A haole boy in Thailand surrounded by Nigerians and ladyboys – though technically ladyboys are a different species rather than yet another nationality represented in the mix – eating Arabian food that can only be summed up with the Hawaiian superlative ‘Ono’; welcome to the Sukhumvit Soi 3 world of Little Arabia and one of my favorite treats in Bangkok. I love Thai food. And gain a few pounds on every trip I make to the Kingdom from overindulging. Easy to do. Hard to pass any streetside cart and not sample whatever in the hell it is they have for sale. Half of what I eat in Thailand I haven’t a clue as to what it is. The other half I don’t want to know. But it’s all good.
Still, even with Thai food, there is a point where it becomes too much of a good thing. Then my system craves some variety. If the comfort of familiar food is the call, I stop in any small cafe and grab a club sandwich. Not that I eat them back home, but the bread qualifies as familiar. What that particular restaurant decided qualified as a club sandwich, not so much. They always get the three slices of bread right. What separates those three slices is, in Thai tradition, up to you. Fried egg seems to be a favorite for one layer among most Thai chefs. Chicken shows up fairly often too. (And according to Thai cooks, the egg comes before the chicken. So case closed on that one.) But when I’m really looking to pig out and make my mouth happy I head over to Sukhumvit Soi 3.
There are several restaurants in Bangkok I like. I’ll hit them a few times each year though not necessarily on every trip. Sometimes it’s a matter of who I’m with. Sometimes it’s all about location; none are so spectacular that I’ll trek across town to dine there. But at least once on every trip I head over to Little Arabia and get my fill. And my wallet stays full regardless of how much I end up stuffing into my gullet.
From Sukhumvit down to where the infamous Grace Hotel squats there are about a half dozen shawarma stands. They are easy to find, just follow your nose. Dodging ladyboys looking to score, nefarious Nigerians looking to scam, Arabian men in flowing white robes on the prowl (many for the aforementioned ladyboys), and overweight Arabian women who have the good sense to hide all of that poundage beneath a loose fitting hijab, the small eateries offering chicken or beef shawarmas perch precariously along the sidewalk on both sides of the soi. Fussy diners may take a pass concerned over the exposed meat on vertical spits that sit out all day absorbing the diesel fumes wafting over from the car clogged street. But those fumes just add to the flavor. So does the cigarette ash repeatedly dropped from the end of the smoke the old Arabian guy whose stand is closest to the Grace. He smokes non-stop. And is too busy to flick his ashes away so instead they just fall where they want. And they usually want to fall into the sandwich he’s preparing. So you might want to give his stand a pass.
Shawarmas are an Arabian version of a burrito. Except without the beans. Folded into a similar thin flour-based wrapping, each holds a handful of chicken or beef drizzled in a yoghurt sauce. Tomatoes are usually added, at some stands a dill pickle spear adds a tang to the treat. My second favorite stall throws in a few french fries for the starch. The heavily spiced meat – with or without the diesel fume flavoring – is delicious. And for 50 – 60 baht apiece, you can eat until your belly bursts.
I first ran across this gastronomical treat in Amsterdam. But wasn’t quite as impressed. That undoubtedly had to do with the side of fries it came with. Which were covered in a humongous glob of mayonnaise. When in Rome . . . so at least in Bangkok that white oily gross crap is not a part of the meal. I occasionally run across a shawarma vendor back home, too. Hit the right neighborhood in San Francisco and you’ll find a vendor or two. But they just don’t taste the same. Maybe it’s the lack of heat and humidity. More likely it’s the lack of petroleum flavoring.
My favorite shawarma stand is across the street from the Grace, about midway down the soi. The old guy who runs the stall is a showman. He takes great pride in his little restaurant and everything he does in preparing your order is done with a flourish. And he doesn’t smoke. As much as I love eating the food, I love watching him prepare it even more. A true artist. But like most artists, he’s temperamental and his hours of operation are at his whim. Sometimes his stand is not there. Sometimes he’s open until the wee hours of the morning, or when the last possible slice of meat has been removed from the spit. When I make the trek over to the soi and he is not open for business, I move down to my #2 stand.
The food is just as good at the shawarma stall directly across the street from the Grace Hotel. The floor act is what’s missing. But to make up for it, the stall’s owner has about a dozen rickety plastic tables with even less substantial seating spread down the soi. He’s a younger guy, just as proud of his little joint as the old guy is. Unfortunately, like a lot of Arabs who shouldn’t be, he’s also proud of his manly body. He has an affinity for wearing skin tight burn-out T shirts – the kind you can see through – that not only accentuate his hairy torso, both front and back, but provide absolute proof that the only blubber packed on the meat at his stand is on the cook. But a fat cook is a good advertisement. And you can always grab a chair facing away from his work area so you can dine without being disgusted by the view.
All of the shawarma stands tend to do a brisk business during the day, but really get buzzing late a night. The bargirls who work the area drop in frequently, the drunk touri who didn’t find the lass of their dreams stagger up and order a few sandwiches too, wiling to settle on a different kind of meat for their night’s entertainment. I usually make it an early dinner before heading off to the bars. Or better yet, if I’m already headed back to my hotel I’ll grab a few extra to go and have a delicious late night snack later in my room.
If you are in Bangkok, looking for a quick and cheap meal and don’t want to have to try and identify what food is being offered, take a trip over to Sukhumvit Soi 3 and try a shawarma or two. You’ll be hooked. And will agree that ono is the best way to describe one of Bangkok’s most delicious streetside treats.