Surveying the embarrassment of riches in ‘Holy Basil City’

Editor’s Note: Permanently Closed.

COCONUTS CRITIC’S TABLE – There’s a memorable scene in The Simpsons in which Homer, having sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a single donut, is sent to hell. He finds himself tied to a chair in the “Ironic Punishment Division.” “So! You like donuts, eh?” a blue demon sneers at him. “Uh huh,” says Homer. “Well! Have all the donuts in the world!” cries his would-be tormentor, cackling as a devilish contraption starts forcing donuts down Homer’s throat, four at a time. (The demon is frustrated, of course, as daddy Simpson eagerly swallows every single donut that comes his way – then demands more.)

I was reminded of that scene when I first came across Kaphraoburi, a new joint that opened on Ari Soi 2 at the end of last year. “Kaphraoburi” means “Holy Basil City” and, as you may have guessed, this restaurant deals almost exclusively in phad kraphrao (fried with holy basil) dishes. In fact, there are 30 varieties on the menu, ranging from the prosaic (chicken, pork, tofu) to the unusual (“tender stewed fore shank”) to the downright weird (pig’s ear). In this sparsely decorated mess hall, diners eat together at a single room-length wooden table, united in their love for phad kraphrao. Holy basil indeed.

Ordering goes like this: You choose one of the 30 proteins. Then you select carbs (rice, vermicelli, egg noodles, instant noodles, spaghetti) and whether you want them fried with your meat or served on the side. You can choose between “classic” and “extra spices,” which adds a sprinkle of cumin to the pan. Lastly, you choose whether or not you want egg and how you want it cooked (soft-boiled, fried, plain omelet, pork omelet, shrimp omelet). If my calculations are correct, that’s 3,600 possible fried-with-holy-basil dishes. So! You like phad kraphrao, eh?

You could dismiss all this as a gimmick. But that’s hardly likely to do Kaphraoburi any harm in this sanook-loving city. Witness the popularity of Dine in the Dark and Mr Tinkle’s Bedwetter Bakery, or whatever it’s called. And if any Thai dish deserves this kind of reverence, perhaps it’s phad kraphrao. When the dish is made with ground pork and served with a perfectly fried egg, it can scarcely be beaten. It’s rough and ready, yes, but also such a satisfying plate of unctuous, spicy goodness. Fabulous also as hangover food, I’d call it Thailand’s answer to the sausage and egg sandwich. And I mean that in the most complimentary way. There are more sophisticated, more quintessentially Thai candidates for the best dish in the Thai cooking canon, but phad kraphrao may well be my favorite.

So how’s the fare? Let’s consider the classic ground pork version (THB48), which comes artfully arranged on a rectangular plate: phad kraphrao as chi-chi yuppie food. Happily, the pork is nice and fatty and there’s a ton of garlic in the sauce, which I approve of. Is this the best phad kraphrao muu you’ll ever eat? Perhaps not. But it’s a respectable rendition nonetheless.

Kaphraoburi only really comes into its own when you order the more unusual variations. To the true flavor-hound, I recommend the deep-fried mackerel topped with ground pork variety (THB78). This dish unites two delicious staples of the Bangkok street on one handy plate, and should therefore be saluted – for services to the palate, if not to public health. The roast duck variety (THB75) is similarly enjoyable, though better still is the stewed beef shank (THB75). Here, you get pieces of the tender beef you often find in bowls of kuaitiao, but fried up with basil, garlic, chili, oil and soy sauce. It works a treat.

A couple of reservations: First, the portions are small considering you’re paying the best part of 80 baht for most of these dishes once the eggs are factored in. And on more than one visit, I ordered my fried egg “mai suk” – literally “not cooked” but generally accepted to mean “with a runny yolk”. And guess what? – the yolk, which was half-cooked, failed to spill gloriously over the rice, as it should. Is this forgivable in a restaurant in which fried eggs are, so to speak, the bread and butter? (This also raises a question I’ve long pondered: Is it acceptable to request a new egg when, despite ordering it runny, it arrives overcooked? I went through a period of doing this a few years back. Friends would look at me as you would an embarrassing relative – a racist grandparent, perhaps. Lord knows what the waiters thought.)

Kaphraoburi is probably not worth a trek across the city. But if you’re in the Ari area and looking for a quick bite, it deserves a visit. Will the gimmick grow tiring? I suppose it depends on how much you like phad kraphrao. I’d sell my soul for a plate.

Coconut’s Critic’s Table reviews are written based on unannounced visits by our writers and paid for by Coconuts Bangkok.


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