Sweat and Spice at Bangkok's Bar Scene

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Eating and drinking are as intertwined on Bangkok's sweltering streets as they are in Barcelona or Buenos Aires. But the Thai do things a bit differently, as one might expect. Whiskey, in the form of inexpensive blended scotch, or locally-produced rums like SangSom, are the beverages of choice. Beer plays second fiddle. It's a refreshing interlude and watery palate cleanser, these light Thai lagers that are poured over fast-disappearing ice. Service at ramshackle roadside bars rivals that of very good restaurants in the West. Each table is given a cart on wheels equipped with a sweaty metal pail of ice, steel tongs, bottles of soda, and perhaps a plate of sliced limes. Before one can fill up their beer or refresh their whiskey, someone has done it for you.

It is the most elegant treatment of the chicken wing I've ever seen, in a most unlikely place.

The fizzy, saline blend of scotch and soda doesn't draw me to these places--though I've come to appreciate its weightlessness in the building heat (Bangkok's hottest months are upon us). Ice in beer (blasphemy, you say!), is also starting to make sense. And the service, particularly after my long stint living in China, is gob-smackingly good...It's all smiles and ice cubes down south.

But that's not what thrilling about Bangkok's downmarket drinking culture. What is - (almost) without fail - is the quality of the food served at these sidewalk pubs. I'll illustrate:

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

At the mouth of my alleyway, in the Yannawa neighborhood, there is a whiskey bar. It's open day and night, and is rarely empty. During the day, the owners prep for service by slowly grilling chicken thighs and pork jowls over a bucket full of smoldering coals, imbuing meat they'll use later with a subtle smokiness. Lean cuts of beef and pork, smothered in fish sauce and garlic, are sun-dried in large baskets. At night they will be fried and served as a sort of warm jerky. And two elderly ladies from Isan, a region in Thailand's northeast, slice chilies, shallots, and mint to make the rustic, chopped meat salad called laab that is dressed with fish sauce and lime. And while all of these things are perfect foils for a glass of fizzy scotch on a hot night--let's judge this bar by the virtue of something we can all understand: the humble chicken wing.

At this nameless roadside bar, they serve only the mid-wing in crisp, fragrant piles. They are lightly marinated in fish sauce with a touch of garlic, which subtly enhances their flavor. But the real surprise comes in the prep: Each wing has been neatly clipped, and its smaller bone has been carefully removed. This results in crunchy, matchstick-like wings. You can dip them daintily in the spicy, vinegar laced Sriracha sauce--not unlike our own buffalo--and slide the meat neatly off bone. It is the most elegant treatment of the chicken wing I've ever seen, in a most unlikely place.

(For those who would like to try these wings, head to the corner of Nanglinchi and Thanon Chan Gao in Bangkok. Exactly opposite Soi One on Chan Gao is this spot, and the chicken wings are sitting in a glass case. Just point and smile...)