BANGKOK, Sept 25 — There are rambunctious roosters and fighting fish everywhere you turn. No, this isn’t a scene from a barnyard or a pet shop; it’s Bangkok’s answer to the question: “How do you make street food modern?”
Located at the famed “food street” of Soi Sawasdee, Baa/Ga/Din (which means “selling food from a picnic mat” in Thai) is the brainchild of young Bangkok-born chef Thitid Tassanakajohn (or “Ton”, as he’s fondly known).
The fourth and latest eatery by the 30-year-old wunderkind who studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Baa/Ga/Din joins his earlier ventures such as fine-dining establishment Le Du, brunch haven Taper and home-style Thai restaurant Baan, all in Bangkok.
This time, Ton aims to celebrate the vibrant flavours cooked by vendors from push carts in the soi (streets). Joined by American chef Chandler Schultz, who had trained with Ton at Le Du, Ton hopes to deliver fresh interpretations of the street food we most commonly associate with Thailand — from spicy som tam salad to the humble ice-cream sandwich.
The reinvention begins with the décor of Baa/Ga/Din, outfitted by restaurant designers Party/Space/Design using plenty of rustic wood and brick. The fighting fish and roosters, stencilled on white walls in black or stark against wooden surfaces in red and blue, are emblematic of the muay Thai kickboxing spirit and a nod to Baa/Ga/Din’s desire to remain local even as it refines the quintessential Thai menu.
Why not start with some quick-to-arrive bar snacks? Baa/Ga/Din’s most popular finger food has to be pikki thodna pla, “one-bone” chicken wings that have been marinated for 48 hours before being fried.
Dip each wing in either a green Sriracha chilli relish or a Thai basil mayonnaise (or both, if you like) and devour it in a single bite. There are six wings per basket but they won’t be enough once you start. My advice: order more.
The small plates at Baa/Ga/Din are meant to be shared among diners at a table, reflecting the communal eating traditions of Asian societies rather than the course-by-course order favoured by Westerners.
This way you can try a little of tomyum haeng (a spicy “ceviche” tomyum-flavoured prawns with straw mushrooms and cherry tomatoes) and a little of larb ped (spicy Isan-style duck salad with pickled cabbage and fresh mint). An essential component of larb is khao khoua (ground toasted rice); toasted rice chips are used here for a different texture.
I love som tam, the ubiquitous Thai green papaya salad made from julienned unripe papaya and plenty of local bird’s eye chilli (prik kee noo). This salad is perhaps most representative of the five flavours of Thai cooking: saltiness, acidity from lime juice, sweetness from palm sugar, savouriness from fish sauce and, of course, the spiciness of the chillies.
Baa/Ga/Din’s version, punim thad kab som tam, is crunchier and livelier thanks to the inclusion of deep-fried soft-shell crab and raw young coconut. No less spicy though, thankfully. Som tam without heat isn’t som tam at all.
One of my favourite Thai curries is the red curry, made from dried red chillies (which gives it its bright crimson colour), lemongrass, galangal, shallots, kaffir lime peel and other spices. Pounded into submission with a mortar and pestle, the red curry paste (prik gaeng ped) is all heat and fire.
At Baa/Ga/Din, red curry is paired with grilled pork shoulder, an aromatic smoked egg and fresh, raw sprouts. The dish, hwalai hmu kæng dæng, is hearty and heavenly; all it calls for is a bowl of steamed white rice to soak up all the gravy. Red curry has never seemed quite as luxurious.
Desserts at Baa/Ga/Din continues the theme of lifting Thai street food to the level of fine cuisine. There are plenty of sweet treats making use of black sesame in Thailand but their treacly khek nga da – a black sesame cake with grilled banana, palm caramel and burnt honey — is something special. You’d want to lick the plate clean.
In the streets of Bangkok, an ice cream sandwich looks more like a hot dog from a distance, as it’s served inside a sausage-length bun. A closer look would reveal honest-to-goodness ai tiim (ice cream), often with a liberal drizzle of sweetened condensed milk and dusting of crushed peanuts.
Baa/Ga/Din’s take, khanom pang ai tiim, replaces doughy white buns with the delicate crust of a fragrant pandan brioche and the condensed milk with fluffy marshmallows. The nutty flavours are still present courtesy of the peanut butter ice cream and crushed peanuts.
There is a well-equipped bar at Baa/Ga/Din. Besides wine and Singha beer on tap, the cocktails may be the true stand-out as they are blended with infusions of local spices and herbs. Certainly Ton and his team are committed to using Thai ingredients, prioritising organic and sustainable sources for seafood, vegetables and fruits.
The result is evident in every plate we order: authentic Thai flavours that do not spare the heat, as well as a careful balance of sour, sweet, salty, savoury and spicy. It’s a thrill dining at Baa/Ga/Din, as one realises there is no finer fare than that which has risen up from the push carts lining the soi of Bangkok.
26 Phrom Chit Alley, Sukhumvit 31 (Soi Sawasdee), Wattana, Bangkok, Thailand
Open daily (except Tue closed) 11:30am-2:30pm & 6pm-11pm