BANGKOK, June 7 — My family is Cantonese. I grew up eating Cantonese food at home. Light flavours, ingredients shining at their best. The barest of embellishments. Sauces and gravies that accentuate what’s natural and fresh instead of hiding what’s not.
Perhaps it’s natural that I would seek out familiar tastes whenever I travel. And it’s not necessarily the usual suspects such as Hong Kong or a Chinatown abroad.
Some of the best roast duck I’ve ever had was at a Cantonese restaurant in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district.
So when Thai Chinese friends offer to take us to their favourite food haunts from their childhood, we leap at the opportunity.
Like me, Cantonese cuisine is what they remember and what they crave when they get to return to their old neighbourhood.
That old neighbourhood turns out to be Bang Rak (meaning “village of love” as one friend notes wryly, and thus the dance between good food and amour continues).
As one of the oldest Chinese communities in Bangkok, Bang Rak is mainly settled by Cantonese immigrants. This is where Bangkokians in the know go for their siu mei (roast meats).
Most flock to Prachak Pet Yang, possibly the oldest roast duck restaurant in town at over a century.
It was first opened in 1909 as a roadside roast duck stall by a Cantonese immigrant to Thailand named Choy Kaung. The shop got its name in the 1920s, not from the founder but from a second-generation owner, a Thai man who married into the family.
Today the name Prachak is synonymous with pet yang (Thai for roast duck). When we arrived at the shop, now comfortably air-conditioned, we are greeted by the requisite display of glistening birds hanging in neat rows. Surely there’s no better advertisement for what to order!
While the shop appears small and cramped from the outside just like other shops along this old street, we are pleasantly surprised by how the space opens up inside with plenty of tables.
Turnover is fast so getting a seat is easy, especially with two extra floors above.
Once seated, we waste no time in ordering our lunch. We ask for the ba mee pet yang or egg noodles with roast duck. Here the noodles are springy and lightly coated in the sauces and oils so that they don’t clump together.
The roast duck is saltier than we expect it to be, in a good way; the skin not crispy but more melt-in-your-mouth, on account of the fat.
Isn’t that the sign of a good meal, when your lips are slick with honest fat and flavour?
We can’t help but order another round, this time the house signature of ba mee boo, or egg noodles laden with crab meat. Our friends advise adding a spoonful or two of fiery prik pon (roasted chilli flakes) and vinegar to balance the noodles and crab meat, bringing it all together nicely.
If noodles aren’t your thing, another way to enjoy the pet yang is on steamed rice or khao na pet.
For larger groups, order a large platter of pet yang to share; every piece is conveniently cut into bite-sized nuggets, dripping with the sweet, almost caramelised juices of the roast duck.
The good thing about portion sizes in Bangkok, especially for one-dish meals such as roast duck noodles and rice, is that they’re small enough that you can always order another bowl or plate. Try something different. Or, if you take the recommendations of Thai friends seriously, as we do, you can head to another shop to taste and compare.
It’s the best version of a food hop, where you go from shop to shop, preferably within the same vicinity, and try the same thing over and over.
We are game so off we go, a quick trek head down Charatwiang Road to Sanyod, another well-regarded pet yang haven, albeit a younger one.
To be fair, “younger” entails over half a century in existence as Sanyod was first a roadside stall then a full-fledged shop in 1962 offering Cantonese fare such as roast duck and egg noodles.
The restaurant was called “Seng Yid” (meaning “success and prosperity” in Cantonese) but owner Wu Chun Pei, concerned Thai diners might have difficulty pronouncing the name, changed it to “Sanyod” which means “superb” in Thai.
Judging by the brisk business, that was an astute decision on the part of the founder.
Again, we go for the noodles (one has to compare apples with apples after all, though this might be a poorly judged metaphor).
This time the ba mee pet yang is topped with rather plump kiao kung (shrimp wontons) that are wonderfully slippery on the outside, crunchy and fresh inside. If we close our eyes, and simply savour the aromas and the textures, we could just as well be in Mongkok and not Bang Rak.
We also order a plate of luscious khao moo daeng (barbecued pork with its distinctive red hue) and moo krob (crispy pork belly). These hit the right notes but let’s be honest it’s the pet yang that brings us to Bang Rak.
Speaking of that roast duck, who wants some more?
Prachak Pet Yang Restaurant
1415 Charoenkrung Road, Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand
Open daily 8:30am-8:30pm
Tel: +66 2 234 3755
89 Charatwiang Road, Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand
Open Mon–Fr 10am–8:30pm; Sat-Sun 10am-9pm
Tel: +66 2 234 7968