What does the term old school mean to you? Does it embody something old fashioned, out of date and conservative? Or does it evoke respect for things from an earlier era — traditions wrapped in nostalgia with a hint of cool? It depends on who you ask and their perception of what the phrase is being used in reference to. One example of old school is personified by a little noticed shopfront on a slightly quieter segment of Sukhumvit Road, where the same traditional noodles, chicken rice and fried rice dishes have been served for well over 60 years. Like the term ‘old school’, this establishment has stayed true to its roots, even as the world around it has evolved dramatically.
Due to its long standing reputation, Tang Meng occupies a level of recognition with a generation of families who settled in and around this section of Sukhumvit back in the 1960s. Many people my age know it because our parents used to eat there from its earliest days when the area — between Sukhumvit Soi 47 and 49 — consisted largely of undeveloped plots accessed by canals. It was known as a humble business owned by a hard working family that took care in the food they made. As time passed, the area became more affluent, the canals were covered over and replaced by roads. One telltale sign of this evolution is the fact that you step down into the eatery from the sidewalk — an indication of just how much the road has risen over the years. Tang Meng’s entrance used to be several steps above the road. The area around this simple shopfront has changed nearly beyond recognition — the food that Tang Meng serves and the family that runs it have not.
I have been savouring Tang Meng’s food for nearly 20 years, but incredibly, I had never actually been until recently. For years Tang Meng’s famous egg noodles were an often repeated office lunch delivery order at almost every place of employment I have ever worked at — its fame long preceding the advent of delivery apps. Everyone seemed to have heard of it. Very few people seem to have recently eaten on location, if at all. My entire experience of it, in all its deliciousness, had alway been wrapped in a plastic bag, eaten sometime after it had been made and transplanted into an office dish at lunchtime. This is not an uncommon reality in Bangkok as decades of traffic, lack of parking and time have prevented many people from actually going to a place to eat, especially at lunchtime.
A handful of family owned dining establishments in Bangkok hark from a pervious era and are still in business — some have become exceedingly successful and have expanded into business empires stretching well beyond their original premises. Tang Meng is not one of those establishments. I came to appreciate this fact one day as I walked by and recognised the name on a small sign attached to an aging noodle cabinet within an unremarkable shopfront.
I am the kind of person who cannot see a noodle shop and just walk on by. I am always drawn by curiosity as to what kind noodles are being served and the style in which they are prepared. Because of this propensity of mine, I soon recognised the name Tang Meng — the very sight of its name conjures up flavour memories — albeit ones completely disassociated from its place of origin. I asked myself, “Was this it?” I decided to take a seat at the solitary table that was set up on the footpath right in front of where the noodles were being prepared.
Tang Meng encapsulates the archetypical street-side dining establishment prevalent throughout cities in Thailand, dressed with no more than the essentials of daily business — tools of the trade well worn by the years. It has not in any way been given the sheen of nostalgic preservation that you might see at other places of similar heritage. The family who owns Tang Meng have been far too busy working and focused on their food to bother with decorating or renovation. Things here have only ever changed or been replaced out of necessity, not style.
What greets you at Tang Meng are old tin buckets filled with morning glory used for the Yen Ta Fo noodle dishes, the family house shrine lit on the floor in the distance, old wooden and glass displays with their assortment of the day’s supply of various meatballs, their famous pork and shrimp wontons both fresh and fried, pork loin to be cut, boiled chicken to be sliced, blood cakes, a wide selection of noodles, crispy fish skins, accompanying condiments like roughly crushed peanuts and chilli flakes, assorted herbs and aromatics. Chopping blocks and kitchen accoutrements abound. Hallmark Chinese auspicious decorative items hang on the back mezzanine wall, not because of their appearance, but for the luck and prosperity they represent. Tang Meng is the definition of function over form.
The owner Aunty Kim works the chicken rice station while her son works the noodle station and a couple other family members help out. The service is familial and if you know to catch their attention for a question in between their tasks, you will find they are polite and chatty and have stories to tell about how the city has changed around them. Much of their business is delivery but they still get a steady stream of walk-ins, people like me who sometimes do a double take walking by, as I did. They have always done well enough to get by, but have never expanded or sold their name to a franchise. They remain one of the few original businesses in the area.
The family have seen little need to change what they do. They work hard day in and day out preparing the dishes that have formed a part of so many people’s food memories. In this way they are very much traditionalists, conservative, and of the old school. But does that make them out of date and out of touch? The daily demand in their delivery business speaks otherwise. Tang Meng deliciously embodies an earlier era and their food is reassuringly wrapped in nostalgia. Judging by the customers who come here, there’s no need for cool. Old school to its core seems just fine.
Sense of origin is important to me. My taste impressions of Tang Meng are now greatly enhanced by my direct connection to the faces and hands that made them. If you’ve never had their food eaten table side right after its been made, I suggest you walk on down, take a seat and enjoy a meal in the same place your parents might have, all those years ago.
887 Sukhumvit Road, Khlong Toei Nuea, Watthana, Bangkok 10110
Between Sukhumvit Soi 47 and 49.
The Footpath Files
Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
Proudly powered by WordPress
Leave a Reply