You don’t have to go far in Tokyo for good Thai restaurants these days. But when it comes to tracking down no-frills, down-home cooking — the kind of simple snacks prepared by countless market stalls and sidewalk eateries in Bangkok — then it pays to dig deep. Some of the best Thai street food is served below ground level.
Finding the entrance to Kao Tai is not so hard, just off the main drag in Takadanobaba. Negotiating the steep flight of stairs down to the dining room, on the other hand, requires strong legs and a sober grip. Once you’re installed there, elbow to elbow at the counter or wedged in at one of the low tables, it feels so friendly you’re loathe to ever leave.
Despite the tourist posters plastered on the walls, Kao Tai still retains the layout and easygoing feel of the izakaya that once used to call this basement home. It’s quite legitimate to book in here for a properly structured meal (starters, main course and dessert), but most people prefer to prop themselves up with a drink or three, to nibble and snack the evening away.
Old hands who have spent time in Southeast Asia will feel absolutely at home here and will probably want to settle in with a bottle of Mekhong — the tea-colored, rumlike hooch that is erroneously (or hopefully) referred to as “whiskey” — soda water (only tourists add cola) and a bucket of ice. Others will be happy to know that Kao Tai serves the malty Chang beer, as well as the more common Singha, though neither is adequately chilled.
To go with your first drinks, order up some shrimp crackers (ask for ebi-sen), chewy deep-fried fish cakes (todman plaa) or a plate of the tasty, fresh spring rolls that one of the Thai cooks spends the evening patiently preparing to order behind the counter.
The head chef hails from Phuket, but he can turn his hand to dishes representative of all corners of Thailand. He has spicy, country-style pork sausages in the northern (Chiang Mai) style, the grilled seafood and pungent green curries of the south, plus plenty of stir-fries of chicken, meat, vegetables or noodles, all well seasoned with the spices that make Thai food so distinctive.
And for fans of the food of rural northeast Thailand, he prepares a special Isaan platter. This features the classic combination of kai yang (grilled chicken), som tam (green papaya salad) and khao niyao, the long-grain sticky rice that only tastes right when you squeeze and fashion it with your hand before popping it in your mouth.
Even after a full bottle of Mekhong, you’d be unlikely to profess that Kao Tai’s food is the equal of anything you’d find in Thailand. But here in Tokyo you won’t find anywhere friendlier, cheaper or more enjoyable.
Kao Tai may be simple, but it’s not half as basic as its sister operation, Tinun, up the road in Waseda. This cheerful hole-in-the-wall noodle joint has nourished an entire generation of hungry students with its patent Thai-style ramen and low-budget meals of well-seasoned curries.
Clearly it’s a formula that works. Last year, an offshoot opened in Akasaka. Now there’s a new Tinun in Ginza — albeit in a hard-to-find basement at the Yurakucho end of Ginza.
They have captured the look and ambience perfectly. A row of gleaming hawker street carts (the Bangkok equivalent of Japanese yatai); rickety metal tables equipped with condiment holders dispensing chili powder and spicy nam plaa; keening soft-pop music; flashing fairy lights across the ceiling; even portraits of the Thai king and queen on the wall: You could be in a newly opened food center in one of Bangkok’s smarter shopping malls.
The menu here is so similar to that at Kao Tai, it is hard to know why they didn’t use the same name. The only significant difference is that they’ve added Tinun’s trademark specialty, the noodle dish they refer to as tom yum kung ramen.
It is a fine rice noodle doused in an appetizing sour-spicy soup, much like a tom yum but thickened with a little coconut milk. With the addition of a couple of small shrimp and a few smooth, globular straw mushrooms, the result is so totally addictive you may find yourself asking for another bowl.
With seats for 100 compressed into a space the size of a single Yamanote Line car, this is not the most obvious place for lingering. And yet, late on a recent Friday evening, with the outside temperature hovering at much the same level as it was in Phuket, the place was packed.
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