Culinary By BRAD A. JOHNSON for OLTRE Magazine

OLTRE: The ultimate Bangkok street-food crawl

chef Kannika Jitsangworn

Phra Nakhon chef Kannika Jitsangworn at Ting Larbped

Phra Nakhon terrace

Phra Nakhon terrace

After a week spent hopping from one Michelin-starred restaurant to another in Thailand's capital, one day in particular stands out.

"How spicy do you want it?" she asks.

"Spicy," I say.

"Are you sure?" She raises her eyebrows and glances at her colleague, Bank, and they share a little snicker. It feels like the joke's on me if I stick to my answer.

"I want to taste it exactly the way you would eat it," I say.

"You're brave," she says. I can tell that Kannika Jitsangworn thinks I'm asking for a world of hurt. She's kindly giving me one more chance to change my answer. To medium, perhaps. Mild, even? But I hold strong.

"Spicy. If that's how you would order it, that's how we should get it," I reiterate, my voice cracking. The words come out more like a question.

Jitsangworn is the chef at Phra Nakhon, the casually glamorous Thai restaurant overlooking the Chao Phraya River at Capella Bangkok. The hotel is located in the heart of Charoen Krung Road, the city's oldest paved street. For the past hour, she and Bank (a co-worker from the front office) have been leading my fiance and me on a private street-food crawl through the alleyways and side streets of Bangrak, the old neighborhood around the hotel. So far we've eaten fresh pomelos and durians, fried sesame balls, grilled sausages and coconut crepes, but now we've finally moved on to the spicy stuff.

Ting Larbped

Sidewalk kitchen of Ting Larbped

Ting Larbped

Spicy shrimp salad at Ting Larbped

We're gathered around a wobbly folding table, seated on small plastic stools, at a sidewalk restaurant called Ting Larbped. It's a makeshift operation that's not always in the same spot. If you ask Google where it is, you'll end up a block from where we are today. Heavy soapstone crocks filled with lava-hot charcoal fuel a half-dozen woks and stockpots. Plumes of steam and smoke billow into the street, carrying the scent of barbecued chicken, beef soup and stir-fried chilis over the rooftops.

When the first "spicy" dish lands on our table, I stare at it, mute. It looks very, very spicy. It's the pla goong, a shrimp salad with kaffir lime and bird's-eye chilis, except it's more like a ceviche than a salad. I scoop a spoonful onto my plate, then lift a bite to my mouth and close my eyes to soften the blow. Shock waves vibrate through the follicles on my scalp. My cheeks flush. My toes grow antsy. It is spicy, yes, but surprisingly not painfully hot. Fresh Thai chilis have a distinct floral undercurrent to their pulsing heat. And the shrimp are extraordinarily fresh and sweet. I reach for an even bigger spoonful, then stick my tongue into the light socket once again.

I open my eyes to see Jitsangworn and Bank studying my face, searching for clues as to how I'm faring.

"Is it too spicy?" the chef asks. Her question sounds like an apology.

"No," I say. "This is incredible." There's no refrigerator at Ting Larbped. There's no indoor anything. The owners go to the markets every morning to stock their Igloo ice chests, then set up shop on the sidewalk and cook for the neighborhood until all the food's gone. They start from scratch again the next day.

Ting Larbped

Bamboo salad at Ting Larbped

Ting Larbped

Grilled chicken at Ting Larbped

By now the table has filled with dishes: larb ped (chopped duck salad), nam tok moo (pork salad) gaeng om nuea (beef soup with toasted rice), som tum (hand-chopped and pounded green papaya), nor mai (bamboo shoots) and gai yang (grilled chicken). The menu is written entirely in Thai.

The conversation lulls as plates get shuffled like a game of three-card monte so everyone can taste everything. Almost all of it is radioactive, but the only thing that truly has me gasping for water is the beef soup. "I can't eat that one," I laugh, waving a napkin in the air as my white flag.

Tuk-tuk taxi

Tuk-tuk taxi

Coconut ice cream

Coconut ice cream

Having cleaned our plates, my head disoriented, we take off in search of a tuk-tuk. We stop suddenly when Jitsangworn sees one of her favorite vendors. "Coconut!" she exclaims, bolting across the street. We reach into our pockets for a handful of baht, and we're soon cooling our tongues with freshly churned coconut ice cream. All the while I'm still obsessing about the pla goong and larb ped. That was one of the best meals of my life - not a sentiment I toss around lightly. I've been working professionally as a food critic for 30 years, and this is my 12th trip to Bangkok. We've just spent the past week hopping from one Michelin-starred Thai restaurant to another, every stop outrageously delicious. This ramshackle sidewalk vendor tops most of it.

As we climb into the tuk-tuk, horns honking and motorbikes whizzing past us, I'm already thinking about dinner. Tonight we're dining at Phra Nakhon, where Jitsangworn's menu was inspired by her favorite street foods. The 101-room Capella opened at the start of the pandemic, and tourism completely stopped soon after. It was an auspicious beginning. The restaurant stayed open but relied entirely upon neighborhood locals, so the food
had to be authentic. It had to be spicy - made not for timid tourists but for extremely discerning residents. When tourism resumed, it was too late to turn back.

Phra Nakhon

Phra Nakhon terrace

Phra Nakhon

Phra Nakhon indoor dining room

Mostly outdoors, the restaurant sprawls along a tree-lined terrace overlooking the river of kings. A small indoor dining room resembles a greenhouse or screened-in porch. It is blissfully casual yet luxurious. Most of the clientele are still regulars, table-hopping and waving to each other. (Next door is one of the city's tallest, most exclusive residential towers.)

Our first dish arrives. It's a green papaya salad, different from that of Ting Larbped. Rather than a messy mound of chopped fruit and chilis, it's a striking composition of shapes and colors. Surely this won't taste as good as what we ate earlier, I think. But I'm instantly proven wrong. So many layers: fried pork rinds, raw eggplant, Thai chilis, salted crab, herbs from the hotel's own garden. Every bite is different yet equally sublime. Isaan-style from the country's far north, it is also intensely spicy. My head tingles anew.

Phra Nakhon

Dry curry made with pork

Phra Nakhon

Yellow curry with swimmer crab

Next comes a dry curry made with pork. Spicy. Goosebumps ripple across my neck. The table soon fills with an extraordinary banquet: larb of minced pork and pork liver; deep-fried squid with squid roe, garlic, chilis and lime; wok-fried melinjo leaves (wild, tropical spinach) with boiled eggs and smoked dried shrimp; caramelized pork belly with ginger and pickled garlic; grilled river prawns... My spoon moves frantically from dish to dish. And then comes the crab curry.

It's a yellow curry, sen mee gaeng poo. It looks tame. I can taste it in my mind before bringing it to my mouth. I can already imagine the coconut cream and the delicate swimmer crab on my tongue. But my imagination proves inadequate. The curry makes my head spin. Among the hundreds, maybe thousands, of Thai curries I've eaten over the years, I've never tasted anything quite like this. My eyes well up with tears - and I'm not sure whether it's because of the heat or because I'm in love.

"Was that spicy enough for you?" the chef asks as she drops by our table while making the rounds.

Once again I've gone mute. I can only nod. She smiles. She knows.

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This story originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of OLTRE. If you don't already have a subscription, contact your travel advisor.

Photography by Brad A. Johnson and Peter Chanthamynavong