We met Judy at the end of our last day at Nang Leong Market. Emerging from one of the alleys that lead from the market onto Thanon Krung Kasem we noticed two small restaurants right across from each other. At their outdoor tables guys sat drinking beer and eating intriguing tidbits: small plates of unfamiliar stir-fried greens, crunchy beans mixed into a salad, tiny frogs browned and crispy and stacked on a stick.
Judy popped out the door of one of the shops. 'Want a beer?' she smilingly inquired. We were tired and sweaty and yes, we wanted a beer, but we were also dirty and smelly so, at that moment, we wanted a shower and a change of clothes more.
'What's that dish?' I asked her, pointing at one of the tables. 'Gap klaem,' she replied. Oh, gap klaem, Thai drinking food. We'd eaten gap klaem, many types of which, such as grilled beef tossed with lime juice, chili, and fish sauce and various chopped meat pat bai grapao (stir-fried with basil) preparations, are also served in restaurants. But we'd never dined at a place that specialized in them. We told Judy we were heading to our hotel, but that we'd be back in a few hours.
We're not big on beer, but there are times - such at the end of a long day that started before dawn, followed by an hour spent in the back seat of a taxi caught in traffic and then a hike down a busy Bangkok street - when it really hits the spot. We arrived at Judy's, parked ourselves at an outdoor table, and ordered a couple of Singhas and a big bucket of ice. I took a gulp, looked around, and noticed that all of Judy's other customers were male, and that her large staff consisted entirely of young, very made-up, mini-skirted women.
Dave and I looked at each other. Oh, right. Duh. We'd come to a hostess bar for dinner.
They are as much a part of Bangkok's urban landscape as streetside food vendors, if perhaps not as widely or evenly distributed. Patpong and the seedier stretches of Sukhumvit attract most of the press, foreign customers, and gawkers, but every neighborhood has its own 'men's clubs'. What is there to say about these places that hasn't already been said elsewhere? They are simply a fact of life in this metropolis that attracts hordes of economic migrants. Many of them - young, poorly educated, unskilled women, most from from Isaan - end up working in joints like Judy's.
The beer was cold the food around us looked incredible. Judy came out to say 'hi'. We decided to stay.
In the US drinking food means something small, preferably unsauced, maybe easy to eat with your fingers. Gap klaem, by contrast (like Philippine pulutan) includes everything from grilled chicken to curries. Gap klaem are meant to line the stomach. They're highly spiced and rarely eaten with rice. At the tables around us, occupied by customers who were obviously settling in for a long evening with a bottle or two,
plates arrived at a measured one-by-one pace. Our fellow patrons took their food leisurely, between sips of alcohol. We'd arrived with an altogether different agenda and paid little heed to gap klaem protocol. Judy is from Isaan, so are her girls, and so her is her cook. We love Isaan food. She recommended a raft of specialties and we ordered all at once.
The kitchen had run out of frogs so we went with deep-fried duck tongues. They arrived stuck on a stick and super crispy, accompanied by the tart dried chili sauce that's often associated with grilled chicken. A nice snacky sort of starter, if a bit tough.
As we were waiting for our next dish an ambulatory vendor bearing a basket of deep-fried pulses and beans and a number of chopped fresh ingredients sidled up to our table. We pointed at his bag of fava beans and in no time at all he whipped up a tasty cocktail mix
that included chopped Chinese celery and green onions, chilies, a liberal sprinkling of salt, and a wee bit of lime juice. What a memorable flavor-texture combo; we found ourselves talking about his humble paper plateful weeks later. More vendors - all of them Bangladeshi or, perhaps, Burmese men - bearing similar assemblages of ingredients drifted past the restaurant as the evening wore on.
When dark enveloped Judy's joint's outdoor tables someone fired up the karaoke machine. Invited to warble a tune we declined, pointing to our laden table. Several customers nodded, seeming to understand that we were there not for the girls or the karaoke, but for the food.
Soon we were eating the most fiery muu pat bai grapao (minced pork stir-fried with basil and chilies) that I have ever had the pleasure of placing on my tongue. On its heels came a dish of naem (cured pork) mixed with Chinese celery, scallions, shallots, both fresh and pickled chilies, deep-fried dried shrimp, ginger matchsticks, and peanuts tossed in a bright, limey dressing. How many ways can you say sour (pickled chilies, naem, lime juice), spicy (pickled and fresh chilies, shallots and scallions), and crunchy (peanuts and deep-fried deep shrimp)? Each bite was oral fireworks: bright, bold, incendiary, dazzling. It practically left us gasping for air.
Not really hungry, yet unwilling to call an end to an evening of unexpectedly fantastic eating, we flagged Judy down and asked her to recommend just one more dish, her kitchen's best. We ended up with a curry of muu bpaa ('forest' pig - wild boar). A stunning sauce thick with lemongrass, basil, lime leaves, chilies, ginger shreds, and fresh green peppercorns thickly coated tender pieces of gamey, skin-on wild boar. We spooned up every last bit.
And then it was time to go, even though it was only 9pm and the party at Judy's was just getting started.
But not before one of the girls showed us her tattoos.
Judy's place is at the corner of Thanon Krung Kasem and an alley called Trok Nang Leong 1 (look for the blue alley signage), within spitting distance of the bridge. There are two hostess bars here. If you want to find Judy's place ask for, well, Judy.