Thai Restaurant, Smiling BKK.
I woke up the other day with an insane craving for flavour, taste, and spice. I felt like I had spent the last few weeks in a tasteless wasteland and I desperately wanted to remind my mouth what it was like to live and feel alive. I needed spices and layers of flavour; I needed my taste buds to bounce with nervous anticipation of the next mouthful of food. I needed to find an Indian restaurant and fast.
With an online reservation confirmed for the Mint Leaf of Jumeirah, (not to be confused with The Mint Leaf of London), The Serb and I made our way down into the mosh pit of diversions and construction which is Jumeriah Beach Road, happy to get lost, knowing such a reward awaited us at the end.
Arriving at the Jumeriah Fishing Harbour, it was eerily quiet, with the car park empty and the lights off. A lone security guard approached us and with him came a sense of impending doom. He informed us that everything was closed for the whole month. I felt my taste buds die a little at that moment.
In a city of over nine thousand restaurants, it is surprisingly difficult to find somewhere suitable to eat, especially when your mind is paralyzed with desperation and hunger and you can’t think straight. Despite the Serb being tired and wanting to choose another restaurant nearby, I decided to drive to another Indian restaurant in JLT instead. However, on Al Wasl Road, The Serbs loud yawning made me reconsider, and I spotted a suitable alternative that would satiate my insane quest for flavour.
Smiling BKK is a bit of an institution in Dubai, the first restaurant being in Garhoud, serving authentic Thai food in an over-the-top, tongue in cheek restaurant interpretation of what Westerners think Bangkok restaurants look like. If those westerners took a lot of acid.
Thai food is ultimately about balance; balance of flavours, textures, and complexity. Thai food will be sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy, and sometimes all of them at the same time. It is a complexity that if done right, harmonizes and balances in the smell, texture and taste of the dishes.
The same complexity and chaos can be seen in Smiling BKK’s restaurant design, but without the harmony. It is a Jackson Pollack canvas of craziness, a restaurant that revels in the madness it has created.
The exterior looks like one of those massage places that no-one ever admits going into, but everyone has a ‘friend’ who has been. Pulling open the doors, we entered into another universe.
Sitting at one of the black wooden booths, we were given our oversized menu. I think the menu was created during an Ayahuasca retreat, and you feel like you are on one yourself after reading the first fifteen pages. It is almost an out of body experience. Their menu is famous for two reasons – the sheer size of it (rumour has it, Bangkok’s Yellow Pages are thinner) and the inventive, somewhat eyebrow-raising names of dishes. Luckily The Serb’s sensibilities were protected as Dubai Municipality has also paid a visit, and the menu is now covered with black marker edits, boasting more censorship on its menu than 50 Shades of Gray had in the movie theatres.
The little restaurant was full, with a collection of characters, including several celebrities cardboard cut-outs, such as Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, (not sitting together obviously) The Rock and Gandolf the Grey. With so many celebs dining that evening, the waitress was obviously quite busy, so I was fully understanding of the 10-minute wait to place our order.
I started with a Thai iced tea, which was a slightly sweet tea, boiled to the precise point of stewing, then poured over ice with a dash of milk. It was strong, flavourful and refreshing. The Serb ordered a coke, which was sweet, brown and fizzy.
We shared the Tom Yum Gai, which is one of the world’s most famous soups. Tom Yum is a soup made with a broth base, lemongrass, kaffir limes, galangal, chilies and a fish sauce. It is the perfect dish to explain the harmony and balance that Thai cooking is all about. The limes provide the tangy sourness, and the chilies provide the heat and kick. The fragrant spices and herbs add the balance and the broth harmonizes it all.
Smiling BKK’s Tom Yum soup was like a perfectly orchestrated jazz band – playing in an insane asylum. Three spoons in and my cheeks started to sweat, and my mouth was tingling. It was exactly what I needed.
Halfway through the meal, two men walked in, had a quick look around and quickly left. I can only assume they were looking for a massage parlor and ended up in the wrong place. I’m also pretty sure I saw another customer try to start a conversation with Selena in the corner.
I ordered the Wax On, which is Guay Tiaw Kua Gai or stir-fried rice noodles with chicken, vegetables and egg. This is a famous street food in Thailand, and the best versions are when they allow the noodles to char and absorb the subtle flavours of a well-used street wok. Smiling BKK’s didn’t quite get that char, but their noodles were greasy chewy, sweet yet salty with bold flavours and tender chicken pieces. A very enjoyable dish.
The Serb ordered the Gold Finger or Kao Pad, which is Thai fried rice with carrots, spring onions, and egg. This particular dish differs from Chinese fried rice, primarily because it is from Thailand, not China. Also, because it uses a short grain rice, in case you were interested. The Chinese use long grain. This dish didn’t hit the heights of the other dishes for me, and I couldn’t grasp the ubiquitous fish sauce that should have provided more punch. The overall balance was also lost due to the dryness of the dish – I think they overcooked the eggs. There is a famous saying from the street-food stalls of Bangkok, “Dry eggs, dry rice.” OK, there isn’t – but there should be.
We left with our bodies satiated and satisfied, but our minds a jumble of emotion and confusion at the sheer obscurity and randomness of Smiling BKK. It is a confusing, mad-hatter journey down the rabbit hole. It’s crazier than a cat in a paper bag.
The best thing is that Smiling BKK are unapologetic about their ridiculousness and it’s no wonder they have such a strong fan base. They back their quirkiness up with some serious food.
If you haven’t been before, swing by and try it for yourself. Whatever you do, don’t take a first date there – they will either love it, and you’ll have to marry them immediately, or they will hate it, and you’ll never see them again.