"Taste it. You like it? Dip it in the sauce!"
Learchai Puntulasun's elbows stand between our hungry hands like a referee's at the start of a fight. The strands of his feathery goatee threaten to tickle my brow. He reaches in between us, pouring a runny orange liquid into a darker red one, mixing sweet, sour, and spicy together.
"You like it? The mix sauce! Taste it!"
And then my dining companion looks up and shoots Puntulasun a sharp glance like a Thai boxer throwing an elbow up close. A waitress behind me then places another, unadulterated bowl of hot sauce on the table. And our contest continues.
Likhit's chickens taste and look like a chicken should--there is a subtle gaminess, and their meat is mostly dark.
The restaurant in question, Likhit Gai Yang, pairs one Thai national obsession, eating chicken, with another, watching Thai kickboxing. The Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadium, where fights are staged every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, sits next door to Likhit in the bowels of Old Bangkok. Ratchadamnoen was the city's first boxing arena, finished in 1945.
Puntulasun (Poon-too-law-soon) is trying to be courteous, but he's getting on our nerves as we grapple for grilled chicken. His is one of Bangkok's oldest continuously running gai yang restaurants, serving skinny, slow-grilled, spatchcocked birds in the same location for 52 years. The chickens are free-range--the kind that pick holes in dirt searching for food, and grow long legs and slender necks rather than large breasts. They're killed after 40 days, he tells me, and compared to Thai supermarket chickens they look gawky and adolescent.
They are not the norm in this country, whose food supply is changing fast. According to a Bangkok Post article called 'A Matter of Taste', which ran in February 2550 (that's 2007): "Older generations seem to prefer a traditional, classic bird yielding firm, lean meat, while younger folk are more likely to go for softer, juicier, milder, and even fattier varieties."
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
Based purely on the powers of observation, I believe this to be true. There wasn't another soul at Likhit under 40, but my neighborhood grill, with its circus-tent top and voluptuous birds, is packed nightly with young people.
Likhit's chickens taste and look like a chicken should--there is a subtle gaminess, and their meat is mostly dark. That essence of bird that's mostly leg and thigh holds up to an eye-watering marinade, as the chickens rest for a day in a pestle-smashed slurry of peppercorns and garlic blended with sugar and fish sauce.
Likhit's grill is little more than a deep chest built of slate-colored brick, and the smoky flames are so low you can warm your hands over them (not that you'd ever need to). "Twenty minutes on one side, 15 on the other," says the owner, smiling for the camera, and slapping six more over the coals.
His final product is magnificent--the best I've tried here, and maybe anywhere. It is permeated with smoke, the skin is salty, sweet, and charred, and the two types of pepper play off one another--first the black's burn, then the white pepper's patient heat. But other dishes also stand out for their balance and finesse, like an excellent papaya salad, and sour twists of sun-dried pork. He has a great kitchen behind him.
Cartoon renditions of all nine of Bangkok's Kings look down on the crusty dining room with approving eyes. The owner nimbly hops from table to table, pouring cheap Scotch and seeking affirmation of chicken supremacy from the regulars. And as the night wears on, bookies in satin jackets pile in, discussing the numbers for the night's fights over their half glasses.
I'll take the skinny bird in four.
Likhit Gai Yang is located just to the left of the Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadium, at 31/1 Ratchadamnoen Klang. Call +66-8-68849217 if you get lost. Another tip--if you do go, ask him to give you a freshly-cooked chicken, order some other dishes, and sit back and wait. On off-hours you can get a pre-cooked chicken, and it's just not the same.