BANGKOK — Hidden in an alley not far from the city’s shopping district, this Isaan eatery is where country style grills get their charm.
For almost two years since it moved to the present location next to Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, Sanea is no secret to most Chula students who would come to this smoky shophouse to burn their tongue after long hours of lecture, or get their stomach filled before hanging out at a grungy bar next door.
While the shop is officially called “Sanea Larb Koi,” it is best known for grilled beef dishes instead of the spicy meat salad and the Isaan version of beef tartare that gives the shop its name.
The signature Suea Rong Hai is a thinly sliced brisket of beef served with jaew sauce. These tidbits are cooked to well done, but they are tender and juicy. Grilled dishes are made to order at one of the five charcoal stoves in front of the shop, which occasionally spew some smoke into the open-air interior.
Legend has it that the dish’s name, literally “crying tiger,” comes from the tale of tigers crying because they couldn’t reach this tasty cut of meat, enclosed by the rib cage.
Things get more exciting when one dares to venture into the exotic dishes down the menu. Koi lends a similar spicy and sour taste to a regular larb, only that the beef is raw. The tuna sashimi-like raw beef is deodorized with a medley of herbs and topped with a generous sprinkle of crunchy khao khua toasted rice.
More unfamiliar names inviting thrill seekers include Soi Ju (raw unseasoned beef to be dipped with jaew sauce) and Pha Break Yang (grilled beef trachea). These dishes are rare finds at most Isaan restaurants in Bangkok due to a modern taboo against eating uncooked beef and offals.
The food here tends to be more salty and spicy than the sweeter flavors cherished by Bangkokians, though they are not that heady.
Isaan classics such as som tum, larb, nam tok, tom saab hot and spicy soup, and pork dishes are also available. Everything here is priced at 80 baht.
Beloved by Cabbies and Students
Khon Kaen native Sanea Bandasak, 40, founded this down-to-earth eatery eight years ago.
Before it was discovered by students, the shop used to be a popular pitstop among taxi and tuk tuk drivers when it was on the curbside of Rama I Road. Only larb and koi were offered back then, hence the shop’s name. Sanea also added his own name, meaning “charm” in Thai, to the sign.
The eatery serves many more dishes now, but Sanea decided to keep the name along with the shop sign painted by his wife the very night they opened the shop.
Students started coming about two years ago after the shop moved closer to their campus at the present location on Soi Chulalongkorn 20. They made up about 80 percent of the customers, Sanea said.
Sanea himself cooks almost all of the dishes. Apart from being the chef, he also takes delivery orders via a bluetooth earpiece, collects money from customers, and brings out delivery orders by himself.
While taking on all these roles may be onerous, his wife said it’s a secret that bonds Sanea with his customers.
“I think the customers keep coming back because they like Sanea’s kindliness. It’s the sanea of this place,” Nanthida Bandasak said.
Sanea Larb Koi is open everyday from 5pm to 2am. The restaurant is located on Soi Chulalongkorn 20 and is reachable via a 15 minute walk or a motorbike ride from BTS National Stadium or MRT Sam Yan. Delivery orders can be placed on LINE Man.
This review is unsponsored and based on an unannounced visit to the restaurant.