It can be difficult to find eateries in Bangkok that straddle the divide between street stall and fully fledged restaurant. These are the kind of places that offer the informal dining atmosphere of being outside with a no-frills vendor, perhaps with the addition of comforts like air-conditioning, but which don’t charge the earth and certainly don’t compromise on the authentic Thai flavours that make street food so popular in the first place. One such place is Hom Duan (หอมด่วน), a northern Thai café-style restaurant a short walk from Ekkamai BTS station, serving famous northern dishes like khao soi and gaeng hunglay.
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With its stylish wooden tables and colourful metal stools, Hom Duan (หอมด่วน) has a distinct coffee shop vibe. As if deliberately keeping up with Bangkok’s café trends, even the menu is scribbled up on a large blackboard – though, in reality, it’s just as easy to survey what there is to eat from the pots and pans on the wide counter. This is northern Thai food khao gaeng style, with everything ready prepared and just waiting to be dolloped into a bowl or slathered on top of a plate of rice.
Standout dishes here are predictably those for which northern Thailand, and Chiang Mai in particular, is famed – among them, khao soi and gaeng hunglay. Khao soi is a dish of egg noodles stewed in a rich coconut broth that sports flavours not dissimilar to red curry. It is said to have its roots in Burmese cuisine, and is most commonly served with chicken. At Hom Duan (หอมด่วน) that’s a well-sized piece of on-the-bone chicken – great for added flavour and tenderness – and it comes topped with a generous sprinkling of the crispy fried egg noodles that make khao soi what it is. Hom Duan’s (หอมด่วน) khao soi is admittedly less heavy on the coconut milk as Chiang Mai noodle stands (including my all-time favourite, Khao Soi Khun Yai) have you accustomed to, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can still detect the coconut flavour here, but it’s a more subtle effect – instead, you have a broth that feels somewhat more health-conscious, but nonetheless brimming with deep flavours and even a perhaps unintentional hint of tomato.
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Though it came out cold on our visit, the gaeng hunglay is arguably the star here. In fact, when you’re eating it with warm rice, the fact that it’s at room temperature does nothing to detract from the explosive flavours. A good gaeng hunglay – almost always made with fatty pork belly, as it is here – should be especially heavy on the shredded ginger and the whole cloves of pickled garlic, and that’s exactly what Hom Duan’s (หอมด่วน) recipe delivers. Gaeng hunglay is a rich, thick and meaty curry, and one where the flavours have you hooked from the first mouthful. The ginger aside, which rarely makes an appearance in Thai curries, the dry spices used in hunglay again suggest links to southern Thailand’s massuman curry, arguably more well-known outside Thailand.
Other noteworthy dishes at Hom Duan (หอมด่วน) include an excellent green curry loaded with congealed pig’s blood and halved baby aubergines cooked to an indescribable tenderness. It flaunts a depth of flavour missing in so many green curries served elsewhere, where the focus is too often on sweetness alone. I can only put it into words by considering that it flirts with its own identity such that it almost crosses the border between red and green, and encapsulates the best of both. It’s delicious over rice noodles or steamed rice.
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Finally, this wouldn’t be a northern Thai restaurant without a mention of nam prik chilli pastes, and at Hom Duan (หอมด่วน) both the nam prik noom green chilli paste and nam prik ong (a pork and chilli paste) are excellent. The nam prik ong is especially fiery. But that’s just the start of the spread of dishes cooked up by Hom Duan’s (หอมด่วน) affable elderly owner, which also include the likes of northern-style cooked laab and the quintessential tomato-based northern Thai rice noodle dish of kanom jeen nam ngiaw. To quench your thirst, drinks include a variety of flower- and herb-based infusions that suit the spirit of Hom Duan (หอมด่วน) just perfectly, including the likes of chrysanthemum, roselle, and bale fruit, as well as a pleasingly sour passion fruit juice.
We’re not talking Chiang Mai streetside prices at Hom Duan (หอมด่วน) – this Bangkok after all, and you’re in a slightly elevated setting, too – but nor is the food here resoundingly expensive. Indeed, it’s far cheaper than you’ll find northern Thai food at other Bangkok restaurants. Khao soi goes for 65 baht a bowl, while up to three curry dishes on top of rice run between 45 and 65 baht, and individual bowls of the various curries (to be eaten with separate plates of rice, charged extra) will set you back around the 50-60 baht mark. For a few dishes to share between two people, expect to pay around 200-300 baht including drinks.
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A word of warning: Hom Duan (หอมด่วน) is open only on weekdays from 9am to 5pm. There are plenty of other opening hours suggested online and, between that and the contradictory opening hours which unhelpfully have yet to be removed from the restaurant’s window since the departure of the previous owners of the premises, this led us to try unsuccessfully at least three times to eat at Hom Duan (หอมด่วน). Fourth time lucky, as the saying almost goes. Nevertheless, it’s in a convenient downtown location around a 10-minute walk from Ekkamai BTS station (just short of British café London Pie), and makes for a smart lunch choice that affords the comfort and surprising stylishness of indoor coffee-shop-style dining, without a single hint of compromise on the flavours of authentic northern Thai home cooking.
70/2 Sukhumvit Soi 63 (BTS Ekkamai); 085 037 8916; www.facebook.com/homduan2011
Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm
UPDATE – 10 July 2017: As of May 2017, Hom Duan has relocated very close by, on a small alley just off Ekkamai Soi 2 – it’s right next door to the Ink & Lion coffee shop. It’s now open Monday to Saturday, 9am-10pm.