KUALA LUMPUR, May 24 — When it comes to hunting down under-the-radar spots, I often see it as an edible adventure of sorts.
Most times it is mediocre, sometimes it is inedible and then you hit the jackpot and find great grub that makes you want to return again and again.
Most importantly, it gets interesting when you start talking to people and they tell you their story.
We’re no strangers to Thai food on our shores since Thailand is our neighbour. The Thai street food scene in Petaling Jaya used to gravitate around Wat Chetawan, the Buddhist Thai temple just off Jalan Gasing.
Stalls would line the street every Sunday and there would be a carnival-like atmosphere as customers sat on mats placed on the grass to slurp down their bowls of Thai laksa. Sadly the authorities clamped down on these stalls.
One of the affected stalls is run by Malaccan Leong Kai Sang and his Thai wife, Jittra Bunthan. They have been in business for about 13 years, previously operating a restaurant in the Sunway area.
Now they have set up a stall outside Restaurant Gasing, which is across the road from the Thai temple. Every Sunday, Thai migrants homesick for a taste of their country flock here to shop for Thai delicacies, vegetables and ingredients.
Even the latest Thai magazines and beauty products can be found here. The couple’s children, Leong Poh Yit and Leong Yew Chung who are fluent in English, also help out with the customers.
Choices are aplenty that a novice to their stall can go giddy. You can either pack home the food or dine inside Restaurant Gasing. There’s five types of Thai-styled laksa to cater to everyone’s tastebuds — green curry, bamboo shoots and fish, a creamy lemak Bangkok version with fish, a decadent Chiang Mai version with chicken feet and coagulated blood cubes, and a healthy version sans coconut milk with fish. All the laksa is served with blanched thin white rice flour noodles.
You also can grab a bowl of pork or beef noodles. The pork noodles is laden with pork balls, deep fried lard cubes, char siew, pork slices and a clear sweet tasting soup. Just add fish sauce, sugar or extra dollop of chillies flakes from the condiments placed on the tables in the coffee shop.
There is also green curry and bamboo shoots curry, all packed in plastic containers for you to take home.
It’s hard to resist the enticing delicious smell of Moo Ping or grilled pork skewers (2 sticks for RM5) on the hot grill that is tended by Leong. These sticks can be addictive with their charred caramelised taste and the juicy pork meat mixed with just the right amount of fats. Pair it with sticky rice for a full meal. The stall also offers juicy grilled Thai sausages (2 sticks for RM5).
The most recent addition to the stall is Pla Pao or grilled salt-crusted tilapia for RM29. Leong uses a special contraption that mechanically turns the salt-crusted fish over hot charcoals saving him the hassle of constantly monitoring the fish all the time. The cavity of the fish is stuffed with kaffir lime leaves, crushed lemongrass stalks, onions and garlic to infuse it with flavour. A salt crust packed on the fish helps to retain its juices within during the grilling process, which keeps the fish moist and succulent.
To enjoy this fish dish, just peel off the skin of the fish and pinch a little of the moist flesh onto a fresh lettuce leaf topped with blanched white thin rice noodles. Add a dab of their tangy green sauce and pop the whole vegetable parcel in your mouth.
You will be rewarded with the sweet juicy taste of the fish that has a hint of salt and a tangy but not overly spicy hit from the green sauce.
Leong explains that the secret to this awesome Pla Pao is the use of Thai-sourced tilapia fish reared in the sea with cages. This means his tilapia fish is far superior compared to the locally-sourced fish, that often has a muddy taste.
For dessert, there’s sticky rice with fresh mango and even Luk Chup or miniature fruit shaped mung bean sweets. Some regulars pop by to grab snacks like the puffy addictive deep-fried pork skin or Khaep Moo that sells out quickly.
Everyone is friendly and one customer even recommends the spicy sambals sold in plastic containers for us to pair with the porcine snack. If you are looking to cook up an authentic Thai feast at home, shop for vegetables like Cha Om, fresh bamboo shoots, light pink coloured preserved duck eggs, Thai pastes in packets and even instant noodles with all kinds of flavours.
During the weekdays, the mobile truck also does the pasar malam circuit. On Mondays, they are in SS2, on Tuesdays it’s at Jalan Radin Tengah area at Sri Petaling and on Wednesdays, they take part in the mammoth pasar malam in Taman Connaught, Cheras.
The pasar malam menu is a more compact one and a little different from their Sunday repertoire. Expect to dine on items like tom yum, kerabu mango, sticky rice with mango, Som Tam, green curry, laksa, kuey chap with chicken feet.
On Thursdays, they drive up to Haadyai to stock up on fresh vegetables and ingredients for Sunday. If you prefer, you can order special Thai ingredients via them. Once they have sourced for the items, they will let you know the prices before it’s purchased.
Over at Setapak, students from the nearby Chong Hwa Chinese school flock to a pink coloured house for their quick Thai food fix. Operating for around six years, this no-name eatery appeals to a clientele of largely youngsters with its wallet-friendly one-dish meals.
It’s run by Mrs Fong who originally hails from Chiang Mai, Thailand. The enterprising lady who speaks fluent Cantonese moved into the Setapak neighbourhood where her husband’s close-knit family lives.
