We make our way down a sidewalk packed with people: men in white surgical masks, women having their facial hair removed with dental floss, young men on motorcycles, young women in plastic flip-flops. The humid evening air stinks of exhaust. Amulet salesmen set up shop -- some carrying cheap Chinese trinkets, some selling the real deal -- on blankets in doorways.
We stop at a roadside restaurant. As we arrive, a light rain begins to fall. The owners scramble to set up a tarp, diving among a sea of diners and standing on stools. Two men appear out of nowhere, carrying a roll of thick burlap. In no time the formerly uncovered seating area becomes a covered patio.
The owner ushers us in, waving and chattering in Thai. He directs us to two tables, side by side. Trying hard not to tip over the rickety metal table or the mismatched plastic stool I sit on, I settle in and try to soak up the atmosphere of the place. Above me, the rain patters on the tarp. I'm shoulder to shoulder with straight-faced Thai men, all of whom seem to have their faces buried in steaming bowls of noodles.
New diners squeeze into place behind me. Not ten feet away, a petite Thai man is rapidly and methodically chopping crispy pork into slices exactly one and one half inches long and one eighth of an inch wide. On either side of him, pots boil. Women toss in ingredients: green herbs, rice noodles, pepper. Lots and lots of pepper. Just beyond them, six lanes of traffic whiz past: motor cycles, busses, cars, taxis, bicycles, beggars, monks, and pedestrians, all blended into one dizzy, non-stop river of color, light, and motion.
Our guide for the night, Gai, is unfazed. "Many people want to try street food and Chinese food in Thailand," he says. "This is the real thing."
The owner brings me a bowl filled with steaming broth, rolls of rice noodle, and crispy pork -- the restaurant's signature dish. At first, the flavor of the black pepper overwhelms the rest of the dish, but Gai shows us how the Thai people remedy that: a little hot red pepper, a little fish sauce, a little sugar. The result is perfectly balanced: a little spicy, a little sweet, all delicious.
We go many other places: a dim sum house, where the minced pork dumplings come enrobed in green ramen noodles; a bar specializing in steaming health elixirs made from flowers and bitter herbs; a crazy-busy seafood house serving up grilled prawns as fast as Gai can shell them; an ice cream shop selling frozen Thai iced tea; a packed fruit stand specializing in fleshy, stinky durian fruit; a Texas-themed sukiyaki parlor offering everything from duck cheek (think long, skinny chicken wings with lots of fat) to ruby ice with coconut milk.
But as intriguing as these are, none of them strikes as strong a chord as the streetside restaurant with the tarp overhead. There is something about the steaming pots, about sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers, about the humid night, about the yellow cast of the overhead lights ... something undeniably alien, and, though we're in Chinatown, completely Thai.
"This is the real thing," Guy says again.
And it is.