– this trusty old kitchen has lost none of its charm –
On a recent taxi ride down Thonglor we were shocked to see that An An Lao, one of the trustiest oldie but goodies on the soi, was boarded up. Had one of our culinary nightmares (the other being Gordon Ramsey inspecting the contents of our fridge) come true? This family-run gem become a victim of Thonglor’s inflated rents and gone under? No, we were relieved to discover a couple of nights later, it has just relocated to a virtually unmissable, gleaming new location on Sukhumvit Soi 26, just across from K Village.
“Community malls have been trying to get us to join them for years,” reveals Khun Roongnanpa, the family matriarch who manages the place and whose sunny disposition makes it a much brighter, livelier place than it would be otherwise. “But that’s not us,” she chirps, “we are not microwave cooking. We need space and we make a lot of noise.”
They can certainly make a lot of it at their new location on the corner of the upcoming A-Space arcade. It’s massive. Gone is the intimacy of the old branch, but to make up for it there’s a lot more space, plus plenty of parking (a real problem at the original), a bigger kitchen and disabled wheelchair access. Still present and correct is the uniform of old-style Chinese cooking: big round banquet tables covered with red table cloths.
With its overhead strip lighting, you’d struggle to call the canteen-like setting pretty, but no one cares, a tribute to the quality of the food. An An Lao’s is a descendant of the food that has resulted from immigration in Thailand’s Deep South. Khun Roongnanpa and her Thai-Chinese family hail from Betong, a mountainous district in Yala province; and it is the not-too-puritanical style of homestyle Chinese cooking that they grew up with down there that has made An An Lao such a fixture among families, businessmen, expats, even celebrity masterchef McDang.
Since the big move, the menu has been bolstered by the addition of more seafood and Thai dishes (the family also owns a Thai restaurant, Baan Rap Rong, out near Suvarnabhumi Airport). It’s so sprawling that you could dine here ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty times and never encounter the same dish twice. That said, there are some signatures that we, and most regulars, order in as a matter of habit.
The steamed betong chicken is the one that no table spread should be without (and the reason why a backlit chicken logo looms large over the entrance). Served in a garlic and soy sauce, initially you’re taken aback by the toughness of the lean, free-range meat (KFC chicken this ain’t); but most are won over by its flavour and sinewy goodness.
Coming in a close second is the peking duck, which is An An Lao’s best seller (and loss-leader) due to its pricetag: B350 for the whole bird. On weekends, punters have been known to queue outside the door for one of these beasts, which are air-dried for two days before being roasted, and skinned in view of your table. And we can see why, as you get two dishes: a plate of wafer-thin, deep red skin served with steamed flour sheets, cucumber sticks and sticky hoisin; and the meat served separately in one of four ways, from deep-fried with garlic to stir-fried with bean sprouts.
Fowl isn’t the only thing that’s full-on delicious here. There are other, less lauded signatures such as the lightly wok fried, satisfyingly crunchy watercress in oyster sauce. There is also kao yok, thick slices of steamed pork belly interspersed with slices of just as thick taro. Doused in a sweet brown gravy thick with black bean pickles and Chinese spices, it’s a delicious, gratifying dish that we mopped up with hot, pillowsoft slices of mun thow (steamed Chinese bun).
Just when we thought things couldn’t get much better, we then sunk our spoon into a small bowl of the hua pla puak mor fai (fish head’s soup with taro). Dark and mysterious and clogged with chunks of tender (but bony) fish, this was one of the most densely flavoured soups we’ve tasted in a long while. Other honourable mentions: the goong yang (succulent, tender grilled river prawns from Ayutthaya); khao op nam liap (baked rice with salted olive); and, to finish, pu sa tod (a sweet, crispy jujube berry pancake).
An An Lao is already back on course, and “non-stop crowded” on weekends as Roonnangpa puts it. We can see why. Aside from the novelty factor of the dishes and the freshness of the ingredients (Roonnangpa likes to hit Klong Toey, the local fresh market, herself ), the consistency of the cooking is hard to fault. This probably has a lot to do with the chef, who is the same one the grandparents taught the family recipes when An An Lao opened twenty two years ago. Someone give the man a medal.
อัน อัน เหลา สุขุมวิท ซ.26
An An Lao, Sukhumvit Soi 26 | BTS Phrom Phong | 02-261-8188 | 11:00am – 22:00pm | www.ananlao.com
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