The Revival of Shop House Diners in Bangkok
photos & story by Geoff Thomas
For every travel article praising Bangkok’s eclectic range of street-food, there’s been a corresponding promise from Bangkok’s Metropolitan Authority to clear those famous food vendors from the city’s increasingly congested sidewalks and streets.
Until recently, those whispered political promises had been lost to the sound of crashing woks, the flashing of hot oil, the laughter of diners, and the clatter of plastic plates on folding metal tables. But in May of 2014, a new sheriff arrived in Thailand and achieved what had previously been considered impossible. In double-quick time, the newly installed administration united the once seemingly disparate branches of power and brought them together on the same page. Unfortunately for many, the page they’d chosen hadn’t been found in any travel brochure.
Having been given a bite to match its bark, in 2015 the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority finally implemented its long promised program to reclaim the city’s sidewalks and streets. And, much to the delight of Bangkok’s increasingly influential brick-and-mortar restaurant chains, by December of 2016 more than 15,000 independent food vendors had vanished from the city’s streets.
Removing such a large number of vendors from the dining supply chain has no doubt benefited the city’s growing number of branded restaurants, but with bricks-and-mortar comes costs, and while tourists enjoyed Bangkok’s street-food for the overall dining experience, cash-strapped Bangkokians enjoyed it mostly for the affordable price.
Today, as tourists begin dining on burgers, pizza, ramen, and sushi in air-conditioned comfort, and food writers scurry away in search of new employment for their well-crafted clichés, budget conscious Thais are rediscovering a dining experience that’s perhaps even more traditional than street-food: The-Shop-House-Diner.
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Beneath an eight-storey residential building in a northern suburb of Bangkok, Apple is opening the curtain on her ground-floor apartment. Beyond three small wooden tables and a hand painted sign Khrua Bork Rak (Kitchen Speaks Love), there’s little to suggest that her single-room apartment has become a popular local eatery. There’s no notice to tell diners when Khrua Bork Rak will be open and no menus to indicate what dishes might be available. But according to the constantly smiling Apple, when you know your customers, such administrative niceties are simply garnish. Apple isn’t big on frills, and as each dish she serves is priced at around 35 Baht, or one US dollar, garnish is a luxury she probably can’t afford.
This evening, Apple hopes to serve forty plates of food, but aside from the steamed and sticky rice, nothing else appears to have been prepared in advance. I ask if I’m keeping her from the kitchen, which is half of her apartment and a small square balcony at the rear, but Apple just laughs: How can she prepare food before she knows what her customers will ask for?
An hour earlier, Apple had scoured the local food market and inspected the produce on offer. With only the outline of a menu in mind, she’d negotiated the keenest prices for the best examples of everything before returning home with her produce on a taxi-bike. So Apple knows what ingredients she’ll be using tonight, but the way in which those ingredients will be combined and cooked will, to a great extent, be decided by her customers.
As a ‘ping’ from Apple’s phone announces her first order of the evening, she wanders away to her tiny kitchen. On the small open burner, oil heats in a wok while she furiously chops ingredients: pork, basil, ginger, red chilies, green beans, and spring onions. Singing as she works, the first dish of pad krapow moo saap—fried basil with pork—flashes to completion in the pan, giving Apple the chance to respond to her customer’s text message. Laughing as always, she tells me that the customer had requested shrimp for the second dish, but the shrimp in the market had been too expensive today, so she’ll be happy to accept chicken instead.
From the open doorway, a regular customer arrives and asks not for a menu, but for the total price of the order that’s keeping Apple busy. With an appreciative nod, Apple tells her that the total charge will be 80 Baht and the order includes two small bottles of water from the fridge. A minute later, Apple hands me a carrier bag containing the two main dishes and a large bag of steamed rice, and asks me to take it to the taxi-bike waiting in the car park with the bottles of water, a hand-written receipt and the customer’s change. Seeing that Apple had her hands full in the kitchen, the regular customer had instinctively volunteered to act as Apple’s cashier and beverage server. At Khrua Bork Rak, this level of customer interaction is certainly not unusual.
Back inside, the volunteer successfully negotiates the food order for a newly arrived party of four, then fills their beverage requirements from the well-stocked fridge. Nothing appears to have been written down, and when I ask with all sincerity how Apple manages to keep track of the individual checks, she simply laughs and gestures for me to step back from the flashing oil.
Three hours into service the three small tables have morphed into one large table for eight, a table littered with bottles, glasses, and plates of food that the diners appear to be sharing. With all eight stools occupied, additional customers take seats on scooters parked nearby. As the evening continues and the food orders mount, random customers step in to assist. While Apple concentrates on the cooking, the impromptu cashier is now carefully bagging rice from the steamer. In between cleaning dishes, another regular customer has taken on the role of server while her partner restocks Apple’s fridge with sodas and beer. Tonight is a busy night, and while Khrua Bork Rak might be a small family diner, the breadth and willingness of Apple’s unrelated family appears endless.
At around nine o’clock, aware of what ingredients remain in her fridge, Apple tells the final diners what dishes she can produce, and each of her suggestions is eagerly accepted. At this hour, Apple’s customers are exclusively locals, residents from the apartments above. Not many months ago, these residents would’ve eaten street-food in the vicinity of their offices after finishing work then traveled home and vanished into the isolation of their rooms. But with the opening her shop-house-diner, Apple has revived a traditional Thai sense of community and made the daily lives of these hard-working Bangkokians far brighter with her food and laughter.
Tired but smiling, Apple declares the night to have been a success. Having served more than forty plates of food, Apple not only covered her costs, including the rent on her apartment, but also returned a modest profit. At ten o’clock, the curtain at Khrua Bork Rak is finally drawn. Apple’s fridge is empty, and tomorrow the daily cycle of market-to-mouth community-dining will begin afresh.