The best foodie spots in Phuket’s Old Town

This carb-heavy journey around the island’s historic Old Town takes in all manner of meaty Thai classics, embracing Indian, Malay and Chinese tastes

Hokkien mee at Ko Yoon Noodle Shop

Hokkien mee at Ko Yoon Noodle Shop

khanom jeen at Khanom Jeen Pa Mai

khanom jeen at Khanom Jeen Pa Mai

roti at Aroon and Abdul’s

roti at Aroon and Abdul’s

khao mun kai at Kota Khao Mun Kai

khao mun kai at Kota Khao Mun Kai

You’ve got to admit — authentic Thai food isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Phuket. Sure, the beaches are pretty and the cabarets are entertaining, but for the foodie traveler there’s nothing more disappointing than sitting down at a swanky seaside table, and finding the “local meal” to be a boring, watered-down version of Thailand’s legendarily fiery cuisine.

As in any other tourist-savvy destination, many restaurants in Phuket’s resort areas have learned to adapt their food to Western tastes. It’s not their fault, really — that’s tourism for you — but you’d be hard-pressed to find a properly spicy bowl of gaeng kiaw wan green curry at hotspots like Patong or Kata Beach. To sample the true native cuisine in these parts, you have to get away from the coast: hop aboard any of the songtheaw (a vehicle akin to the Pinoy jeepney) and head for the island’s capital, Phuket Town.

Long before the backpacker hordes and planeloads of tourists, Phuket was already a crossroads where Thai and Malay natives mingled with the Chinese and Indian merchants who eventually settled on these shores. From this mix of cultures came the multifarious flavors that now comprise Phuket’s own cuisine. Despite the tourism development in the island, the old quarter has thankfully retained much of its local charm, with everyday life on the island at its busiest. Here, amid the maze of streets lined with centuries-old mansions and small, family-run shops, you can find genuine ahan pak Thai, or southern Thai cuisine.

To jumpstart your tastebuds, saunter down to the corner of Thalang and Thepkasattri roads, where a pair of eateries literally whip up Indian Muslim-inspired treats. Located next door to each other, Aroon and Abdul’s (Talat Yai, Mueang Phuket District) both offer roti — crispy, chewy flatbreads tossed by hand and fried on a griddle.

You eat it with your fingers, but not before dipping it into a bowl of thick, orange massaman curry. If this combo sounds a tad too plain, ask for the mataba — it’s the Thai take on the Indian murtabak, which throws in slices of beef or chicken inside a layer of roti dough. The roti’s sweet taste, coupled with the full-flavored curry, makes for an intriguing introduction to rot chaad pak Thai (southern Thai tastes). The starters (yes, those were only starters) are finished, but don’t move on yet.

Next on the menu at these restaurants is a pair of contrasting rice dishes. On one side is khao mok gai — a heavy-on-the-mouth delicacy of rice cooked in chicken stock and Malabar masala, and served over chicken, fried shallots and spring onions. This is Thai-style biryani, as evidenced by the tangy lemongrass notes that are absent in the original Indian recipe. The lighter alternative is khao yam — a rice salad that boasts heaps of beansprouts, makrut lime leaves, chopped cabbage, long beans, chillis and shredded coconuts in a tangy, creamy budu fish-sauce dressing. There’s no meat on this staple, but it’s tasty and filling enough to be the main course.

A glass of freshly squeezed lime juice should clear your palate, and then you’re ready to move on to the next food spot. From Thalang Road, take a right turn into Phuket Road and walk a few minutes down to where another rice combo dish awaits: Hainanese chicken rice was brought here centuries ago
by Chinese immigrants, and it’s the house specialty at Kota Khao Mun Kai (16-18 Soi Surin Montri). Theirs is the Thai version, of course, which features the familiar tender braised chicken and broth-boiled rice that’s accompanied by a more intensely spiced dish of garlic, chilli, ginger and soy.

You can also thank China for the great variety of noodle dishes on local menus. Here in Phuket, one of the favorites is the Hokkien mee — that’s yellow egg noodles topped with a pile of shrimp wontons, fish balls, chicken bits and ngoh hiang pork strips. Whether eaten as a soup or as a “dry” dish, this delectable hodgepodge of chunky, chewy and savory ingredients will leave you wanting more. Ko Yoon Noodle Shop (6 Ranong Rd) is a good place to sample this delicacy. However, there’s a close rival to Hokkien mee — Cantonese wanton mee, which is served with a smile at the circa-1949 Peh Teow Noodle House on the corner of Dibuk and Satun roads. Also made with egg noodles, it’s a simpler but no less tasty a air comprising fish balls, wonton and slices of bright red char siew pork (moo daeng in Thai).

But if you order only one dish in Phuket, make it khanom jeen. This concoction of springy rice noodles and coconut curry is a classic pak Thai recipe that’s been embraced throughout the kingdom. Khanom Jeen Pa Mai (Satun Rd, just opposite Peh Teow Noodle House) is arguably the best in town with its mouthwatering Siamese buffet. From its main table you pick up a plate of noodles, then help yourself to a line-up of curries. Among others, there’s the classic (and yes, authentic) green curry, along with the über-spicy nam ya fish curry and a relatively tame red beef curry. You chow down on your selection with a basket of greens, along with an accompanying array of trimmings like fried fish, pickled mustard, tod man pla fishcakes and chicken drumsticks.

After this massive meal, a few native tidbits should end your eating adventure on a sweet note. You can amble down to nearby Krabi Road, where a pair of friendly old ladies sell home-made khanom sweets. These coconut- and rice-based goodies sell for THB10-15 apiece, and go well with the syrupy-sweet, sock-brewed local boran coffee, which is available from streetside hawkers just a few meters away at the Ranong Market (Ranong Rd).

Incidentally, this bustling center of commerce is where you take that songtheaw back to the tourist beaches. But with food this good, do you really want to go back there?

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Smile magazine.

Written and Photographed

Lester Ledesma

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