Bangkok Kitchen – A Gem of a Thai Rice-Curry Shop in the Heart of London


Salmon Chu-chi

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 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.

Wanvipa “Guitar” Koonpan

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.

 

Bangkok Kitchen
299-231 Union Street
London, SE1 0LR
07864033738
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.

24 Responses to Bangkok Kitchen – A Gem of a Thai Rice-Curry Shop in the Heart of London

  1. Eileen August 4, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    This sounds like an amazing place. Isn’t it always the tiny holes in the wall that have the best food you can possibly find? :)

  2. tim_g August 4, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    what a tip! thx

  3. Debs @ The Spanish Wok August 4, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Sorry to hear your visit to England was plagued by so much rain. This is one of the reasons I now live in Spain (despite currently complaining about the intense summer heat LOL)

    Forgive me for questioning you, but I understand that chopsticks are not used in Thailand. I believe that fingers are traditionally used in addition to spoon & fork. I’d be interested to learn differently!!

    I love those little back street places but the presentation can be off putting to some.

  4. Stacy August 5, 2012 at 2:17 am #

    Thank you for posting this. I enjoyed reading it immensely

  5. Admin August 5, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    Debs – Chopsticks are used to eat some (not all) Chinese-influenced dishes such as noodle soups. But, yes, traditionally it’s fingers (obsolete practice) or spoon & fork.

  6. Thaifoodz August 6, 2012 at 3:44 am #

    The sounds seem great,
    Sine I’m Thai who live in Bangkok, I am really appreciated to know that there are excellent Thai restaurants throughout the world. All dishes above look great for me.

    If I have a chance to visit London, I’ll go this Thai restaurant first!
    A guy from Bangkhuntien, Bangkok, Thailand

  7. spikygreengobbermonster August 6, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    Im happy to hear your enjoying your time in London despite the rain.It can be such a colorful city when the sun does come out.There is a thai temple in wimbledon and a nice Thai supermarket called Muay in Earls Court Hogarth Rd which sells all sorts of stuff like homemade curry pastes and pigs blood.I now live in the south of France but used to stock up on thai goodies when i came back to London.Have a nice trip and i hope the sun comes out for you!

  8. Lizzie Mabbott August 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Brilliant tip. Thai places in London are usually quite dumbed down for the farang tastes (except, perhaps, downstairs at The Heron in Paddington. That stuff is blisteringly real.)

  9. DaveT August 7, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    “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.”

    Very well said. I completely agree with you.

  10. Andy August 8, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    Hello, I’m in total agreement with you on your preference for the lower end Thai eateries. Your comments are also definitely applicable to Melbourne Australia. In saying that I don’t suppose you managed to find time to visit David Thompson’s restaurant Nahm while you’ve been in London? I would be interested to hear you thoughts.

  11. Nikirana August 8, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    This blog is great! I like Thai food. This good for me.So, Thank for this blog…..

  12. Aran August 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Wow! I literally live in and around this area and have never seen or heard of this place.

    Great tip – thank you!

    Next time you’re in London please shout for some other hidden gems.

  13. Su-Lin August 10, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Fabulous! Never knew about this place but I’ve got to give it a try!

  14. Anonymous August 12, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    True of many Thai places, In Sydney Australia I love Boom Boom Thai in Panania, Simple & Irresistible in North Sydney or Monkey Magic in Bondi Junction

    Allison Smith

  15. Anonymous August 17, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more, I Thai and I used to work around London Bridge, that place was an absolute joy of my lunchtime! Good, honest food with true Thai taste indeed.

  16. Andy N. August 18, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Why would you be so happy to see them not have chop sticks? Is it cos you think you are better than East Asians?

  17. ThaiGuy August 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

    No, we (speaking for myself) are happy to not see chopsticks because we don’t eat curry and rice with chopsticks. It’s a sign the establishment isn’t pandering to misunderstandings. It’s that simple, Andy with an inferiority complex N.

    • Andy N. August 20, 2012 at 3:20 am #

      Is it too hard for Thais to use chopsticks with rice? I know they use chopsticks with noodles so why change utensils when eating rice? Chopsticks work fine with rice.

  18. Bobbie September 29, 2012 at 1:19 am #

    My office just moved nearby and I discovered Bangkok Kitchen two days ago. It’s my new go-to place at lunchtimes. Their condiments table was a good sign when i first walked in – birds eye chillies make me happy. : ) Being Malaysian and despairing of finding anywhere decent to get SE Asian food in the area, I’m overjoyed to have found it. Just need to find a decent Vietnamese place now…

  19. rc February 26, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    This place is amazing. I go there once a week for lunch. Get the fresh wok cooked noodles and prawns. the bonus is all the condiments that you can pile on after. A real gem.

  20. Arthu May 23, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    This is one the best lunch deals I’ve found yet around the city. I go to the London Bridge stall and the St. Paul’s stall (nearer to Bank actually) quite regularly and I absolutely LOVE their flavours and portion sizes (always pad thai base with a half/half of curries, or even 3 if I’m feeling greedy), and for only £4.50! So I had to pay pilgrimage to the mothership in Southwark, and it doesn’t disappoint.

    What it offers for 25p extra is more variety: 6-8 options per day instead of 2-4, or the made-to-order wok to the left for £5.50. Personally I still prefer the curries since I feel their stir-fries lack the flavour and richness their curries gain over long periods of simmering. Also, free brown and white prawn crackers on Friday lunchtimes! Make sure to go early in the first half hour before they quickly run out!

  21. Michelle September 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    I hope you don’t mind but I have linked to your review of Bangkok Kitchen as I’m organising a SE Asian street food market in October with Bangkok Kitchen hosting and you really have the spirit of their stall down to a T – just perfect. I eat there a couple of times a week and never tire of it!

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