To track down Tokyo’s best Thai street food, you need to step out of your comfort zone. The search may lead to pungent backstreets, brash suburban malls or hole-in-the-wall stores redolent of lemongrass and durian. In the case of Montee, the trail takes you deep underground.
It’s one of those locations you’d never happen upon by chance. A dank stairwell curves down from street level to a subterranean passage known to few but the locals. Lined with cheap sake counters, noodle joints, old-style barbershops and fortune-tellers’ booths, it feels like entering a manga from the 1970s.
In fact you’re in the heart of Asakusa, just a few meters below the tourist shopping streets and steps away from the subway station but well off the modern map of the city. Hold on to your hat, though: This is just the transit lounge. Once you’re through Montee’s front door — not hard to spot with its striped tricolor flag and giant inflatable Singha beer bottle — you’ll be transported out of Tokyo altogether.
Just about all the cultural indicators in the brightly lit dining room are Thai: A spirit house shrine on the wall; the obligatory portraits of the king and queen; and a blackboard menu inscribed solely in curlicue lettering. What with the gaudy plastic fixings — tablecloths, stools, cruets and chopsticks — and the incessant lilting music on the sound system, you could be at a truck-stop diner anywhere in rural Thailand.
Ditto with the food. The menu revolves mainly around the down-home specialties of Isan, the area of northeast Thailand across the Mekong River from Laos, where the cuisine is searingly hot. The chefs at Montee (an older Thai couple) make no compromises. Chili levels are clearly marked on a scale of one to three, but even so you will want to drink copiously.
It comes as some relief to find that the manager — she’s the daughter of the chefs — speaks Japanese at least, although not English, and her Japanese husband often drops in to help. It also helps that the menu is fully illustrated with photos. Without any ado, order a plate of tod man pla (deep-fried fish patties) and some beers, then ponder your options.
Don’t overlook the kung chae nam pla. Lightly cooked prawns are laid out in mandala form, each topped with a paste of garlic, chili and savory nam pla (fish sauce). Interspersed with mint leaves and raw garlic, which you wrap around them to eat, this is colorful and appetite-inducing, and one of Montee’s signature dishes.
There’s a good selection of yam salads, featuring fish (canned sardine is popular), mixed seafood, minced chicken or pork in various guises. All of these come with a mound of greens, shallots, coriander leaf and no stinting on the chili.
Much easier on the palate are the thin eggy pancakes referred to as Thai okonomiyaki, though their DNA is far closer to Vietnamese banh xeo. These come topped with stir-fried seafood (squid, shrimp, mussels) over a generous mound of bean sprouts.
Rather more challenging is the laab, ground pork cooked with enough chili to put hairs on your chest. The som tam green papaya salad is worth trying, though not a classic of the genre — papayas can never be freshly picked in Tokyo. Sadly, Montee’s basement location and tiny size precludes another Isan favorite, barbecue kai yang chicken.
But at least there are two clay-pot dishes, and both are well worth exploring. Tom yum kung (prawns in a hot-sour soup) is not at all unusual; but kaeng som is. The shrimp and vegetables come in a rich, dark tamarind broth with a lip-smacking sweet-sour savor that’s hard to get enough of.
It’s easy to order too much here. But at least it won’t dent your wallet too badly. Everything on the menu is under ¥1,000 (apart from the large, four-person clay pots). Even the beer gets cheaper the more of it you drink. And if you’d rather drink wine, you get no choice — just a very basic Spanish red straight out of the fridge — but at ¥1,800 a bottle, who can grumble?
You will have to search far and wide to find better down-home Thai cooking than this in Tokyo — and certainly not in a setting to match. But, inevitably, there are some drawbacks and considerations.
First, despite the industrial-size fan at the door, it gets mighty hot inside Montee. Be prepared to sweat, and to mop your brow with the toilet rolls thoughtfully placed by the condiment holders on your table. Second, the seats are basic stools without backs, so don’t count on settling in for the entire evening.
And third, the restrooms (at the far end of the underground passage; ask for the key) are basic, to put it kindly. But that is all part of the territory when it comes to street food on this level. What you lose in comfort, you more than gain in intensity.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.