The joy of eating street food is rooted not only in the flavors, but also in the experience. Sometimes it's more about the latter than the former.
This curious establishment was on the 'hit list' that a friend passed to us before we drove to Hat Yai and Songkhla last June. It resides under a stage erected in the courtyard of a temple smack in the middle of the city's Chinatown. The place is an institution; if you were to ask anyone on the street about 'noodles under the stage' they'd point you here.
The vendor has worked out of her cramped quarters for many years, and her specialty is yen taa fo, a rice noodle soup colored red by a sauce that incorporates preserved bean curd.
Hers features a light pork broth and bone-in meat and/or meat balls, a blood cake if you wish it, bean sprouts, and a loose knob of boiled pakbong (kangkong or water spinach).
'Oh, I wish you'd come earlier. She's run out of meat balls,' a local said as we carefully lowered ourselves onto a dollhouse-tiny wooden bench. 'Her pork balls are famous.' The heads of other diners nodded in agreement.
I wish the same. I wasn't too excited about this bowl of noodles, with its anemic broth and incredibly chewy pork. The tongue-singeing, brightly tart homemade chili sauce was its only high note.
That said I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Watching other diners (many of whom were much shorter than we -- and most of whom were amused by our bemusement) hunch over to scuttle under the stage and then carefully rise from their chairs, bent double again, to retrieve their noodles made for great lunchtime theater.
(The vendor stays mostly seated, assembling orders and washing and rinsing bowls, chopsticks, and spoons in a couple of pails at her feet. She's got diners busing and wiping their own tables.)
Why here? She lives on the temple grounds, she said, and the temple rents the space to her for next to nothing. She'll never be rich, but business is steady and she makes enough to get by.
It's a living, under the opera stage.
Yen taa fo vendor under the stage, Thanon Nam Ngan, Songkhla town. From 9-ish. She seems to run out of pork balls around 1:30p or so.