River grins from his unusual position, tucked into the broad arms of the policeman on one hell of a dinner break. Our son is surrounded, adopted, laughing raucously with the cops, their uniform jackets slung over the backs of the chairs to allow them to eat more of the feast before them. Love letters from happy customers are scrawled liberally over the white tiled walls of the restaurant and some terrible Thai soap opera overacts on the flatscreen above our heads. We are well and truly smitten.
73rd place doesn't sound like much to write home about. Not when you're in an egg and spoon race, a gymnastics tournament or a football league. But when you're talking about the rankings of restaurants in Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis with thousands of jaw-dropping places to fill your belly, it's a badge of absolute honour.
We'd been to Joke Phochana before, you see. Lori got here first, back when he lived in Bangkok. And then he introduced me, a few years ago, pre-kids, pre-mortgage, pre-responsibility. Just the two of us roaming the capital with money in our pockets, rather than rice cracker snack packs. And we'd been determined to go there again. After nights of hunting, we found it, right behind our hotel of all places. We're big on eating in different restaurants all the time, for fear of wasting a meal and missing out on a new discovery. But sometimes, you find a place that just works, and Joke Phochana was every bit as good as we remembered. So our new local was born.
An unassuming little joint tucked away in a narrow soi, a ten-minute walk from the tourist traps, Joke Phochana is an inside out kind of a restaurant. The diners spill out onto the pavements outside, as does the kitchen itself which is on full action-packed view, complete with foot-high flames and super-fresh produce. There's no hiding when you're Chef Lek, but he's not what you'd describe as either shy or retiring. Wearing a broad, infectious grin and a white headband like some culinary Rambo, he is a showman in his element. His stage is a glass cube, steamed up and hooked up to the great extractor pipe in the sky. On those steamy Bangkok nights, he alternates between chattering to us, singing to innocent passersby in an effort to seduce them into a meal, and conjuring up some of the best food that has ever passed our lips.
Over the course of our stay in Bangkok, we ate there five times, working our way through the wrinkled menu in its finger-smudged plastic sleeves. The clams became an addiction and we ordered them without fail, deeply savoury in a sauce rich with herbs and spiked with chilli. The tempura prawns were huge and wrapped in pillows of comforting batter. The tom yum came steaming hot and creamy with coconut, full of treasures waiting to be found by our chopsticks. And there's nothing to stop you wandering over to visit the ingredients and letting Mr Lek make you something that's totally off-menu. There were red snappers glistening on ice, crabs with their pincers bound in blue rubber bands, and grey shrimp, ready to spring pinkly to life in the pan. There were shiny tubes of bean curd, mountains of unnameable greens and dribbly bottles of every sauce under the sun. He had a beautiful fish for us one evening, which he steamed delicately and covered in lime, ginger and garlic, the juices running into each other on the faded floral plate. We could go on. But we'll let you find out for yourselves.
We read so many restaurant reviews in which the writer hesitates, playing the game, not wanting to tell us about their favourite place just in case it gets too popular. Not this time. This magician and his gang deserve a queue around the block. And your tastebuds deserve this food.
As every parent knows, eating with kids can be a joy or a humiliation, depending how it goes. But this is a place that's built on family. Mr Lek is the third generation of chef to take the reins, and he is surrounded by relatives who do everything from waiting the tables to refilling his pots of fish sauce and chilli flakes, tamarind and soy. They have his back, both physically and emotionally. It's a support network, a gang of people not just in tune with with each other, but actually enjoying what they do. Because they are home.
They're also not the kind of people to be fazed by kids. Two nights in, ours are known as "Miss Universe" and "The Big Boss". They've been teased, fed, played with and taken off on walks. Here, you can be as loud as you want, as messy as you want, as nosey as you want. Nobody cares if your daughter starts singing her made-up songs or your baby practises his new high-pitched squeals. It's fuss-free. It's rule-free. And it's fun.
One evening, as we doused ourselves in heat and herbs and other child-unfriendly delights, we asked the chef to make something for Olivia. And luckily for us, he made her a dish that he used to make for his kid when she was little. It's simple, it's fast, and she ate the lot. So here, from the nicest chef in Bangkok, is the recipe for a soup for our daughters.
Soup for a daughter
Serves one small person.
- Minced pork or chicken 100g
- A carrot
- Half an onion
- Light soy sauce 3 splashes
- Fish sauce 1 splash
- Sugar half a teaspoon
- Medium dried egg noodles one brick
- An egg
Bring a small pan of water to the boil.
Add the mince, carrot and onion and cook on an energetic simmer for 20 minutes.
Add three splashes of soy sauce and one splash of fish sauce, along with the sugar. Give it a stir.
Take off the boil and pour the soup into a bowl. Add the dried noodles and cover immediately with a plate for a couple of minutes.
Remove the plate, crack the raw egg straight into the bowl of steaming soup and serve. Your kid will think you're mad. And then they'll think you're brilliant.
Samsen Soi 2, Bangkok 10200
Phone: +66 (0)88 890 5263
Mon to Sat - 4pm to 1am