Thai chef Alex Boonphaya's round-the-world quest to expand Philly's tastes

Food writer Brian Freedman followed the owner of Circles on a culinary tour of Thailand—and saw what happened when he returned.

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Feb. 12, 2014

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Searching for a dream: Alex Boonphaya of Circles. (Photo by J.R. Blackwell)

In Thailand, there is less distance between the flesh you purchase and the animal it once was than anywhere I’ve ever seen. As I walked through the Klong Toey street market in Bangkok alongside Alex Boonphaya, the chef who owns Philadelphia’s Thai restaurant Circles, we saw entire baskets of kidneys and livers glistening in the afternoon heat. Wooden rods hung with entrails—some still attached to neighboring organs, some divvied up into sections of lungs, trachea, intestines—looked like some kind of horror-movie design decision, a fleshy curtain hung against the intruding light outside a haunted castle. Fish, fried and grilled and fresh, lay piled on top of one another with rarely an ice cube in sight; pineapples and watermelons, hacked in half in half to display their perfectly ripe insides, sat shimmering and fresh while others were invaded by marauding armies of flies and worms. Rambutans and durians and mangosteens piled up like Eastern pyramids as women lifted machetes and lopped off the tops of coconuts to order. Just outside the food stalls, tuk-tuks—motorized rickshaws—spewed their gas fumes into the air, while, nearby, chicken carcasses were split down the middle, their eggs still attached and jiggling; frogs hopped desultorily in blue bins trapped beneath netting; and grub worms massed in oversized tubs.

In case it’s not obvious, almost none of this was refrigerated—and this was late June in Bangkok, a soupy time of year known for afternoon monsoon squalls and humidity levels that make you feel like scuba gear would be helpful. But Boonphaya explained to me that much of this—the meat and organs and heads, the hoofs and skins and unrecognizable bits and pieces—was fresh from that morning. Much of this meat had been living, breathing, sentient creatures until just hours ago, and these vendors wouldn’t close shop until they’d pretty much sold out. It was like a farmers’ market gone wild, stretching on further into the distance than you could ever hope to see. As a result, most of this food would be safe as long as it was properly cooked.

Still, there’s no way to avoid a moment’s hesitation before taking the first bite on that first day. Unrefrigerated meat in any climate, much less in the shimmering Thai summer, gives you pause, as well it should. And yes, plenty of visitors do get violently ill every year after eating unclean street food. But most of it, we found, is perfectly fine, and in any case we knew why we’d come: to experience authentic Thai food at its source. The risk of a bout of food poisoning was just part of what we’d signed up for.

Boonphaya, his publicist and I wandered through the stalls like mazes with few distinct points of entry or egress, over and through and around puddles from a sudden burst of rain; beneath electric-blue tarps hung overhead and heavy with water; alongside old women with missing teeth and young ones who seemed to have stepped straight out of a fashion shoot; among parents struggling to corral their young children, the universal frustration of doing so very much in evidence. We haggled with hawkers over prices that were already a fraction of what we’d pay at home. We bought livers and kidneys and strips of skin and watched them hit the charcoal-heated grill surfaces with a hiss and a crackle. We tucked into intestines all spongy beneath a crunchier layer of char. We demolished pork that tasted every bit as funky and earthy as its industrially produced counterpart often tastes dull and flaccid; each bite was streaked with a clear-orange sauce that walked a razor’s edge between sweet and sour and savory and spicy.

Our heads spun from the noise and the flavors and the explicit foreignness of it all. We struggled to keep up with dehydration in the heat, battling it with coconut water and juices and fruit.

Not once did the food make us ill. Many times, it made us giddy with delight.

Alex Boonphaya was looking for inspiration. Chefs find it in a million and three places, and there’s no telling when that proverbial bolt of lighting will strike. The recent death of renowned American chef Charlie Trotter, for example, has highlighted the importance of cookbooks, of absorbing the lessons of the late greats even after it’s too late to experience their food firsthand anymore. Other chefs glean insights from the community of peers in their own city, visiting other restaurants on their nights off, obsessively parsing the dishes of competitors and colleagues.

For Boonphaya, whose two Circles restaurants are located in South Philadelphia and Northern Liberties, the situation is a bit more complicated. After plenty of plaudits and awards, he’s found himself wanting to push the envelope beyond the generally accepted strictures of what Thai food is in Philadelphia to explore what it could be. Sure, we’ve got very good Thai restaurants here serving wonderfully executed dishes—and yet the range of expressions and variations seen on local Thai menus remains decidedly finite and familiar when you compare it to the explosion of increasingly specific regional cuisines that we’ve seen take place in Chinese, Italian and other restaurants in Philadelphia.

