Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
My tuk-tuk pulled up in front of a temple in Bangkok's Chinatown. I got out and looked around. The street was dark and eerily silent--a scurrying rat here, some tumbleweed trash there. But there was nothing resembling a restaurant in sight. To make matters worse, I was already late for dinner, at one of the city's toughest tables to snag: the Chinese/Thai seafood restaurant called Jok Kitchen.
I had heard about Jok before from the interwebs, the "tiny seafood restaurant" where you "must reserve two months in advance." Predictably, this sort of thing excites a food writer. Especially one who can't remember the last time he had to wait for a table, or book one more than a few hours ahead.
Exclusivity in Asia generally means something different than in the west. Usually the exclusive place is either egregiously spendy, or is secreted away by those who don't want foreigners to invade their space. (Western clientele are like vampires. A steady flow can suck the blood, and the ambition, out of a great local kitchen.) When everybody knows about the restaurant in question in L.A., it's exclusive. When nobody knows about the restaurant in Bangkok...you get the picture.
Jok Kitchen is one of those hushed sort of places. It's impossibly small (three tables), in a most unlikely location (down a grim alleyway that serves as a neighborhood fish market by day, and parade ground for vermin at night). It's also very expensive by Bangkok standards, at about $35 per person. Jok's dining room is a fluorescent-lit, white-tiled cube, and its only concession to luxury is a steel trolley that holds beer and ice. Eating here feels like dining inside an empty refrigerator.
That night, we started with dumplings. Thin, eggy skins wrapped around meaty dollops of minced prawn. They were seasoned with nose-tickling amounts of white pepper, and carpeted with golden fried garlic. Then there was a course of what the Thai call snowfish, a cod-like creature that was fried and served atop iceberg lettuce. The combination of flaky, buttery whitefish and shredded lettuce probably doesn't remind most Thais of the McDonald's Filet-o-Fish--but it was an association that I couldn't shake.
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
That was followed by king prawns served with candied ginko nuts, and a straightforward Chinese soup made of preserved vegetables in a milky fish stock. All of these courses were forgettable, until the crab came. And then the hype almost made sense:
Five enormous crabs sat on a platter--completely shelled and freshly steamed, served with condiments. There was the standard Thai seafood sauce, a vibrant green paste of chili and coriander, backed with the salty wallop of strong fish sauce; there was a bowl of plain fish sauce with floating rings of milder chili; and finally a tiny dish of Zhejiang vinegar. This sweet, mellow vinegar that's produced just south of Shanghai complimented the delicateness of the sweet crabmeat, brightening each bite. I took turns trying to finish off the crab with a Roman chef who works in Bangkok. But we couldn't get through it all.
It was an amazing sight if you love crustaceans, the likes of which I may never see again. Unless I return to Jok for another round.
The next time though, I think I'll pack a bottle of good Chablis and a stick of butter. Now that would make for an exclusive experience.
23 Soi Isara Nuphap
Thanon Phlab Phla Chai