A Thai success story, touching and tastyDining at Khaosan’s first franchise restaurant, in southern Seoul, isn’t like going to any other restaurant, at least to those who know how it started three years ago. To me, going there is like paying a visit to a old friend who has made it big after years of hard work. I feel a vicarious sense of fulfillment, knowing that life allows goodness and hard work to pay off.
One day in the fall of 2002, a former colleague told me about a tiny Thai food stall in the Hongdae area. It took a few attempts to locate the place, which was almost literally a hole in the wall, in an alley lined with cheap Korean eateries. It was too small for tables; there were only four stools flush against a skinny bar.
Joy Lee, the thirty-something Korean owner and chef with the smile of a happy matron, sweated like hell inside the kitchen, which had one large stove for boiling soup and one portable gas range for heating up sauces. Ms. Lee, who taught herself how to cook Thai food while traveling in Bangkok, also sold take-out lassi, a drink made from fresh home-made yogurt, through the one window.
Standing, sweating and smiling, she cooked famous Thai dishes like pad thai, tum yang kung and sa-tay, but the way she cooked in front of diners was both wondrously crude and easy, using simplified pouches of dried herbs, canned food and frozen fish. She used to tell us how Thai food in Korea was too fancy and overpriced, and why she wanted to make her food affordable and casual. She said she wanted Koreans to enjoy Thai food, the way Thais and tourists from all over the world visiting Bangkok’s bustling Khao San Road could.
So every time we went to Khaosan, we ate until we told ourselves, “no more!” and paid what we could for a plate of pasta elsewhere.
To me, watching her cook, and eating her dishes, demystified Thai cooking. I bought the same herbal pouches Ms. Lee used but bought fresh mushrooms and live prawns to cook my first tum yang kung at home.
I had secretly hoped that she would remain in the same place, but she said her dream was to open a real restaurant somewhere in the Hongdae main street and perhaps a big one somewhere in the city. Her business turned out to be successful. Soon she moved out of the stall and opened a real restaurant near Hongdae’s park. I’ve since been back to Khaosan to eat affordable and delicious Thai food, even if I could no longer watch her cook.
The new addition to the Khaosan franchise in southern Seoul is big, bright and clean. It is decorated like an exotic restaurant for tourists. Local visitors seemed to take pleasure in taking pictures in front of an old Thai taxi at the entrance.
My tablemate, new to the restaurant and its story, was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food, service and price, with no dish on the menu priced over 10,000 won ($10).
It was time to indulge in our Thai food craving. Along with tall glasses of chilled lassi, one plain and one mango-flavored, we ordered a greedy tableful of our much-missed favorites: tum yang kung, chicken green curry, pad thai, and some steamed rice. We also wanted to try one of the special additions, called lanna.
Khaosan’s version of tum yang kung is thick and spicy, with chunks of potato, mushroom, shrimp and woody galangal and dried basil leaves. The curry was improved with richer spices and tender chicken morsels. Both went well with steamed rice, and additional rice was served for no extra charge.
A medium-size plate of pad thai, topped with fresh bean sprouts and peanuts, came without lime juice, but it was passable, standard Thai fair that could satisfy Thai food lovers living in Korea.
The lanna turned out to be a Chinese-inspired flat rice noodle dish stir-fried with red and green peppers, carrots, onion, bok choy, shrimp, cuttlefish, mussels and more. It was light but too sweet for my taste.
My tablemate complained that both noodle dishes used flat noodles and that the restaurant shouldn’t serve kimchi on the side. But he was bowled over when he got to the end of the long bill: only 34,800 won.
English: On the menu, not spoken.
Hours: Noon-10 p.m. daily
Location: From Gangnam Station, exit no. 7., turn right at Jump Milano shopping mall and go straight.
Parking: Validated parking nearby.
Dress code: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho