Bangpo Takho Seafood on Koh Samui is Worth the Trip31 Jul 2014
Koh Samui, the largest of the three main tourist-packed beach islands in the Sea of Thailand is relatively well known as a food destination, or at the very least a great beach destination with good food. This is true, provided you reall really love the same tourist-slammed grilled seafood restaurants you find on every single tropical island or European seaside city in the world (complete with iced display case), or maybe the same Irish pubs serving burgers and fries you find in every single tourist neighborhood in the world, or perhaps the same "unique fusion" restaurants trying hard to be cool.
But if you're looking for a local cuisine with any kind of culture or soul behind it, you're going to be in trouble. We finally found it on the last day of our four night mini beach vacation-within-a-vacation.
Adri and I stayed on the quieter north side of the island, far from the sun and house music-drenched soft sands of Chaweng beach. We spent our time doing four things: lazing in the private outdoor, ocean-view whirlpool tub we managed to score through a lucky upgrade;* swimming up to the poolside bar during happy hour for underpowered tropical drinks and overpriced beers; picking along the coarse sand, watching our feet for the shards of dead coral that lie around like land mines; and puttering along the pothole-pocked roads on our rented moped in search of good things to eat.
*Don't you just love it when something in your hotel room is broken, every other room is full, and they have no choice but to transfer you to the nicest room in the house?
Among the best meals we had: an impromptu picnic on the beach featuring slightly warm Leo beer and gai yang (Thai-style grilled chicken) with som tum (spicy pounded green papaya salad) that we ate out of the cellophane clamshell to-go container it came in from the roadside. A couple of great curries served by a nice middle-aged woman who was just about to close up shop when we walked up to her. All good, but grilled chicken and curry is Northeastern and Central Thai fare, not the seafood-based island cuisine we were searching for.
It wasn't until our last night that we finally found it. On the advice of Austin Bush, Bangkok resident and photographer of Thai mega-chef Andy Ricker, we hopped on the moped and drove along the island ring road until we hit the small residential strip of Bangpo Village. Bangpo Takho Seafood isn't much to look at from the street. We drove by it twice before we recognized it by the painted portrait of its owner that appears underneath its sign.
Strings of bare lightbulbs were stretched out between poles along the beach, while ocean water-soaked dogs and kids ran through the sand between the plastic picnic tables laid out underneath. Servers in bare feet and tank tops—some no older than ten years old—smiled at us like old family members as they took their time fetching beers and fresh young coconuts. Thai families laughed as they picked from shared plates while the odd tourist ambled down the beach towards their bungalow in the fading light.
A laundry basket full of bright red and white-mottled crabs sat on a counter in the open-air kitchen next to a table full of herbs.
As we walked through the open-sided hut that formed the "indoor" seats of the restaurant, I watched an old lady spread a bright red paste into empty coconut shells before placing them paste-side-down over the glowing embers of a wood-fired grill. Those same coconut shells arrived along with the menus a few minutes later as we took our place at a picnic table. Turns out the paste was a mixture of pounded dried shrimp, crab, and chilies flavored with coconut and herbs.
We were instructed to eat the spicy, salty, grilled paste along with some fresh greens and raw vegetables that came with them, but it was so damn good we ended up scraping it out and eating it on its own with spoons.
The menu is surprisingly long for a such a tiny restaurant. It was also surprisingly expensive (by Thai standards) for a place where we sat on plastic chairs and wiped our fingers with toilet paper, but it quickly became clear why: this is the freshest, most interesting seafood you'll find on Koh Samui. Actually, it's one of the most interesting collections of seafood I've seen anywhere. Have you ever seen horseshoe crab roe on a menu? I sure hadn't.
We started with deep fried whole little fish served with a chili sauce. The fish come fried with guts-in and scales-on, the latter puffing out and crisping up into glass-like shards, taking the place of a batter. The sauce was bright and acidic, more about the fruity aroma of the chilies than any real heat.
Gray mullet, also served fried, came slathered with the same chili sauce. This time, that outer layer of crispness gave way to tender, moist flesh underneath.
Stir-fried shrimp with basil and chilies was a bit of a stumble. The shrimp were impeccably fresh and the sauce was flavorful, but we did want a bit more chili heat and a slightly larger portion than the half dozen pinky-sized shrimp we got.
You won't find a more concentrated source of briny, iodine-y sea urchin aroma than in this sea urchin salad made with slivered ginger and chilies. It was almost too urchin-y for me, and I'm a sea urchin fiend. Note to self: send my mother here some time.
The best dish we had was the last to arrive: fresh steamed crab stir-fried with a pounded red curry paste and scallions. I ate slowly, methodically cracking open each segment of crab leg and extracting as much flesh as possible, savoring its natural sweetness against the rich spice of the curry paste before moving onto the next.
Big mistake: I forgot that Adri becomes a different woman when crab is placed in front of her. She drops all pretensions of decorum or grace, metamorphosing into ravenous wild creature, tearing apart the crab with her bare hands and teeth like a starved stray cat that's just come across a dumpster full of fish carcasses.
I did my best to keep up with her. My only saving grace was that she wasn't strong enough to break the toughest shells. I managed to scrape a few extra bites here and there as I broke the crabs open for her.
This was the ocean version of the Thailand that Adri and I had fallen in love with in Chiang Mai. I'm not generally a very relaxed person—I get antsy when I can't write or read or do something productive for more than a few minutes at a time. The time between take-off and "the captain has shut off the fasten seatbelt sign" is the longest 10 minutes of my life every time. But there's something about the Thai spirit that makes me feel ok putting aside everything and just letting things happen around me.
Especially when it comes with a side of seafood.