Wandering into Bangkok’s bustling Arab district (around Sukhumvit soi 3-5, just across the road from the sleazehound mecca of Nana Plaza) really is like entering another country – the shop signs are in Arabic, the smell of shisha smoke fills the air, and you feel rather inadequate for not having a moustache. If you suddenly woke up here with no idea where you were, you’d assume it was Cairo or Casablanca.
And what draws those of the non-Arabic persuasion into the area is, of course, the food. Arab food marries the spice and flavour of the east with the gut-busting portions of the west, while also possessing plenty of dishes in its repertoire for healthy eaters and vegetarians. So as we were dining with a French-Tunisian friend and his veggie girlfriend, we headed up soi 3 to our usual haunt for all things Middle Eastern – Bamboo Lebanese Restaurant.
Bamboo is a veritable institution, a refreshingly ungentrified cave of a place in a city rapidly being taken over by overpriced, undersized hipster food. It’s unapologetically un-touristy – you won’t find oriental rugs, grinning waiters in fezzes or belly dancers here; just dark walls, scowling waitresses, and surly, moustachioed men smoking shisha and sipping mint tea. In other words, a totally authentic Middle Eastern diner.
Unlike many Arab restaurants, Bamboo puts customer satisfaction before adherence to a 2000-year old story book, and has beer on its menu. However as I’m on one of my occasional abstinence binges, I opt for a lime soda before diving into the starters – a plate of tabbouleh, heavy on the parsley; big bowls of hummus and baba ganoush; delicious yogurt & falafel pie; and of course plenty of nan bread to mop it all up.
We’re already starting to feel full when the main courses arrive, and soon realise that ordering two plates of Bamboo’s legendary mixed grill – two skewers of chicken, two of lamb kofta, one of beef – was somewhat over-ambitious, especially as it’s accompanied by a quesadilla-like dish of thin, deep-fried pitta bread stuffed with minced beef, the name of which escapes me now. But it’s so spectacularly tasty we give it a good go and by the end only one skewer of lamb kofta remains, which is reluctantly doggy-bagged up by our glowering waitress.
We round off with refreshing glasses of mint tea, which takes me back to a memorable business trip to Cairo in 2000 where I drank several glasses of the stuff every day, before paying up (1265BHT for four people – an absolute steal) and making our way out through the restaurant’s stygian interior back to the bright lights of Sukhumvit. On the way home we share the remains of our meal with two friendly dogs who live in a carpark off soi 16 – they’re supposed to be guard dogs but they’re anyone’s for a lamb kofta. As am I.