Her menu may be a simple one, but all her dishes are well-executed and incredibly appetising. They’re cooked upon order, hence you can adjust their spiciness and even how much sauce you want with your pasta.
Her green curry seafood spaghetti (RM6) is outstanding for its super fresh seafood — clams, peeled prawns and sotong — all perfectly cooked. She also does a spicier yellow curry version.
The tom yum has two versions, a red one and a clear one, for RM6 a bowl. The clear version is fragrant and sweet tasting with kaffir lime leaves, chopped onions, galangal, shimeji mushrooms, prawns, clams, sotong and comforting mince pork patty. Usually the diners, like to pair this with a plate of rice.
You may be scratching your head to decipher some of the menu items listed on a cardboard that hangs on a window. What’s fried Mama and pizza egg? A quick chat with Mrs Fong revealed that since she’s not a Cantonese speaking native, she often has interesting ways to call the dishes.
Fried Mama refers to her version of fried instant noodles, that takes its name from a popular brand of instant noodles in Thailand. So what’s the deal with the pizza egg? This interesting moniker was given by her customers who claimed her omelette with chopped big onions and minced meat resembled a flat pizza.
As most of her customers are Chinese, Mrs Fong admits that she has had to compromise on her recipes to suit their tastebuds. For instance, she omits coriander and fresh milk from her tom yum. The youngsters can’t stand the strong taste of the coriander. Milk is also not welcomed by many since they believe it gives them wind.
Customers hear of this no signboard place by word-of-mouth. Students will bring their parents during the weekends, and some who have even left school, return to dine here with their spouses and children.
You wouldn’t expect Meng Kee Restaurant to be a place that serves Thai food since it looks like a typical nondescript dai chow with no-signboard under a shady tree. The neighbourhood secret draws in regulars who often drop by for their fried rice, fried noodles or a meal with family.
The proprietor James Phua moved to Thailand when he was a teenager, returning after about 30 years with a Thai wife, Kanokwan and family. Previously living in Changlun, next to the Malaysia-Thai border, he dabbled in selling clothes.
Following his return, he inherited this stall from his mother who had once sold economy rice here in 1998. In the daytime, they offer economy rice dishes and at night, they cook up Thai-inspired dishes and dai chow favourites.
Not a trained cook, Phua would often eat at various places and analyse the dish’s flavours. He realised the key to drawing customers to his eatery was to cater to their tastebuds. Rather than adopting the spicier and sourish notes from Thai cuisine, he prefers a more balanced approach that his Chinese customers can stomach.
Their signature items include items like assam fish, where the smooth tilapia is steamed, topped with assam sauce and an assortment of vegetables like brinjal, long beans, and tomatoes. The sauce is perfectly balanced with none of those jarring spicy or sourish flavours. This is a dish you will want to order again and again.
Another slurp-worthy dish is their hotplate prawns cooked in a tangy delicious sauce with kaffir lime leaves. Believe me, you’ll want to scrape every bit of the delicious sauce that coats the prawns, since it’s got a lovely tangy sweetish and spicy taste that goes so well with a plate of white rice.
Equally tasty is the unusual Thai oyster sauce pork trotters. The braised pork dish has a gelatinous and sweet tasting sauce. After some coaxing, I find out the secret is the use of shallots to give it a sweetness that makes it an addictive sauce. He also makes another Thai-style version of pork trotters, that requires a lot of work, during Chinese New Year. The pre-order item needs at least 1-2 days preparation to cook and braise till it is tender and fragrant.
Last but not least, my absolute favourite is their pandan chicken. Don’t expect it too look like the ubiquitous pandan leaf wrapped version, as their rendition uses fresh pandan juice extracted from pounded pandan leaves in the marinade (a minimum of six hours) to infuse the meat with more flavour. According to Phua, you need good cooking skills and a high heat to ensure that the pieces of chicken meat are kept succulent and the colour of the chicken does not turn black with the oxidation of the pandan juice.
For those who prefer a one-dish meal, go for their Thai-style fried rice that is fragrant with a fluffy beaten fried egg, tiny diced char siew and their home-made paste of turmeric, chillies, and lemongrass. It makes a great pairing with a bowl of their tom yum, a lighter but sweet tasting version since an abundance of fresh prawns is used with lemongrass, chillies, kaffir lime leaves and shimeji mushrooms. The tom yum has a dash of fresh milk to give it a slight creamy taste. They also serve kerabu dishes.
On Thursdays, Phua’s wife sets up stall in Plaza Mont Kiara to sell Thai specialties like sticky mango rice, Som Tam, Mee Siam, fried prawns, pandan chicken, Marmite chicken and etc to a largely Japanese crowd. Regulars often ask Phua to work out a pre-order menu for their special meals. Occasionally, he sources unusual vegetables from his Thai contacts, like yam leaves, the heart of a coconut tree, and even fern tops, upon a customer’s request.
Stall outside Restaurant Gasing
Jalan Chantek 5/13, Off Jalan Gasing, PJ
Open every Sunday: 8am to 4pm.
Lot 5909, Lorong Chong Hwa 2,
Open: 9am to 3pm. Closed on Sundays.
Meng Kee Restaurant
Jalan Bayan, Off Jalan Ipoh, KL.
Open: 11am to 2pm, 5pm to 10pm. Closed on Monday once a month.