BANGKOK — A tried-and-true Isaan restaurant almost 15 years old has opened its latest branch in tourist-and-expat filled Charoen Krung.
The eighth branch of Baan Somtum opened on Oct. 10 on Charoen Krung Soi 36 in the OP Gardens shopping complex.
A crowd-and-critic favorite, Baan Somtum’s Sathorn branch was listed in the 2019 Michelin Guide with a Bib Gourmand award, and it’s been open since 2005 with its first branch in far Western Bangkok at Phuttamonton Sai 2.
The Bib Gourmand is a value for money award, and we found the prices reasonable, with around 300 to 400 baht a head for a non-drinking party.
This Bang Rak branch is a two-storey renovated early 20th century wooden house with an outdoor garden dining area, suitable both for relaxed expats lunching over a plate of somtum and grandma sipping spicy soup in the cool aircon. Ask for a seat on the second floor to really appreciate the vintage wood beams.
Worthy of its name, Baan Somtum has 29 (!) different varieties of the spicy papaya salad. We tried the signature Tum Luang Prabang (75 baht), a plaa raa (fermented fish), Laotian somtum with thick, paparadelle-shaped papaya strips. The restaurant says it’s one of their most popular dishes, and claims to have sold 1.5 million dishes in their 14 years.
Even those averse to plaa raa should give it a try, since the somtum doesn’t have an intense stench like one might expect, and the pork crackling with it is delicious.
Non-spicy eaters will also love the sweet corn somtum (85 baht), with the salty egg yolk adding layers of flavor to the corn and carrots.
One does not eat somtum alone, of course – get a round of black sticky rice (25 baht) for everyone, as well as other Isaan food staples like the grilled pork shoulder (110 baht) with jim jaew and duck larb (115 baht), as good as any other Isaan food place. But rather than the regular grilled chicken found elsewhere, the grilled chicken with Sichuan pepper (80 baht) has an extra pungent kick we found lent the dish an exotic change.
Dishes less commonly found elsewhere but surprisingly delightful included the fried banana blossom (100 baht) with ajaad cucumber and shallot relish, which are reminiscent in flavor to onion rings due to the thick batter. The fried star gooseberry (100 baht) were also snack-like fried vegetables, served with a spicy shrimp-and-pork sauce.
Seafood dishes also didn’t disappoint. The deep-fried sea bass in sweet fish sauce served with spicy mango salad, or Plaa krapong tod naam pla (395 baht) is sure to be a family crowd-pleaser, with everyone fighting for a piece of the large-portioned, meaty white fish, drizzled with sour mango dip.
For a gritty, intense soup, try the spicy snakehead fish soup with puffball mushroom (125 baht). The sour madan leaves may make you squint with its tang.
However, some dishes are more for the niche rather than surefire crowd-pleasers. The stir-fried kanom jeen noodles (85 baht) topped with shredded pork was similar to regular fried rice in taste, rather than showcasing the fermented noodles.The sliced bamboo shoot salad (85 baht) was a pile of pickled shoots outshone by the other dishes.
The most challenging dish, sure to create lively division among the dinner table is the neem and shrimp yum (100 baht). The bitterness of the neem plant, when combined with the shrimp and yum sauce, is offset into a sort of medicinal dish that may appeal to the stalwart.
Pair dishes with a glass of sweet longan juice (70 baht), but the jujube juice (45 baht) may appeal to those wanting a less sweet, more herbal drink.
Desserts include the coconut ice cream (50 baht), which has a sorbet texture with cubes of coconut flesh.
The restaurant says their plaa raa has all been boiled and sanitized, so there’s no need to play the running stomach lottery like one does with somtum street carts.
If it’s not raining or terribly sunny, opt for outdoor seating among the mossy ferns, tall trees, and a bubbling fountain at one end of the garden.
Baan Somtum plans to open their next branches in Chic Republic mall in the Ramintra area in December, and another in Bang Na by early 2020.
Baan Somtum Bangrak is open from 11am to 10pm every day, and is located in Charoen Krung Soi 36, reachable by a 10-minute walk from BTS Saphan Taksin. Visit their website for the full menu and list of branches.
This review is unsponsored and based on a hosted visit.