It was mid-afternoon when we pulled up to the breezy lakeside restaurant in Ubolratana (อำเภอ อุบลรัตน์), Thailand (very near the famous Ubolratana Dam and about 50 km from the larger northeastern Thai city of Khon Kaen).
There’s a row of probably 20 restaurants, and though they were basically empty when we went on a weekday, I’m sure they get packed out on the weekends.
The restaurant we chose was called Ran Paan Kayk (YES, that is the Thai translation of “pancake,” and that’s the restaurant name possibly because the owner, or his child is named pancake – not because they serve pancakes).
The restaurants was constructed as an open-air bamboo long house hovering on stilts above the choppy lake and covered with thatch.
Dining ambiance doesn’t get much better than this!
Mats, low bamboo tables, small cushions, and a refreshing breeze off the lake added to the comfort of the establishment.
After choosing our table, a waiter took our order and disappeared to the kitchen (located up the hill a little ways).
Things began to further improve when this lady seemed to magically appear out of nowhere bearing gifts of tasty things.
In our state of relaxation we couldn’t resist purchasing a few skewers of eggs and a couple plastic wrapped plates of crunchy fried crabs.
The eggs, known as kai ping song kreung (ไข่ปิ้งทรงเครื่อง), tasted similar to a Chinese steamed egg – the yolk and white had mingled into a firm custardy like consistency that was lightly salty and peppery.
The crabs were fried through-and-through to a perfect crisp and salted just enough to make them addictive.
The first dish that emerged was a plate of fried chicken chopped into little bite sized morsels – think of a cross between fried chicken and chicken jerky.
The real bonus was the inclusion of deep fried lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves giving each bite a wonderful lemony fragrance.
Fried fish sprinkled with fried pieces of garlic was another dish we ordered.
Though the entire meal was delicious, the sauce, which I couldn’t help from dousing on everything, was exceptional.
Pounded chillies, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice and perhaps a bit of finely ground lemongrass where the main ingredients I could detect – and it was a blend that was balanced to perfection.
It was one of those sauces I wanted to drink like a bottle of juice.
The tom saap soup was a medley of fish broth, brewed with galangal, culantro leaves, and puckered up with lots of lime juice.
To make the meal even better I was given a Pokemon (or some other cartoonish character, tell me if you know) plate edged with baby blue and pink decoration.
Alas, in the Isaan province of Thailand, a meal would not be a meal without the addition of a plate of green papaya salad (som tam) – one of the best Thai dishes.
This particular version was quite a lot redder than usual due to the color of local dried shrimp and also our request of it being prepared on fire.
And though traditionally Thai green papaya salad would be consumed with sticky rice, for this meal I enjoyed it piled right onto my plate of steamed white rice.
The roasted tilapia (pla nin ปลานิล) didn’t emerge until nearly all of us were stuffed and falling into a dazed recline.
But with such a cute face and wide smile, he was begging to be eaten. The salted skin makes Thai style roasted fish easy to unwrap, revealing the moist flesh of the fish on the inside.
It was extremely fresh, I’m sure it had been plucked from the lake (or farm) just hours before arriving on our table. While sometimes tilapia can be a bit mushy, this guy was firm, flaky, and so flavorful.
The fish was served accompanied by soft khanom jeen rice noodles and peppery bai chaplu leaves – kind or like eating a Korean barbecue but with fish and noodles instead of barbecued red meat and lettuce leaves.
After the fish was scraped clean, I was so satisfied, I couldn’t do anything but lay back on the bamboo and rub my tummy.