Six years ago, long before these chattering, loveable, hyperactive psychopaths we call our children were even a twinkle in our eyes, Lori and I went to Bangkok. I’d walked out of my job at Saatchis that day, jumped on a plane and turned 30 while drinking a bucket of Sangsom to Thai karaoke in the blurry depths of the Khao San Road. I can still hear that guy singing in my head. ‘Like a lolling tone’.
On our last night in town, Lori decided to finish a job he'd started half a decade previously. Because as well as being an art director in Rome, he was also a tattoo artist in Bangkok for a few months of the year. And Eak, the artist he worked with then, had taken possession of Lori's ribcage with a huge tattoo of Hanuman the monkey God. Every line was there, but the shading needed to happen. And happen it did.
It was a ten hour procedure, but we had an early flight back to London the next day, which meant there was no way of splitting it into sessions. It was all of Hanuman or nothing. Eak himself is one of life's quiet ones. Brilliant, methodical, slow. So while Lori sat under the bright lights in the air-conditioned silence of the studio, the needle jabbing him in the side over and over and over, I braved the hot noise of the crowds, entertaining myself by using up our remaining baht on the pedicures and massages of the Khao San Road.
Halfway through though, we needed to eat. And Eak, in his quiet way, knew exactly where to go. “You like pad Thai?" he asked. We nodded. And that was that. Eak took us to the legendary Thipsamai, a Bangkok institution that had been churning out the best pad Thai in town for fifty years. Back then, it was an unassuming little joint, a few tables, the portraits of the royal family looking down from the rough walls. The menu was short, but people were there for one thing and one thing only, a golden pillow of chiffon-thin egg on a plate, stuffed with a superior tangle of prawn and noodle. It was one of those meals worth remembering.
A few years down the line and life is looking pretty different. We’re parents now and though we try to fight it, the late-night dinner is looking less like a rock and roll temptation and more like a disaster waiting to happen. As wonderful as a 10pm tapas meal or a starlit feast might sound, it comes with the constant threat of tantrum or spillage, and sanity tells us to avoid it like the plague. It never feels great though, that early meal. It's still daylight, the place is dead and you get the feeling you're walking out just as the fun starts to walk in. Until now.
It turns out we're not the only ones that have changed since our last visit to Bangkok. Thipsamai has grown up too. Having expanded into a cavernous space in the capital's Ghost Gate, the fires start early and so do the queues. This is where parents of young children win. This is the place where it's not just necessary to eat early, it's cool. Yes, we, the nappy bag toting, baby wipe brandishing, eye bag carrying ones might (whisper it) actually be cool for once.
The queue is a subdued affair until 5pm, when the flames rear up and the army of expert pad Thai makers start their own brand of theatre, right there on the pavement where the young Ms Samai had started her business all those years ago on a single charcoal burner. There may be more staff now, more firepower, more polish, but the roots and the recipe remain the same. The thinnest layer of egg is run across the surface of a searing hot wok. The noodles, orange with shrimp oil and studded with bean curd and dried shrimp are dropped into the middle before a sharp flick of the pan seals the filling inside the egg. The chef slides it onto a plate and doesn’t miss a beat before starting the next. The whole process takes about twenty seconds, but running on a loop it is hypnotically entertaining for both us and the kids.
The quantities in this pad Thai may be industrial but the ingredients are anything but. At Thipsamai, they use Chantaburi noodles, dried in the sun rather than a machine. The shrimps are plump and fresh and everything tastes of itself rather than the ketchupy gloop present in so many poor imitations of this national dish.
We're ushered to a table and our order arrives fast, encased in its omelette, waiting for a chopstick to tear it open. This is what's known as a 'Superb pad Thai', and superb it is. As we devour one each, and share yet another, we realise that the pad Thai is actually the perfect family meal. It comes sweet and savoury, resolutely free of hostile green things and spice. But then it's time to customise, with the plates and pots that show up on every table. There is salt and sour and crunch and sweet. There is fiery heat and icy cool. There are raw beansprouts to scatter and sharp lime wedges to squeeze over or feed the baby for fun. There are crushed peanuts and fish sauce and chilli. And it's down to each eater how much they add, from the wimpiest child to the bravest adult, or vice versa. Our plates are clean in a matter of minutes.
As we leave, the woks are a blur, the sweat running down the faces of the chefs and the line snaking its way down the street. We jump into a tuk-tuk, bellies full and ready to read the Cat in the Hat for the ten thousandth time. We look back at the cool kids in the queue, heading out for dinner at what they consider a normal time. Bless them, and their two-hour wait. Tonight, it’s their turn to have a meltdown.
313-315 Mahachai Road, Samranrat, Pranakorn, Bangkok, 10200
Open daily 5pm-2am