Story and Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, December 2019 Issue.
According to Tom “Nithid” Rochanakit, the owner of Café de Bangkok, in Thailand food is medicine, history, and even poetry. His face beaming with pride, Rochanakit shared the story of Thai King Rama II. Both a foodie and man of letters, the king was once so moved by a chef’s dish he wrote: “any man who has tasted the curry is bound to long for her.” Rochanakit’s passion for food is equal to that of the historic monarch. The finest Thai dishes were once reserved for the royal family alone. Rochanakit treated us like his own family, sharing both princely dishes and street food favorites.
Café de Bangkok opened last month in what was formerly the Thai Mint Café in Gilbert. The old restaurant’s sign was still there when we visited, though there was a banner indicating it is now the Café de Bangkok. Parking was no problem. The entryway featured pumpkins, scarecrows and other seasonal decorations. Entering the restaurant proper, the decor was more modest: flowers, bamboo, some old furniture and a few signs reading eat and home. While the front of the house is somewhat a work in progress, the food is delicious and beautifully presented. Plus, Rochanakit, his lovely wife and cute kids go out of their way to may you feel welcome.
The interior was surprisingly large. Catching the restaurant between rushes, we were the only customers for around 15 minutes. It felt a little awkward at first, but we were promptly seated and served. Both I and my dining companion were ravenous, so this worked out. Soon enough, other patrons started streaming in, adding a pleasant static of human chatter to the stately jazz background music. I suggest asking to say hello to Rochanakit before ordering if you’d like recommendations. He also goes by Nithid or Tom. We didn’t speak to him until after ordering and regretted missing out on his suggestions.
We ordered two Thai iced teas and the combo appetizers, one on the menu, to tide us over while we crafted a plan of attack for entrées. The teas came in extra-large mason jar glasses with handles. A beautiful sunset dipped behind the strip mall on the other side of Gilbert Road as we sipped our voluminous teas. Even more beautiful still was when our appetizers arrived. They came on a white porcelain tray centered around a little cast iron burner. It looked like a group of thin-skinned Arizonans crowding a chiminea when it drops below 60. The order ended up being more food than we expected, including chicken satay, spring rolls, coconut shrimp and chicken curry puffs. It was all so good that I was glad to have starved myself for several hours beforehand.
After some quick pointers, we got to work on the chicken satays. We heated them on our table’s little hearth. The sound of the meat sizzling brought big grins to our faces. We watched the juices bubbling on the surface. When the extruded fats fell into the flames, they popped with the scent of roasting meat. We both really enjoyed this dish, which was simple and well-executed. For dips, there were peanut sauce and a sweet cucumber sauce. On Rochanakit’s suggestion, we heaped generous portions of both on our meat sticks. Together they added savory and sweet notes to the fire kissed chicken. What made it even better was the entertainment value of cooking it at the table. It makes for a fun date night diversion, especially if you are DIY inclined.
We worked our way counterclockwise, advancing next to the spring rolls. Outside they had a delicate thin layer of crisp. Inside their texture was almost creamy. These were a good snack, especially when slathered in sauce. The coconut shrimp had a flaky breading. A strong fresh coconut flavor infused every bite of these plump sea arthropods. Last, but certainly not least, were the chicken curry puffs. These were a little like tiny, aromatic South Asian pot pies. The golden shells were doughy, crunchy and buttery. Inside there was a rich but subtle blend of spices. We took our time savoring each bite, so some of the items lost heat. I’m not sure if it really qualifies as a food hack, but we just plopped whatever it was on the little burner until it was warm again. If only every restaurant offered pint-sized barbeques on your table.
The menu also offers five salads and three soups. We didn’t quite have room this trip, but we’re already planning our return. When we do go back, I want to try the Som Tam Goong Tod, 26, which has a shredded papaya base topped with carrots, green beans, tomatoes and fried shrimp. It comes with a dressing made of ground peanuts and sweet chili lime juice. I also want to try one of the special Thai street noodle bowls.
Our eyes widened as our first entrée, the Pu Goong Ob Woon Sen or 39, arrived in its darling clay pot. It’s a stir fry of clear vermicelli noodles, fried shrimp, shitake mushrooms, celery and ginger. After the usual warning about not touching the scalding object, Rochanakit lifted the lid. A small cloud of fragrant steam exploded up and out. He explained the dish is still cooking in the pot and suggested stirring it before digging in. When we got to eating, our delight continued. Rochanakit explained he starts the dish by cooking the noodles in bacon and ginger to soften and flavor them. My mouth felt alive, gentle heats pulsating over my tongue and inner cheeks. The flavor permeated each angel hair strand of the airy noodles before they dissipated like clouds on a summer afternoon.
Next to the party was the Gang Ka-Ri Gai, 32, which was a yellow coconut curry with chicken, potato, onion and carrot. It comes topped with fried shallots and scallions. It was true comfort food. Its golden aroma really cleaned out our sinuses in a good way. We thoroughly enjoyed the dish. However, once Rochanakit regaled us with the history of Massaman curry, we experienced a little regret. This faded fast when we realized it was the perfect pretext for a return visit soon.
Rounding out the evening was the Rad Na Mee Grob, 54. The base of crispy egg noodles has marinated pork, mushroom, Chinese broccoli and carrot cooked with it. A soybean paste gravy sauce comes on top. It arrived glistening like a poorly written vampire in the sun. Though all that glitters is not gold, this dish proved as tangy as its vibrant appearance suggested.
When we left, Rochanakit and his kitchen had really made an impression. He sat with us and discussed all things Thai and Thai food. He excitedly scrolled through the Café de Bangkok Facebook page, sharing the stories of the customers whose pictures he posts there. This one is a man who gifted Rochanakit a book for small business owners. Another is a family who’ve eaten at Rochanakit’s restaurants for years. Their kid has grown up on Rochanakit’s fried rice and pad Thai, and he has photos to prove it. It may sound silly, but the little bits of interaction with the hotpot and burner really enhanced our experience. They’d be perfect for breaking awkward silences or initiating “accidental” hand brushes. Gilbert might be a schlep, but it’s one we plan to make again soon, and with a larger party.