unpack my camera. Food and food culture is fascinating to watch. There is so much you can learn about people just from the way they eat. Where their values lie- are they waiting to eat until the eldest has been served and starts? How is customary to eat your food- hands, chopsticks, forks? How do you season your dish- are you of a sweet, spicy or salty palette? And most importantly, for those striving for the best item on the menu? Check out what everyone else is eating. In this case, it looked like a really large, fluffy omelette.
I soon investigated that this was the specialty of Thip Samai and one token for what drew such abundant crowds- even if that meant waiting in a 30 minute line in temperatures from hell. So, what was this omelette? Picture pad thai and an omelette met, had a couple drinks and then popped a baby out and you’ve got a pretty good idea. Rice or egg noodles tossed in the house sauce, mixed with peppers and bean sprouts and wrapped in a fluffy blanket of eggy heaven. Instead of whipping and blending the eggs into the noodles, they cradle them in a soft, encompassing hug. Almost like an inside out pad thai.
And my dish? Typically, when it gets to be that hot, I am not one to eat a heavy meal- tends to add to the lethargy. But man, I could not stop eating that. Hands down was the best pad thai of my life. The rice noodles were cooked to a silky texture and dressed with the right amount of sauce, the fluffy eggs were nicely blended in and the shrimp were "woked" to perfection. Lacking the excess puddles of oil that street food can often carry along, this dish was a fantastic play and balance for the palate with textures and tastes. You get the blend of creamy from the sauce, some sweet from the sugar (but not like the overly copious amounts typical of street vendors) and the refreshing tastes of tangy tart from the lime and cooling cilantro.
The crunch of the peanuts and beansprouts were a great balance to the smooth texture of the noodles, shrimp and eggs. And the portion size? More than adequate for those who suffer from bottom-less-pit syndrome. If you are not in the club, it would be perfectly acceptable to split the entree with someone. Alas, I have owl eyes and this is not an option for me or my stomach, needless to say we were both very content at the end of the meal. And yes, okay, I might have topped it off with another coconut slushie- so sue me, I’m only human. When in Rome!
The staff were incredibly sweet, even despite the volume of customers they had to balance; staying attentive to everyone and greeting every interaction with a smile. They were also kind and patient to my uninvited curiosity at the life behind a wok at 100 degrees.
I watched, intrigued as fire spat into the faces of the chefs who dowsed the feisty woks with water and sauces. Simultaneously, they pulled and cracked eggs from a stack of crates into the wide mouths of the woks, throwing their shelled remains into neighboring trash cans.
Out of the wok, the noodles were piled onto plates and passed onto the next person in the assembly line who topped them with cilantro, peppers and chopped peanuts before handing them off to the waiters. Watching these artists move at highly expedited paces was fascinating. All a vital nut or bolt in the chain reaction and machine that kept this place running and its customers’ bellies happy.
As fun as Khao San Road and all its sinful elements can be, if you are looking for genuine, high quality amazing Thai food at a good price try wandering the opposite way next time. Was Thip Samai worth the wait in the melting temperatures? Absolutely. I ate my next three dinners there. It is not only a restaurant, it’s an experience and a piece of history. Thip Samai is fire, heat, chaos, sweet, spicy and a symphony of smells and energy all contained in one space. It’s the epitome of the capital’s historic food scene and the essence of Bangkok itself.
Thip Samai - ทิพย์สมัย ผัดไทยประตูผี
511 , Maha Chai Road , Samran Rat , 10200 Phra Nakhon , Bangkok, 10500, Thailand
Monday - Saturday : 5 pm - 3 am / Sunday: 5 pm - 12 am