I’m not on a quest for Thai food but, as mentioned before, at times spicier dishes are needed. As time goes by I’ve ended up associating other Asian cuisines with crisper, stronger tastes and a greater variety of vibrantly colourful vegetables than provided when dining at the majority of izakaya. No doubt that which is available is oozing with nasty additives, but the change is at times welcome.
Chao Thai, a small chain scattered across Shibuya (two restaurants, I’ve visited the Dogenzaka one), Ginza, Kawasaki and Yokohama, is worthy of recommendation. First off, it’s cheap and the food is plentiful. The menu is not only heaving but also supplied with an abundance of colourful “oishisou” dishes, described in Thai, Japanese and English.
Prices are exceptionally good, especially if you take in to account the quality of the food (fresh, tasty, reasonably well presented and a little fast-food-y without verging on family restaurant processing) and the quantities in which it is served.
The drinks menu isn’t going to excite a connoisseur, being filled with cheap and cheerful brands and a good selection of lethal tipples, such as the Vietnamese whisky. The two nomihodai plans, one for ¥1,500 the other for ¥1,800 (offering an extended choice) provide two hours of swilling that when combined with the low cost of the food affords the opportunity to become suitably inebriated and stuffed for under ¥4-5,000. Not bad.
The place is always pretty much packed. Booking helps, or arriving early, say before 7pm. The interior is nothing special, but does the job; clean, tidy, with a sprinkling of Thai art and bamboo without trying to do the “ethnic” thing. Service, all provided by real life Thai people is also okay, fairly swift and for the most lacking in surliness. The staff do get a little too snowed-under at times, and you might find your drinks arriving less promptly than they ought, but a nod and a wink, followed by a pat on the bottom (never) helps speed things up a little. Alternatively, you can just ask nicely.
There was a nicely spicy orange-red soup, packed with vegetables and served in a sturdy earthenware pot, that managed to maintain its flavour rather than packing nothing more than a hot punch to the tongue such as did much of that I ate at Krung Siam. Warming, tasty and not too salty, although a little on the greasy side to my mind, this was particularly welcome now that winter is taking hold.
Roast pork with the usual spicy Thai dipping sauce and piled with lightly fried garlic was both succulent and surprisingly light. No horrid fatty, gristly bits and certainly not dry in that awful re-heated way that the wise come to dread.
The Pak Bung Frie Dang (stir-fried morning glory with chillies, red peppers and something else) provides a good start in terms of vegetation. Makes you feel good, a bit like eating spinach, although less soggy and a great deal more satisfying.
A noodle-y, vermicelli-type dish packed with vegetables and squid was interesting, although the various tastes seemed muddled. The Popia Tod (deep fried spring rolls) are certainly robust, if a little starchy, and provide ballast which is probably much needed if you take on the nomihodai menu with any serious intent.
Rice never hurts, and the fried variety is fun in that it reminds me of post-pub “flied-lice” takeaways when I was still in high school. This one came topped with slices of omelette and tasteless cucumber.
Some delicious Gai Yang (barbequed chicken) strangely came once on the bone and at the second order as succulent slices. I hate eating with my hands, and love a bit of breast, so the inconsistency was no bad thing. As one of my dining partners has a fetish for tomatoes, we had some topped with onion and garlic in some rich, thick sauce. Not much to say about this but, as with everything else, plenty of it.
Equally enjoyable was the Hoy Shell Pad Nor Mai Farang, a nice mix of soft, not too chewy, stir-fried scallops, something akin to asparagus, mushrooms and peppers in oyster sauce. The Pad Thai worked for me too, although it verged on fast foodiness.
So where does Chao Thai fit in the ranking of those Thai joints so far posted? In the middle I’d say. Krung Siam seemed more authentic, and certainly the ingredients were better, but the food there was too spicy at the expense of the flavour. Siam Talart was better presented, probably healthier, but lacked excitement. All out do Kaffir Lime, but that's got plenty going for it in a different, funkier way. Chao Thai on the other hand is cheap and cheerful, providing plenty of no-nonsense satisfying dishes, booze and a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere at very little cost. Due to the large portions, ample menu, and cheap prices I’d suggest that in order to sample enough of what’s on offer it’s best to visit with a crowd.