You’d think that with it raining almost every day since I arrived in London several days ago, I’d be keeping a collapsible umbrella in my purse. But that’s what sensible people do. Instead, my go-to rain solution has been to run for cover under the closest roofed thing that’s nailed down and taller than I. So when it started to rain while I was walking around in Southwark area, I made a beeline for the train underpass on Union Street. It met the two requirements.
And that’s when I saw something at the corner of my left mascara-streaked eye. A sign bearing the Thai flag. Bangkok Kitchen. Hot Thai food. It seemed … out of place, unexpected.
You see, I’m not very good at finding stuff. As I’m typing this, I haven’t been able to locate my phone in three hours. But when it comes to food places, it seems I’ve never had trouble finding them. Apparently, as is the case with this one, food places don’t have trouble finding me either. But that’s not the point.
The point is — intrigued by the sign and enticed by the scent of warm curry, I had to check this place out. The actual shop couldn’t be seen from the street, but I just walked right on in. And it has proved to be a memorable case of veni, vidi, comedi.
Right off the bat, there’s something reassuring about the condiment table. No trace of the American sriracha sauce or packets of soy sauce or plum sauce in sight. No chopsticks in the utensil tray. Imagine that: no chopsticks on offer; just spoons and forks with which to eat your rice-curry meal. Nothing wrong with chopsticks or eating with chopsticks, of course. They’re just not made for the purpose of eating rice and curry on a plate which is what the Thai people do.
“Don’t customers ask for chopsticks?” I asked Wanvipa Koonpan, one of the owners of Bangkok Kitchen. “Oh, most of them don’t — they know,” she laughed a little. “We keep some behind the counter as once in a while some people ask for them – mostly those who’ve traveled to China and think we must eat rice with chopsticks too.”
Lawd, if I wasn’t afraid she’d pepper-spray me, I would’ve given the woman a grizzly bear hug right then and there and never let go. Instead, I let out a sigh the way they do it in movies and gave her a 5-second stare of respect, intense enough to be meaningful without crossing over into the creepy territory.
All kidding aside, I really do respect these hard-working people who strive to keep the integrity of their cuisine and culture.
This 4-year-old place is as unpretentious as can be. For all intents and purposes, this is a rice-curry shop (raan khao kaeng ร้านข้าวแกง) — like one of the millions out there on the streets of Bangkok where you go for a quick meal of rice topped with whatever dish(es) you pick out of the many that are available. It doesn’t seem to aim at being anything but a regular rice-curry shop. Bangkok Kitchen is not a hi-brow restaurant and it doesn’t appear it has any interest in being one. You don’t go to a rice-curry shop to be wowed by the presentation, hard-to-find ingredients, one-of-a-kind dishes, or anything out of the ordinary; you go there for decent, inexpensive, everyday eats. And while, sadly, some sit-down fancy restaurants in London that aim high can’t deliver those things, Bangkok Kitchen aims lower but meets all the expectations.
There, you approach the steam table located inside a small bamboo hut, you point at whatever you’d like on top of your plate of rice, you take your rice plate, you grab a cold drink from the fridge, you stop at the condiment table to help yourself to some nam-pla prik or what have you, then you go sit at one of the communal picnic tables to enjoy your meal.
Looking around, trying my darnedest not to fall into a stereotypical mode, it was hard not to notice how strikingly savvy this group of Londoners seemed to be when it comes to Thai food. There’s something about the people who come here, identified by Wanvipa as the regulars, that has left a positive impression on me.
Some people arrived in cycling shorts; some in business attire; some in ragged jeans and flip-flops. But they all seemed to have much in common and formed a tribe of sorts. I knew nobody there, but amidst the cold drizzling I didn’t feel alone. We were eating, talking, like we’d met and shared a meal before.
Take one of my table-mates, a Darren Criss doppelganger, for example. I don’t know what I admired more: the tale of his last trip to Bangkok or the fact that he was mixing the curry into his rice with the level of deftness expected of someone who’s done this all their life.
But the most important thing is the food.
I haven’t eaten at every Thai restaurant in London, of course, but the ones that I did have been ho-hum. Not this one. That’s what I told Wanvipa.
“You like the food? Really?,” she seemed surprised. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why she would be. A case of humility and fear that unless you’re formally-trained or have the ability to hack other people’s century-old recipes, you’re not a respectable Thai cook, I suppose. Or maybe she, like many, has bought into the notion that the face of Thai cuisine is represented only by restaurants serving the so-called royal Thai cuisine and not these street-level, “lowly,” no-frills rice-curry shops.
But if Wanvipa had dined with me at a swanky chain Thai restaurant a few evenings prior, she would have understood my reaction. If the nightmare that is the creamy, goopy, homogenous red curry and candied Pad Thai I had there were a bacterial infection, the food at Bangkok Kitchen would be penicillin.
The curry here is a thing of beauty. Every curry is done right and in the manner as you’d find at a mid-range, respectable rice-curry shop in Bangkok. Salmon chu-chi (labeled “shushi”), fillets of salmon in thick red curry sauce, is particularly memorable. I could go without the chicken and cashews, but all the curries I had were terrific.
“Well, I just want to cook the dishes I grew up eating in the exact same way I remember them,” she said. “That’s all, really.”
Oh, sistah, that’s all you need to do.
The level of competence here is impressive considering that Wanvipa, like the vast majority of Thai restaurateurs operating outside the kingdom, has never been formally trained. (There’s something to be said about Thai expats all over the world: deprivation, a force to reckon with, has a way of driving them to excel at cooking Thai food at a level they often did not aspire to when living in the motherland. Not all succeed, of course, but the drive to succeed is there.)
Wanvipa, an Isan (northeastern Thai) native with a degree in journalism and mass communications, had only recently learned how to cook the dishes she now serves at her rice-curry shop. She scoured the Internet for recipes and tweaked them until she’d arrived at what she thought was good for herself and her Thai friends. Having spent a few years operating tours in Samui, she’d also added a few southern Thai dishes to her cooking repertoire.
Londoners, on your lucky days, Wanvipa may sneak the iconic southern dry curry, khua kling (คั่วกลิ้ง), into one of the chafing dishes. She’s done that from time to time.
Would this rice-curry shop survive, let alone thrive, at this level of performance had it been located in Bangkok? Honestly, I can’t say. It depends, I guess, on its target clientele and location. But this shop, doing what it does at this level and price range, is a gem in the heart of London. And if you live there or visit the area, I wholeheartedly recommend this little place which is just a stone’s throw away from the famed Borough Market.
299-231 Union Street
London, SE1 0LR
Open weekdays 12:00-15:00 hrs
No website at the time of publication.
Selections on the steam table rotate from day to day. Diners can also order one-dish meals, e.g. Pad Thai, Pad Khi Mao, Pad See-ew; they are made to order.
*They have three other branches in St. Paul’s, London Bridge, and Waterloo. Call to inquire about the exact locations and hours.