Which is why Boonphaya decided to head back home to Thailand last summer: to explore the local cuisines of the country of his birth and childhood, and to discover both inspiration and recipes that he could bring back home—to integrate them into the menu at his NoLibs location and, hopefully, to shape the new restaurant that he’s long hoped to open, as soon as he finds the right space.

Four months before his trip, Boonphaya’s publicist, Peter Breslow, called me up to ask if I’d like to come along on the journey and document the experience. So it was that, a full regimen of inoculations later, Peter and I were sitting in our seats on an Eva Air flight en route from JFK to our layover in Taipei, winging our way at 40,000 feet somewhere around the Arctic Circle. Thirty hours after leaving my Old City apartment—plus 20 milligrams of Ambien, more whiskey than we probably should have consumed and one viewing of The Hangover: Part Two—we finally arrived on the other side of the planet, slightly worse for wear but pumped full of enough adrenaline that the sleep deprivation really didn’t matter all that much. We had arrived in Bangkok, where Boonphaya had already begun his search for the authentic soul of the food of this storied land.

As it turned out, finding it would prove less of a challenge than bringing it home.

Street food in Thailand—something that particularly inspired and spoke to Boonphaya—is as ubiquitous upon the landscape as Buddhist iconography, and anyone who’s been there invariably comes back with tales of near-mystical experiences neatly contained in a bowl, of finding communion with the gods in a spoonful of rice overlaid with the minced pork of a perfectly made pad kaprow.

Those stories are not hyperbole. And it’s with this food, enjoyed at the side of the road, that the differences between Thai food as we know it in the States and as it’s eaten in its place of origin are most sharply defined.

In recent years, Thai food has seen a tremendous uptick in popularity in the United States, but, in many cases, for all the wrong reasons—or, rather, for reasons that fail to tell the entire story. With a few notable exceptions, the average American Thai menu is more or less interchangeable from its counterparts. Most restaurants serve very similar versions of pad thai, pad see ew and tom yum soup. There will generally be a sliced or minced pork dish of some sort, curries red and yellow and green, and, for dessert, if you’re lucky, slices of mango laid atop a mound of sticky rice.

In Thailand, however, from south to north, from high-end restaurants like the phenomenal Terrace Rim Nam and Sala Rim Naam at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok to casual affairs set up in ramshackle roadside stalls, the overriding sense of sweetness that defines so much Thai food in America isn’t to be found. In its place lives a savoriness, a sense of umami, far deeper than any I’ve ever experienced before. Umami is king there, the better to set off and anchor the other explosive flavors shooting across your palate like the rubber filaments of a Koosh ball, the sweet and sour and spicy sensations sailing above your tongue like warning shots across the bow of a ship.

You’d think that this could be easily translated into an appealing-to-Americans package in the States. But it’s not so simple. The problem is how that deep savoriness is often achieved.

In much of the world, especially the poorer parts, foods have traditionally had to be preserved using means other than refrigeration. We may look at our national birthright to own a fridge as a boon—and, in most regards, it is—but the major drawback is that we have not developed a national culture of, or taste for, dried or fermented foods. Keeping our food fresh via cold means we don’t really have a chance to experience the almost dizzying depths of savoriness that comes from fermentation, the swirlingly potent richness it brings to one bite of an otherwise perfectly ordinary ingredient.

These, then, are the secret weapons in the utility belt of Thai chefs and cooks all over the country: dried shrimp (kung haeng) and impossibly savory fish sauce (phrik nam pla).

Green papaya salad, or som tam, for example, is as classic a Thai dish as you’ll find. Thin strips of tart green papaya are tossed with fish sauce and chili and sugar, a scattering of peanuts and dried shrimp dusting it all. It’s a simple, refreshing way to start a meal, or to accompany a heartier preparation. And, with the exception of the fact that in Thailand there are seemingly infinite more varieties of papaya than we have access to here, the general gist of it is fairly consistent in our two countries—except that here in the States, the key component, the linchpin of the entire thing, is left out: those addictive dried shrimp.

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1. hungryman said... on Feb 12, 2014 at 03:29PM

“awesome feature!”

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2. ftw said... on Feb 14, 2014 at 01:03AM

“FYI the original Pok Pok is in Portland, OR but yes there is a nyc location now. Check out the Pok pok cookbook which goes into greater depth (and feels more genuine) on the subject of "real" Thai food.

Maybe Chef should drop his publicist/travel plans put his head down and cook? Too many Chefs cooking and looking for fame and not with heart. PS the whole article reeks of an advertisement for the authors e-book. Lame.”


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