Solid Thai food for those who prefer to be stirred rather than shaken.
A couple of years back I was fortunate enough to see a musician friend play Tokyo’s famous Blue Note Jazz Club. It was a great show, and afterwards we sat down to talk about how the gig went. As we ran through the set and talked about the players, I made some off-handed remark about how much I loved the opening piece – a wild, cacophonous explosion of sound, the likes of which is rarely heard at a Japanese club. “Yeah, the chaos,” he replied “it’s the one thing we’ll play like that in Japan. Back in the States, most of our set is like that. But after years of playing here, we learned that Japanese audiences don’t go in for chaos. Now we dial it down when we play Tokyo.”
Anyone who’s explored Tokyo’s so-called ‘ethnic’ food scene will spot the similarity to what happens when a Thai, Indian or even Vietnamese restaurant opens. Strong flavors, be they spices like chili or cumin, or herbs such as cilantro (coriander) are quickly brought down to a level more acceptable to the majority of Japanese customers.
Prior to visiting Old Thailand, we were assured that despite being part of a restaurant chain, their dishes were pretty authentic, and certainly the familiar ‘chili scale’ illustration (one chili meaning not particularly hot, three meaning pretty darn hot) suggested that we’d be swabbing our faces with oshibori in no time.
The lunch menu offers all the Thai standards, and then some. Khao man gai (boiled Thai-style chicken with steamed rice), kaeng khiao wan (green curry), and tom yam-flavored noodles head up the menu. Elsewhere, a ‘new lunch menu’ offers a green curry with shrimp and avocado, as well as a personal favorite – khao soi (noodles in a soupy chicken curry).
We ordered khao soi and pad ga prao kai (minced chicken cooked in basil) and were impressed when both dishes arrived in a matter of minutes. The khao soi was a pretty good approximation of what one would find on the streets of Chiang Mai, albeit somewhat oilier and containing the kind of thin ramen noodles which tend to clump together. Still, pretty good for a dish that many Japanese are yet to discover.
But it was the ga prao that dominated conversation. It was surprisingly bland, with none of the flavor we were expecting. Where was the promised ‘three chili’ spiciness? Clearly, this was a case of a Thai classic being modified to suit local tastes. Now, this isn’t always a bad thing (the Japanese have reworked countless foreign dishes to great effect) but here the result was mildly disappointing.
Old Thailand delivers plenty of ambiance, and the long lines suggest this is a popular destination for Iidabashi’s office workers come lunchtime. But if, like me, you like your Thai liberally seasoned with chaos, I suggest you ask ahead.
Directions: Turn left from Exit B2A of Iidabashi station. It’s 3 minutes walk across the bridge and on the second street to your left.
2-3-8 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku,
Hours: 11.30 – 15:00 (L.O. 14.30) and 17.30 – 23.00 (L.O. 22.00)
Rachael White reports from the 2010 Thai Festival in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.
Reliable Thai, only a few minutes walk from Shinjuku Station.
One of the quirks of living in Tokyo is that some types of cuisine are ubiquitous, while others are virtually ignored. There are numerous French bistros, Italian pizzerias and Chinese fast-food joints, yet finding a decent bowl of Vietnamese pho or Malaysian laksa can prove difficult. And don’t even get me started on the dearth of Lebanese or Moroccan food.
Thankfully, good quality Thai cooking is well represented. From the casual charm of Shinjuku’s Bankirao to the upmarket Mango Tree in Marunouchi, lovers of lemongrass and chili needn’t go far to get their fix.
One of the most popular is Plik chee fah. Hidden away on the 5th floor of an unremarkable building on the west side of Shinjuku Station, Plik chee fah serves up good quality renditions of familiar favorites – curries, noodle dishes and spicy salads. The restaurant is especially popular at lunchtime, when it packs in the crowds of (mostly) young professional women.
Like so many of Tokyo’s other Thai restaurants, this 5th floor loft space isn’t much to look at. Plastic tablecloths protect the furniture from falling debris and the window curtains appear to have seen better days. Nor does it stand on formality – although the soundtrack of Thai pop is for the most part unobtrusive, the same cannot be said for the widescreen television which gets switched on mid-evening. All this, of course, is part of the charm, but probably not ideal for that intimate candlelit dinner.
The weekday lunch menu (11 am to 3 pm) consists of a dozen or so ‘sets’, including standards such as kao man kai and tom yum goong, for under 1000 yen. On the weekend, the restaurant serves up a lunch buffet between 11 am and 3 pm. On a recent visit, the minced chicken and basil proved especially popular (I apologize to anyone standing in line behind me).
As one would expect, the dinner menu is more comprehensive. It contains all of the classic Thai dishes one usually comes across in Tokyo: pad Thai (1200 yen), fried morning glory (a tad overpriced at 1200 yen) and popia tod (spring rolls) for 1000 yen. There are also a couple of surprises: Chiang Mai’s signature dish, kao soy (1300 yen) and a wide selection of salads, including yam wun sen (spicy noodle salad – 1200 yen) and yam mu yaw (Thai sausage salad) for 1300 yen.
We decided to take things slow and to start with drinks and the yum wun sen. The waiter, however, had other ideas. Service was extremely fast. Our salad arrived only moments after ordering, and seemed none the worse for it. A riot of flavors accompanied the first mouthful. First sour, then salty, then sweet. The perfectly cooked texture of the squid and shrimp was impressive.
Next, we decided on the kao soy. Essentially a chicken noodle soup, the Chiang Mai original balances different textures (soft noodles/a crispy noodle garnish) and flavors (sweet coconut milk/spicy chili). We found Plik chee fah’s version went overboard with the coconut milk. Thick and glutinous, it was a little too sweet. This could have been helped by a dash of lime juice, but like many other South East Asian restaurants in Japan, a side dish of lemon substituted for lime.
If you’re looking for satisfying, unpretentious Thai, Plik chee fah will not disappoint. On leaving, the staff thank you twice, in both Thai and Japanese.
Now what’s “That was delicious” in Thai?
Directions: Plik chee fah (2) is located on the 5th floor of Meiko Building in Nishi Shinjuku. To get there, walk out Shinjuku Station’s Odakyu Exit and proceed down the hill toward Seibu Shinjuku. On the left side of the street you’ll see a large pachinko parlor. The restaurant is located in a small building in the street to the rear.
5th Floor of the Meiko Building, Nishi Shinjuku.