The Photographer is settling in at a hilltown in northern India's Kullu Valley, and I'm deskbound, weighted by deadlines and unfinished tax returns. Feeling a bit sorry for myself, to tell the truth.
But it's nothing that a half hour of mind-travel won't cure.
Hard to believe that we were in Hat Yai jTypePad - Edit Postust over two weeks ago. Our last visit to that southern Thai city was 15 years prior. Then, we'd arrived via Trang, sweaty, dazed, and little ill after two hours crammed into a gold metallic hot-rod share taxi driven by an amphetamine-addled speed demon. It was evening, and we soothed ourselves with an a/c room in a cushy hotel. I'm not sure we even ventured out for dinner. The next morning we flew to Bangkok. I can't remember a single bite from that Hat Yai visit.
This time is different. Again we've just one night, but that can mean three or four meals, and we've come with a list of recommendations from a Thai-speaking Kelantanese food lover. Oddly - given that Hat Yai lies in the land of curries and roti - the top spot belongs to Bann Khun Bpuu, an Isaan restaurant. Back in KL we're as deprived of authentic Isaan fare as we are of gaeng massaman, so we stroll over for dinner, salivating in anticipation of grilled pork neck, properly sour and spicy som tam, maybe a plate of sup nawmai (bamboo shoot salad).
Alas, we've unwittingly timed our Southern Thai road trip to coincide with a two-day public holiday. It's only 8pm but Baan Khun Bpuu's sold out, closing up for the night. The smells of grilled chicken, tamarind chili sauce, and fresh herbs taunt us. Gam, the portly, pony-tailed owner seems genuinely distraught by our disappointment. He apologizes, recommends another place around the corner (which turns out to be excellent), invites us back.
So, though we'd planned to be on the road early the next morning, we decide to stick around for lunch.
Gam, it turns out, is from Bangkok. Why Hat Yai, why an Issan restaurant? Gam is too busy with the lunch rush to answer all our questions, but he tells us this: "Thais, every Thai, loves Isaan food. I love it. You can eat it anywhere, anytime. Why not Hat Yai?"
This makes perfect sense.
We start with a grilled pork neck salad (above). The meat is smoky, pleasantly chewy, its meaty opulence balanced by sour tomatoes, slivers of tart green mango, and plenty of tamarind in a dressing that also includes ground toasted rice, chilies, and lime juice.
Sup nawmai (bamboo shoot salad) displays its usual split personality: slightly off-putting and addictive at turns as the bamboo's fermented funkiness does a duet with lime juice, dried red chilies, slices of red onion, and clean, cooling mint leaves. The fact that this is an Isaan dish served in a decidedly southern Thai, ocean-proximate setting is reflected in the curled slices of squid balanced on top of the salad.
Yam mamuang bplaa dook foo ('exploded' catfish with mango salad) isn't actually made with catfish, but with snapper, Gam tells us. The dressing's a bit sweet for my taste but the crunchy fish 'floss' is delicious.
These - and an aggressively meaty-spicy pork laab with odd bits - go down well with sticky rice and fresh herbs and vegetables.
Baan Khun Bpuu's 'dining room' is a wide alley between two cement-walled buildings that, by virtue of loads of potted plants, wind chimes, and a rigged roof, has been transformed into a green and pleasant little wedge of rural Thailand. Long and narrow, it's backed by a wood and charcoal-fired cooking area.
Too far into our meal someone fires up the barbecue and soon gai yang (grilled chicken)-scented smoke is wafting over our table. Pure torture, for we haven't an inch of room left. Then, shortly before we finish eating an auntie starts in on a batch of gaeng som (sour orange fish curry).
It's enough to make us predict that Hat Yai will be more than just an overnight stop, on the next trip.
Baan Khun Bpuu, east side of Pracharak Road between Prachathiphat and Suphasarnrangsan Roads (no English signage - look for the packages of crispy pork rind for sale out front, across from a school), Hat Yai. 1030am-dinner, closed Wednesday. Our lunch, with water, cost THB 157.