At this time of this year, every day feels like casual Friday. And as the humidity rises and the perspiration drops, simple is the way we like it. That means food that’s light and flavorful, preferably with a good spicy kick to it — and strictly no dressing up for dinner.
There are plenty of Thai restaurants around the city that fit the bill in terms of cuisine. But when it comes to keeping it casual, few are as cheerful and easygoing — or as easy on the wallet — as Rak Thai Pheng Roi.
This friendly little diner, just big enough to seat 24, lies away from the Tokyo mainstream in Gotanda. It’s not worth a special trip across town, but for anyone whose path takes them through this unfashionable neighborhood, this cozy kitchen is just the sort of place that could easily become a regular stopping-off point.
Less than five minutes walk from the station, you will see the restaurant’s sign, with its stylized elephant and inscription (in English): “Very casual Thai restaurant.” Even if you miss it, your nostrils will tell you that you’re in the right place when they detect the aromas wafting out of the door along with the sweet sound of Thai pop music.
There’s little in the way of decoration or ethnic tat, just a couple of flags and the requisite royal photographs. Rak Thai Pheng Roi — literally, “Love Thailand yatai (food stall)” — does not evoke the glittering banks of the Mekong or some sun-kissed island beach. Rather, it feels more like a suburban Bangkok side-street lunch counter, the kind of place where you drop in for a quick bite at midday or to banter with the staff over a leisurely evening of drinks and snacks.
The two lads manning the kitchen hail from Thailand, as do the floor staff, two friendly young women who attend to orders with smiles and welcome advice. Although they do speak basic English, the menu is only in Japanese, without illustrations, so some knowledge of Thai food terminology is definitely a plus.
All the staple foods are offered here, prepared with deft competence rather than great finesse. Most of the dishes are wok-fried to order, seasoned with all the requisite herbs and aromatics and served in portions just the right size to share between two.
We like to start with a bottle or two of Singha beer, maybe one of the yam salads, plus a plate of tod man plaa (deep-fried patties of pounded fish), which arrive puffed up and sizzling straight from the deep-frying wok. We then follow up with a soup — they produce a fine tom yum goong, which balances the tongue-tingling chili heat with good tamarind sourness and plenty of lemongrass.
There are tasty stir-fries of chicken or seafood, some adorned with coconut-rich curry sauces, others generously primed in Chinese style with garlic, ginger and soy sauce. Throughout the evening, appetizing and occasionally eye-watering clouds of smoke emanate from the kitchen to keep your appetite primed.
The chefs are less effective with the distinctive cuisine of Isaan, the northeast region close to Laos. Their som tum (green papaya salad) is neither pestle-pounded nor sufficiently pungent with fermented shrimp paste. And while the sticky rice (khao niyao) is served in the proper little baskets, it’s not adequately steamed. But these are only minor grumbles when it’s all so reasonably priced, with nothing on the menu more than 1,000 yen.
One final recommendation: the excellent pad thai, the stir-fried rice noodles that have become the de facto national street food. Too often these can taste more like limp Chinese fried noodles than the spicy, fragrant dish it should be. This in itself is almost worth a special trip to investigate Rak Thai.
If your daily journey takes you closer to Shinagawa than Gotanda, you’ll want to know that Rak Thai has two slightly smarter branches. One is in the basement of the new Grand Passage complex, on the Kounan side of the shinkansen tracks. It’s newer, brighter and more impersonal, and the menu is a notch up from the food at Pheng Roi.
The other is a 5-minute walk along the busy thoroughfare on the Takanawa side of the JR tracks.
Grand Passage B1, 2-16-5 Kounan, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5783-2036; www.grandpassage.jp; Open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-11 p.m. (last order 9:30 p.m.).
B1, 3-25-27 Takanawa, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3442-0677; Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-11 p.m. (last order 9:50 p.m.); closed Sunday and holidays.
Going where the Mekhong whiskey flows: Thai street food in Tokyo
In the gentrifying alleys of Ebisu, Little Bangkok provides a welcome dose of down-market cheer. It’s cramped and can get uncomfortably sweaty, but the food’s OK and so are the prices. Perch on stools at the counter (six seats) or at tables (seven); but on sultry midsummer evenings, the single outside table is the place to be.
Little Bangkok, 1-8-8 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3793-3026; Open: noon-2 p.m.; 5 p.m.-midnight; closed Mon.
More of a proper restaurant than a street stall, Phrik in Ikebukuro wins our affections for its authentic Isaan specialities, simple ambience and late, late hours.
Phrik, 2-62-6 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; tel: (03) 3984-7273; Open: 5 p.m.-2:30 a.m. daily.
Built into one of the arches under the Yamanote Line tracks close to Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho, Aroyna Tabeta is all the more welcome for its very central location and minimal decor. Wonderful simmered pork and fiery curries, cooked and served (and also eaten) by Thais, with set meals for a hardly credible 680 yen.
Aroyna Tabeta, 3-7-11 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5219-6099; Open: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Kao Tai, a basement diner just off the main drag (Waseda-dori) in Takadanobaba, feels as cheerful as a glorified Koh Samui beach hut — without the palm-fringed sand, of course — and the cooking is about on the same level. Who cares, when the Mekhong “whiskey” is flowing?
Kao Tai, Arai Bldg. B1, 2-14-6 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3204-5806; Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m.; closed Sun. and holidays.
Tinun is a cheerful hole-in-the-wall lunch counter that has nourished hungry Waseda students for more than a decade now. It specializes in Thai-style noodles and low-budget meals of well-seasoned curries.
Tinun Taikoku Ramen, 2-18-25 Nishi-Waseda. Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3202-1865; Open: daily 11 a.m.-1 a.m.