11 March 2016

Hong Kong gem captures flavors of Thai street food

There are secrets you can treasure keeping to yourself, and there are secrets that, it turns out, everyone seems to know.

In Hong Kong, the latter is the case with Chachawan, a small Thai eatery in the Sheung Wan area that looks a bit seedy at first glance. Look again, however, and a hidden gem is revealed: Expect to wait for a table on a weekend night, as seating is first-come, first-served, no reservations.

What's so special about yet another Thai restaurant?

For one, Chachawan doesn't try to do all regions of Thai under its small roof. The fare is from the Isaan area of the country's northeast, and the menu promises "a raw, down-to-earthiness about it rarely found in other regions of Thailand". The simple, clean flavors of grilled meats and raw vegetables shine through the hot and sour flavors in dishes modeled after the country's famously delicious street food.

My host at dinner is a former waiter at the restaurant. When David and I arrive I feel I'm riding the wake of a celebrity, but the friendly staff is just as chatty with other patrons, most of whom seem to be regulars.

We're seated at the last open table, nearly elbow-to-elbow with our neighbors. A rouge-cheeked deity looks down on us placidly from the mural on the wall behind us. The decor also includes vintage Chinese posters and a sign featuring a dinosaur in the shower. It's ghetto-chic, East-meets-West, artsy and gritty all at once, and somehow it comes together in hip harmony without feeling like the interior designer is trying too hard to be cool. A lively soundtrack almost overwhelms any chance for conversation but give the place the fun vibe of a college bar.

We start by ordering a couple of drinks from the bar specials. Madame Roselle combines the hibiscus flower also known as jamaica with calamansi shaken with vodka, rhubarb and mint. The TT margarita, "a Thai twist on a Tommy's margarita", is good edgy fun with Thai lime, Thai tea agave and ocho tequila with a chili-sugar rim.

Chili is going to be a recurring theme here: The kitchen will tone down the spice if you ask, but I'm advised that all dishes should be enjoyed with rice. Chachawan means "sweet, sweet love" in Thai, but under this roof love is hot and spicy.

We immediately order pla phao glua, because this salt-crusted seabass is "a must-order" here and it will take 25 minutes to prepare. It's well worth the wait: The fish is stuffed with lemongrass, pandana and lime leaf, cooked over fire and served with a chili sauce. We also pick a spicy green papaya salad studded with dried shrimp and fresh prawns in a light sweet-and-sour tamarind dressing, and gai yung - a chicken thigh pounded flat and marinated for 24 hours in garlic, pepper and coriander before it's grilled crispy outside and wonderfully juicy inside.

Options for sides include jasmine rice, a wok-fried rice with crabmeat, egg and spring onion as well as an omelet with crab, spring onions and sriracha sauce - the indispensible Thai condiment made from chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. As our table was getting crowded and we had plenty of food for two, we opted for bowls of steamed Thai sticky rice.

To end with a sweet note, we sampled the crispy Thai banana pancakes, which were tasty but lacked the surprise element I'd enjoyed in earlier dishes. Other dessert options include mango with sticky rice - reliable if even more predictable - and warm coconut rice dumplings served in a salted coconut cream, and fresh coconut ice cream served with toasted peanut and sweet corn.

Online reviews rave over the curry shrimp, whole tiger prawns smothered in dry red coconut curry and grilled with pickled ginger and lime. Grilled squid, which smelled divine as it landed on the next table, and cocktails named Free Love and Pomelo Smash may also demand a return visit.