In a city over-run with Thai restaurants, the best Thai restaurants in Sydney converge around two city blocks that locals simply know as Thainatown.
I-San Thai was one of my favourite eats - cheap, cheerful and free of the incessant queues that plague Chat Thai around the corner - but sadly closed in late 2009. Thanon Khao San now takes it place, a little fancier and more upmarket than its predecessor, but thankfully upholding the tradition of serving Thai dishes that don't compromise on heat or flavour.
Lychee mint blend $3.90 and pineapple blend $3.90
Pedestrians along Pitt Street will have noticed the tuktuk parked out the front, or perhaps been tempted by the array of traditional desserts for sale in silver trays - a pick-and-mix selection that includes sticky rice grilled in banana leaves, squares of steamed coconut custard, and eggy syrup-soaked Golden Tear Drops, as vibrant yellow as the summer sun.
Wooden stools and tables, ornate gold light fittings, and an eye-catching collection of Thai license plates on the wall are probably fancier decor than you'd find along Khao San Road in Bangkok, the backpacker strip from which the restaurant takes its name (Thanon means road in Thai). However the tables pre-set with bowls, cutlery and stainless steel cups that look ideal for camping, provide some reassurance that street food is all that you could hope to ask for.
Khao Moo Krob $8.90
Crispy pork belly served with rice, soup and gravy plum sauce
On a recent lunchtime visit, Suze only has eyes for the Khao Moo Krob, a tried and tested favourite of crispy pork belly. Deep-fried chunks of pork belly are smothered in a glossy plum sauce that I find strongly flavoured with star anise, spilling over a mound of sauce-soaked rice.
Ka Prao Moo Krob $13.90
Crispy pork belly and fresh vegetables with crushed hot chilli
My choice is the Ka Prao Moo Krob, this version of crispy pork belly tossed with deep-fried basil leaves, garlic chives, onion and a generous handful of fresh chilli.
The chilli will tingle your lips, numb your tongue and make you sit up straight on your stool, but the sweetness of the sauce, the fragrance of basil and the contrast between crunchy crackling and fat-ribboned meat will make the pain gloriously worth it. If all else fails, a crushed ice fruit blend, mixed with watermelon, pineapple or lychee and mint, will sooth the pain and quench your thirst.
Watermelon blend $3.90
Several days later, I'm back again for dinner, this time in a larger group of six and ready to tackle more dishes.
Som Tum Poo Pa Ra $8.90
You'll find four variations of Som Tum salad on the menu, and we settle on the feistiest one, Som Tum Poo Pa Ra. You will smell the salty muddy tang of raw crab before it's even arrived at the table, a heady scent that is the essence of brine and crab guts, and deliciously so. It's the perfect dressing for Som Tum, a bright salad of green papaya, carrot, green beans and tomato, muddled with fish sauce, chilli, garlic and lime.
The extreme saltiness of the raw crab and the lingering taste of fermented fish paste is not for the faint-hearted, but trust me, it's worth it.
Pad Thai beef $12.90
Pad Thai is a commendable rendition here, the noodles tangy and sticky without being too dry or too saucy. There's crispy bits of egg, peppery garlic chives, a tangle of fresh bean sprouts and a rubble of crushed peanuts on the side.
I prefer it to the Pad See Ew, which is on the flat side of flavour, with stir fried rice noodles that are a little gluggy in texture.
Pad See Ew chicken $12.90
Pad Kra Prao chilli basil beef $13.90
Pad Kra Prao combines slices of somewhat chewy beef with basil, chilli and garlic chives. It's probably my least favourite dish of the night, missing caramelisation on the meat.
Yum Talay $12.90
Seafood salad with Thai herbs and Thai dressing
Our tastebuds re-awaken with the Yum Talay, a seafood salad that explodes with chilli, Spanish onion, coriander and chilli draped around curls of prawn, scored calamari and mussels in the shell.
Kho Moo Yang $12.90
If there is one dish you must order, it's the Kho Moo Yang, unless tender caramelised pork isn't your thing. Marinated in lemongrass and seared to a smoky char on the grill, these succulent chunks of pork neck are bordering orgasmic when splashed with the accompanying shot glass of sweet chilli dressing.
Even better news? Thanon Khao San is open until 3am every night of the week.
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1/28/2011 01:39:00 a.m.