Last Friday, my friend and Trinitonian alum Kim Nguyen took me to eat North Thai cuisine, a type of food I knew nothing about. I had no idea I was about to consume one of the most delicious combinations of marinated meat, apples and white-hot spiciness I’ve ever had.
Baan Esaan, a quietly modern eatery right off of South Presa in Southtown, looks like a bar so heavily remodeled that the bar is all that’s left. All two of the servers sauntered between tables, dripping with sweat. We’d just missed the lunch rush on the restaurant’s last day of operation.
Named after the eponymous northeastern region in Thailand, Baan Esaan does not try to Anglicize its menu in any way. It took a very patient server (and the always patient Kim) to explain what each dish was, how it was served and the spiciness rating associated with each.
After frantic deliberation, I decided on the nam thok pork (thin strips marinated in a thick sweet-spicy sauce) with a side of apple somtum (granny smith apple salad with tomatoes). This came with sticky rice which, for the uninitiated, is a cylindrical lump of rice that is just the right consistency to rip chunks off to dip in meat juices.
The real treat in going to Baan Esaan, at least for a spice hound like myself, is the commitment to authentic Thai flavors. Not only was the pork deliciously flavored with chilies, onions and mint. You can order anything off of the menu at one of three spice levels: Mild, Medium or Spicy. Now, I know that most restaurants don’t really mean it when they say “spicy,” but at the same time I know Thai cuisine’s reputation for sending white boys to the bathroom, usually crying tears of spicy blood.
So of course, I told the server I wanted my nam thok Spicy.
Kim and I had to wait a while for our food to arrive, as there were still only two people keeping the other customers happy. Meanwhile, the owner, Albert Smith, emerged from the kitchen in a cloud of steam to shake hands and talk with the regulars. With the number of “it’s a damned shame” faces and shaken heads, Baan Esaan looked awfully well-liked to close. My confusion was answered when Smith, half-Thai and impressively bearded, came to share sentiments with Kim, a regular herself.
After excusing himself back to the kitchen after thanking Kim for her frequent patronage, we asked our server why the restaurant was closing at all. “Just politics,” our server shrugged. Apparently the victim of a real estate squabble gone poorly, Baan Esaan stands a good chance of reopening in some form or another thanks to its quality and popularity.
Finally, our food arrived. After my nose hairs singed off, I took a wary bite of the nam thok and was transported to some Lovecraftian horrorscape of flavor too spicy and delicious for my mortal brain to comprehend. After I returned to reality, Kim had finished eating. We mopped up my tears and departed, and I wonder if I’ll ever taste such flavor again.