Amazing find? Overrated fluke? Sample Jok Tor Dieow for yourself.
TEXT By Percy Roxas
Photos By Kib Jarmmaree
Adventurous Thai foodies praise to high heavens the restaurant, which shot to worldwide fame via a TV show titled, “Bizarre Foods.” On the other hand, not quite a few, especially foreigners who come with very high expectations about the place, leave disappointed. Thus, our first advise to anyone coming to Jok Tor Dieow (Jok’s Kitchen to many): Keep an open mind.
The place is not easy to find even to those who’ve been in Thailand for a while. Hidden somewhere in Chinatown inside a small alley that doubles as a fresh food market, it is unknown even to most cabbies. The best-known landmarks near it are Yaowarat’s Phlap Phla Chai (police station) and the Chinese temple called Wat Mongkorn, but even if you have a map, you can still get lost unless you are with a guide who can ask for directions properly. The area just doesn’t seem to fit a restaurant that has been getting so many great reviews from all over the world.
When she stopped by a shabby place about 20-30m inside, I felt an urge to turn around. But then, she suddenly pointed her finger to the left side where a huge Singha beer poster and a six-inch sticker announcing Jok’s name shout in your face from a closed sliding glass door. “There it is,” she said. But that’s not where we are going. We walked farther inside an even narrower sub-lane this time, ending in front of another sliding door.
My eyes couldn’t believe what I’m seeing: a non-descript room, basic by all means, nothing fancy, just two round tables covered with red linens, a few worn-out upholsteries, and a small Chinese altar. It is in this windowless, if air-conditioned, inner sanctum that Jok – a fiftyish guy with a friendly smile – presents his much-talked-about culinary ouvre.
Jok, a scion of a relatively big Thai-Chinese seafood supplier in the region, hardly looks like your regular chef even with his white apron on. But as we said earlier, this is not your usual restaurant – even by local standards. Talking with him about the beginnings of “Jok’s Single Table” (direct translation of the Thai name) is a story in itself, but our food has arrived. We started with roasted ginkgo seed, garnished with sweet shallots deep-fried to their peak golden brown. Nothing particularly extraordinary in presentation but as you continue eating you realize it whips up the hunger pangs indeed.
Then came steamed shrimp wonton, which turned out to have a delicacy all its own. It was immediately followed by snow fish in Chinese soy sauce; our favorite dish for the night. The pan-fried fish was has that crispiness on the outside and a juiciness inside that makes the flavor explodes. Given an exquisite tang by the sauce, it made my jaw drop. But perhaps I’m just always partial for snow fish. The smoked roast duck looked so-so, until Jok tells you how it should be eaten. We didn’t realize there was a method to all this; in Jok’s relatively unusual dining concept, you eat whatever he makes. You don’t order. There is no menu.
The much-awaited steamed crabmeat followed – and from the first bite on, you realize why they say Jok serves the best crab ever. It tasted so fresh you could almost imagine the sea waves calling.
The rest of the dishes were not really impressive but my Thai assistant says she had never had anything more authentic. Somewhere inside, a voice was whispering: “This is actually what Jok Tor Dieow is all about: simple, uncomplicated dishes with authentic homemade Asian tastes presented in original, very personal way.” You feel like you are in his 100-year-old house, enjoying the meal as his personal guest. Just that after the meal, you have to pay for your food.
Our take? Not everyone will love his restaurant or his food, for sure – especially those looking for some kind of Michelin-star frills in their dining experience. But isn’t a dining experience always subjective?
Jok Tor Dieow could in fact be the average salaryman’s equivalent of the Chef’s Tables in five-star places today, except that many of its clients look very much like belong the high-heeled Four Seasons’ or St. Regis’ bunch. And that his food price is hardly average: The meal, usually a six to eight-course dinner, is priced at Bt1,000 or Bt1,200 per person at least.
I wouldn’t say it’s the best meal I’ve ever had although the crabs were simply awesome, but the experience is attuned with what one hopes to enjoy in Thailand: a bit unusual, a bit unexpected, even a bit weird. In general, service was polite, friendly, and helpful. I wouldn’t mind returning, if only to enjoy a rare, novel Bangkok dinner once in a while. If you plan on coming, make sure to call in advance because – as Jok claims — the queue is that long. Oh, and bring a Thai friend when you visit: Jok doesn’t speak English, and you might be rewarded with some of Jok’s interesting personal anecdotes as well.
Jok Tor Dieow (Jok’s Kitchen)
23 Trok Issaranuphab, Phlap Phla Chai Road |Pom Prap Sattru Phai, Bangkok