We love how Klang Valley holds little portkeys to other places. Like how Suwarno brings you to a back alley in Jakarta and a step into Puduraya on weekends makes you feel like you're in Nepal, Myanmar and Philippines at different turns. The Charlie's current favourite portkey is Lai Thai, a nondescript kedai runcit tucked into the quiet neighbourhood of section 17, PJ...
A Chiang Rai culinary curiosity shop
AG-3, Block A, Happy Mansion, Jalan 17/13, Section 17, Petaling Jaya
Tel: 03 7954 4688
A superbly authentic Thai experience
Avoid lunch hour or you'll be stuck for a table
First up: my current absolute favourite thing to eat in the universe, their hot and sour spicy noodles. Since their menu is either in Thai or English (none of that romanised Thai for you!), I'm going to go ahead and assume the soup base is a tomyum of sorts. Devilishly spicy and addictive, this is the soup to slurp down when you have sinuses needing clearing. Bits of meat and liver slices float in the soup amongst the nest of skinny flat rice noodles, giving you perfect meaty bites. I dream of this often at night and wake up in a fervour, grabbing my car keys and heading to Lai Thai straight away.
Lai Thai doesn't serve stand alone tomyum, as it would require a lot more ingredients (seafood, special chillies, etc) and preparation. "Other places serve tomyum too, but theirs is very Malaysianised. Ours is thick and almost oily in comparison," Pi Un, the owner points out. "Plus, we also try to keep our meats to just pork and chicken." Seafood being a touch more expensive and hard to keep, and beef-free because of their Buddhist beliefs.
My old usual order is their stir fried mince pork with basil leaf on red rice, topped with a fried egg. Also known as pad ga prao, the heady scent of basil hits your nose even before the plate hits the table. If the cook hasn't accidentally over-fried your egg - which alas happens often during busy shifts - you'll get a glorious runny yolk mixing in with your rice. A match made in heaven for the lovely morsels of spicy minced pork just dying to get in your belly.
Mondays being their green curry day, we of course had to try some. Touted by many of my friends as the best green curry in Klang Valley, the delicious creaminess of this curry is pretty much second to none. Full of chicken pieces, eggplant and those little pea eggplants, each bite makes you feel like you're sitting in a Thai grandma's home. Other notable dishes include their som tum, freshly prepared to order with generous shavings of green papaya and peanuts. Their larb moo is also an adventurous delight - minced pork tossed with pork liver, intestines and rind, then mixed with a hot yet refreshingly sour dressing of fish sauce, lime and chilli flakes. I'm from the tripe-smell-like-wet-dog school of Tony Bourdain, but I wolfed this down quite happily, intestines and all. The lime really does seem to take the dampness away from the intestines.
We also tried their specialty, kueh teow nam tok. Thin flat rice noodles with pork balls and liver slices, doused in the heartiest soup this side of the border, thickened with pork blood. You ain't had Thai noodles til you've had this! Another specialty was a sort of Thai laksa, served with thick rice noodles similar to our laksa noodles called nom chin. Our bellies were way too full by then, but we're definitely coming back to try this northern Thai specialty soon!
They have other bits to entice you, like their permanent tray of homemade pork products. There's always at least one kind of sausage on offer (that day was their regular spicy pork sausage - flavourful and intense), there was also some sort of sweet Thai cha siu and Thai bak kwa, yummy to nibble on while waiting for your dishes to arrive. We barely had space for dessert after, but I've had Lai Thai's mango and glutinous rice before, and it does not disappoint.
Lai Thai is also a culinary curiosity shop. Shelves of Thai produce and paraphernalia (Thai gossip magazines, anyone?), chatter of northern Thai floating around you from the employees and the Thai soap opera playing on the telly (I didn't know you could get Thai cable in KL!) intertwine with the sounds of som tam being pounded and meat being chopped. If you face away from the entrance, you'll even forget that you're in PJ.
Pi Un, the owner of this wonderland, hails from Chiang Rai up in northern Thailand. At first she was helping her sister at the previous incarnation of this shop over in Pandan Indah. One of the main reasons they moved to this part of town was its proximity to the Thai Chetawan Buddhist Temple over on Jalan Gasing, and the shop has been quietly bustling every since.
If you're in the PJ area, do your belly a favour and make your way to Lai Thai. A ticket to Chiang Rai isn't cheap. A full lunch at Lai Thai is.