It was my first day in Bangkok. I woke up in a jet-lagged haze, but I also had a rumbling tummy, and a voice in my head telling me not to waste any time. I rolled over to pick up my phone and read the many restaurant suggestions my friend and former colleague—also a former contestant on 'Top Chef Thailand' and now a chef in Bangkok—Steve Doucakis had texted me. One of them was the name Jeh-O Chula, accompanied by an address and a note saying, “You gotta go here.”
Outside, it was pouring rain—a hot and steamy July evening. I ordered a Grab (Thailand’s version of Uber), and headed out for an early dinner by myself. It was just before 6 p.m. when I pulled up to Jeh-O Chula. “How many?” asked a man with a clipboard at the entrance. “Just one,” I replied. I was seated almost immediately.
Inside, the restaurant was full, every table buzzing with groups of four or five. I sat down on a plastic stool at a metal table meant for four, and glanced at a menu entirely in a language I understood nothing of. I felt a little alone, and very foreign.
So I returned to the messages from Steve, and saw he’d written in one, “Order the tom yum noodles in the big bowl.” You know how to tell a place that's not touristy? The person taking your order speaks no English, and the diners are mostly local. The server came up to take my order, and I just knew I was going to be that foreign tourist. Even Google Translate couldn’t communicate what I was trying to say, so my waiter left to bring me someone who could help.
This time, we were far more successful. I told the new server, who spoke some English, what my friend asked me to order. He immediately turned the pages of the menu and pointed to something. He said what I wanted was a modification of that, adding that Mama tom yum—a dish I later understood incorporated the very popular Mama brand of instant noodles—was actually a special on the late night menu. I would’ve never figured that out on my own!
I grew up eating at Thai restaurants, so I’ve eaten, and enjoyed, tom yum before. I’ve always been partial to the aromatic tangy flavor of the soup, infused with Makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, chile flakes, fish sauce, mushrooms, and ginger. But I had never eaten it with noodles, not even in Thailand.
The bowl came out fast. A hot and sour broth with ramen style noodles, pork meatballs, mushroom, cilantro, and the lightest amount of coconut milk—all perfectly in balance. The slightly creamy texture of the broth, the hint of coconut, the firmness of ramen noodles ... suddenly, I didn't feel so alone spending the Fourth of July in a foreign country. I felt embraced, comforted, and nourished. It was everything my achy body needed.
I stepped out of the restaurant and onto the street feeling a little less foggy. The rain had stopped, and as I walked away, I noticed the restaurant had spilled out onto the street, and the wait to be seated was now well over an hour. I climbed into a tuk-tuk and made my way back to my hotel.
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The next day, I met Steve and we discussed my meal at Jeh-O and the food scene in Bangkok in general. “Because of its Michelin stars and being featured on shows like Netflix’s 'Street Food', Jay Fai (known for its crab omelets and the dramatic, cooking style of its goggle-wearing owner) is the street side restaurant that’s become famous to people even outside of Thailand,” he said, “but Jeh-O is famous to people here.”
In the following week, I would try to convince my friends in Bangkok to go back there for a meal, but there were far too many delicious things competing for our attention. I made my way through all the street food, the Chinatown food crawl, the trendy 100 Mahaseth, and later, the Northern Thai fare in Chiang Mai. They were all delicious and absolutely worth experiencing. But those tom yum noodles were what my thoughts kept returning to.
At the airport, before I caught my flight to Manila, I popped into a chain restaurant and found my final fix of tom yum noodles. It was all disappointment, a weak, flavorless broth that tasted nothing like my memory of it. It made me appreciate Jeh-O that much more. No other tom yum noodle will ever compare. And I’m OK with that.