When friends were in town from Iraq, I wanted to take them to a unique restaurant to celebrate a reunion meal. This was especially since this couple wasn’t unfamiliar with Bangkok. As a matter of fact, they had also lived on the palace grounds where they were force-fed royal Thai food. Since the time when we all lived in close quarters, they had not only moved to the middle east and began learning Arabic, but had also become parents. While their son slept, I strategically arranged a babysitter and kidnapped mom and dad to Soul Food Mahanakorn (SFM).
A Soul Food Restaurant in Bangkok? Well, sort of…
People ask this question all the time when they hear the name “Soul Food Mahanakorn” — lurching out their seats in disbelief when they hear soul food. Few bothering to meddle with the final word, Mahanakorn, which abbreviates succinctly all the city of Bangkok has come to mean. It’s possibly the Thai speaker in me coming out, but personally the term embodies a city of contradictions, characterized by it’s affinity for embellishment and tireless hedonistic pursuits. And with a sleek, tenebrous wooden interior and art hung from the walls recounting street food experiences, you’ll find yourself bound between the traditional and the cosmopolitan.
The restaurant’s Thai soul food is as uniquely strung, but maybe not at first glance. I’ve been making sporadic visits to SFM since the restaurant opened and haven’t written much about the place. In the same way it’s taken me years to dissect Bangkok, perhaps three or four years on, I’m just understanding SFM. Or maybe the pressure of having everyone in the city writing about the venue, is alleviated since many are now distracted by the owners more recent restaurant endeavors. Either way, I’m more comfortable with the menu’s complexity and contradictions than before.
I never really bought the common explanation of SFM being a place where you could safely sample Thai street food dishes. Bullshit. While some dishes are high end reincarnations of food you can find on the street, many of the most enjoyable dishes, wouldn’t be considered street food anywhere in Thailand. The fragile, smoked eggplant (ยำมะเขือยาว), the rarely seen banana leaf salad (ยำหัวปลี), and any of the rich curries which are permanently on my must order list, ain’t exactly grab and go fare anywhere. (Sidenote: Even Thai food experts would agree the appearance of such dishes might happen to make a rare appearance at your favorite kow gaeng spot, but these unpredictable occurrences are never the experiences people hope to invoke when they suggest reasons to eat at SFM.)
Forget your wimpy *ahem* I mean wishful thinking about street food when you come here. The menu instead is a best hits compilation of Thai and Thai-influenced favorites, slyly retold from an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps to suggest this when the restaurant first opened would mean engendering rancor from the Thai food gatekeepers. Instead, writers and Tripadvisor reviewers have wrapped a wide ranging menu, highlighting flavors across the country — from Southern Thai, Malay influenced samosas to a Northern Thai nod to Burmese influenced gaeng hang lay curry (แกงฮังเล) — into a narrow, safe, and overly simplistic experience.
Bangkokians and the central provinces are placated with the ever popular Australian lamb grapow (ผัดกระเพราแกะ) and to vary from the delicious usuals, a few ambitious specials are offered. On my last visit I couldn’t resist trying nam ngiew (น้ำเงี้ยว), a northern mix of noodles, congealed blood (not in this version) and dried flower blossoms, but was disappointed with the overall flavor of the dish.
At Soul Food Mahanakorn you’ll be indulged in an urban and uniquely Bangkok experience. It won’t, however, help you achieve your Thai street food merit badge. But if you’re open to experiencing hard to find Thai dishes, re-examining what belongs on the table together, and bolstering the quality of common Thai ingredients, adapting to this dinner time change of pace just may signal you’ve finally figured out what the soul of the city of angels is all about.