Downtown Bangkok Café
705 Pothouse Road
Tucked away on the second floor of Yaowapa Thailand Treasures, a retail gift shop majoring in handmade imports, you practically have to organize a search party to find the entrance to the Downtown Bangkok Café – but, trust me, it’s worth the spirited game of hide-and-seek.
Yaowapa and Jerry Kowal opened the gift shop in 2009. But in 2015, the couple’s passion for their culinary heritage got the better of them; and the Downtown Bangkok Café, their sedate 48-seat restaurant, made its debut.
The four diminutive dining rooms and reception area, as you can well imagine, given Mr. Kowal’s skill as an engineer and importer, are beautifully and tastefully appointed… right down to the elephant-adored silverware and logo-embroidered napery. Once across the threshold, you’re pretty sure this isn’t going to be just another one of those bare-bones, cookie-cutter ethnic eateries. But when Mr. Kowal, who is also the restaurant’s manager, appears at your table to personally welcome you and thank you for dining at his establishment, you’re certain of it.
And you need have no fears with regard to the culinary offerings, as Chef Yaowapa Kowal’s lovingly prepared & presented Thai cuisine is as sedate and sophisticated as the décor. Indeed… the moment the appetizers hit the table, you know you’re in good hands.
Take the Butterfly Blanket (pictured), for example. Five fried dumplings are stuffed with ground chicken and served up with a delightfully tangy sweet and sour sauce. The wraps are beautifully textured to the bite; properly crispy but with not a hint of grease… and that sweet and sour sauce is a marvelous accompaniment. A first-rate starter… Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the Steamed Vegetable Dumplings. The homemade soy-based sauce is just fine. But once the wraps cool, they turn decidedly rubbery.
The Vegetable Spring Rolls, however, are right back on track. They are served with or without chicken (in this case, with) and, like the aforementioned fried dumplings, are companioned by that superlative sweet and sour concoction. Once again, they sport an irresistibly crispy countenance and, cut on the bias & artfully arranged, they are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate. Another coup for the kitchen.
The table favorite, however, proved to be the incomparably delicious Thai Salad. Here you have shredded Napa cabbage & carrots, fresh soy beans, and crispy noodles all tossed with a house-made peanut dressing (for a modest supplement, you may also add chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp). A smattering of peanuts provides additional crunch; a sliced hard-boiled egg a contrasting textural dimension. Color and texture are right on the money… but it’s that incredibly addictive peanut dressing that clearly propels this dish into orbit.
When it comes to entrées, there are numerous possibilities; and you may also add chicken, beef, pork or tofu to most dishes at no charge (shrimp or seitan may be added at $3.00 per).
High on the agenda, of course, is Pad Thai, the national dish of Thailand. Here it is authentically prepared with rice noodles, ground peanuts, egg, bean sprouts, and scallion. Certainly recommended. But if you decide to go the noodle route, I much prefer the Drunken Man (pictured), a combo of onion, bell pepper, basil, egg, carrots, broccoli, and scallions. The dish is noted on the menu as “medium spicy,” and that description is right on the money (all dishes may be specified “Mild,” “Medium,” or “Hot). There’s just enough heat tantalize the taste buds without setting fire to your delicate nether regions.
Among the stir-fry dishes, the Mixed Vegetables – broccoli, zucchini, green beans, carrots, celery, bell peppers & baby corn awash in a mild but assertive house-made sauce – is quite excellent… ditto the Sweet & Sour, which, as the name denotes, incorporates a variety of vegetables and chunks of pineapple in an pleasingly pungent sweet & sour sauce.
But the most gastronomically engaging stir-fry, in my opinion, is the Basil Eggplant (pictured). The Japanese eggplant is done to a turn, infusing its own unique aura into a colorful combo of bell peppers, onions, scallions, and racy fresh basil. My choice of pork, which can dry out at the drop of a fork, was perfectly moist and added a particularly pleasant textural dimension. The culinary catalyst, however, was a beautifully balanced sauce of tamarind, soy, ginger, and a host of seasonings that added an intensity of flavor without adding weight. The sauce itself is worth the price of admission.
The restaurant also sports a number of specialties that are definitely worthy of attention… The delightfully crunchy Coconut Shrimp, for example, served over the aforementioned Thai Salad with addictive peanut dressing and sweet chili sauce. Another special, the Thai Salmon, may be either fried or steamed and served with your choice of house-made Panang, Tamarind, or Garlic Sauce. But if Chef Kowal has a signature dish, it is undoubtedly her sumptuous Crispy Duck (pictured). The half duck is prepared with a zesty tamarind sauce and sided by jasmine rice. And priced at a mere $22.50 it is an incredible bargain (and the most expensive item on the menu)
If the Downtown Bangkok Café has a weakness, other than the sparse selection of desserts, it is, most assuredly, the service, which may only be adequately described as “amateur night.” In fact, during my last visit, there was a sign on the door advertising for wait staff.
A restaurant with such superlative cuisine and peacefully beautiful ambiance should have the very best in knowledgeable service as well. Hopefully, by the time of your visit – and it is, most assuredly worthy of a visit – this minor problem will have been resolved.