Different senses drive our desire for food. My husband is usually most driven to eat by his sense of smell. I can lose him almost anywhere in Thailand down a seemingly insignificant, tiny soi, as if pulled by an irresistible fragrance, like you see in cartoons.
Me, on the other hand, I eat with my eyes, and I have to say I was very happy with the dishes I sampled for lunch at @Phrae. I was content to sit while chatting with Armando and just feast on them with my eyes, they were so lovingly presented, with a riot of colour and careful placement.
@Phrae is owned by Khun Saowanee, a native of the mountainous province of Phrae in Northern Thailand, some 550 kilometres by road north of Bangkok. She opened the restaurant in Khao Takiab in June 2020, just over 2 years ago, out of a desire to keep doing something productive and helpful at a time when Covid was forcing people into isolation.
The food she serves is food both she and her husband Armando love. An Australian by birth but with a heritage which encompasses both Latvian and Italian cultures, he chooses to spend his life now in this country where he feels so at home. Not surprising really, when his wife is such a wonderful cook, and this is where her heart clearly lies.
Saowanee and Armando have lived and worked in many places and she has had extensive experiences in cooking a variety of cuisines. I was astounded to find that a little family restaurant in Khao Takiab is run by a lady who lived just a few stops up the trainline from me, in Sydney, Australia for 18 years. It certainly is a small world!
But for her restaurant, Saowanee has returned to her roots and cooks food from her childhood. She does it very, very well too. I despair when I hear of people equating great food with expensive prices, especially in Thailand. Sure, if you want the 5-star dining experience with the white linen tablecloth and the napkin carefully draped over your lap for you, then even in Thailand you will pay. You are paying for the ambiance, the staffing, everything else, not just the food.
However, some of the tastiest and most authentic food I have eaten in Thailand has cost me less than $10 Australian a head (about 240 baht), sometimes considerably less. Price is not a true guarantee of the best food in Thailand. Some of the signals that you are in for a treat are a crowded restaurant, a thriving take-away business with food delivery drivers stacked at the front, a kitchen floor which sparkles with its cleanliness and ingredients which have obviously been sourced direct from the market within the last 24 hours.
Using those things as signals, I knew I was in for a tasty time and I was not disappointed. The menu is not very extensive, with a total of 10 dishes, but they are all executed to a high standard. The beef khao soi was luscious, with a generous serving of meat in a thick, coconutty sauce with all the usual accompaniments: mustard greens, shallot, fried noodles, shredded cabbage and a cheek of lime. I could both smell and taste the richness of the star anise in the dish. Tasty indeed, and accessible to all, irrespective of a stated inability to “do spicy”. Chilli oil was in a jar on the table for those who enjoy the burn.
Another dish Saowanee is particularly proud of is her khanom jeen nam ngiaw, a dish that draws on the cuisine of the Tai Yai people who live across NE Myanmar, Yuannan in SW China and Northern Thailand. It is a curry noodle soup famous across Thailand, its ingredients including chicken blood (leuat kai). Although I admire the nose to tail philosophy of eating so much of Thai cuisine espouses, I am not usually fond of dishes using blood, but this was in cubes and so avoidable. My husband is always keen to eat anything I leave in the serving bowl anyway.
My favourite dish was the laab. Although we told Saowanee we liked spicy, I think our western looks were enough to convince her to go a bit more lightly with the chili than she does for her Thai customers. That said, it was delicious and fried to a crumbly texture that was very pleasing to the mouth. Clearly, Saowanee is able to modify her dishes to suit the tastes of her customers, you just need to ask. She even has a vegetarian salad option.
You can dine in, a pleasant experience on even a very warm day because of the strategically positioned fans in the dining room as well as the cross ventilation from the front to the large window on the back facing the inlet. Alternatively, you can choose to order in advance and then pick up yourself or choose from one of the many available delivery options, but please remember, these cut into the restaurant’s profits, so if you can avoid these, I would encourage patrons to do so. I hope you get to enjoy @Phrae as much as I do.
@Phrae is open from 8am till 4.40pm, from Tuesday to Saturday, but it is better to be early in case Saowanee sells out, as can happen, particularly at the weekend and on busy holidays.
@Phrae – 22/18 Huadon, Nongkae, Hua Hin
Phone – 061 681 9973
Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/scbfH9ZwEApPWxVW8
@Phrae w3w: ///marigolds.satisfy.ballots