Chef Jess Barnes Guide to Trashy Chinese Food in Bangkok
We believe great food should be celebrated in its many forms, whether genuinely old and authentic or the good old-fashioned bastardised cuisines of the kind we grew up on in Australia that Chef Jess Barnes calls ‘trashy Chinese’.
While in town we tried some new restaurant openings (more on those soon) and a fun pop-up at cabaret-style bar-club Maggie Choo’s called Big Trouble in Little China, a collaboration between Opposite Mess Hall owners chef Jess Barnes and Tim Butler (head chef at Eat Me), and chef Blair Mathieson, who helmed the kitchen at Quince, where Jess was also head chef before opening Opposite.
At Big Trouble in Little China, Blair is cooking up what Jess describes as ‘trashy Chinese’ food and as there was a small group of us (my best friend and her sister-in-law who had just visited us in Siem Reap were unexpectedly passing through Bangkok again), we got to try everything on the tantalisingly-short menu. A DIY tick-off menu that was the length of the Friday night specials menu on the inside of the bound photo albums that served as Chinese restaurant menus when I was a kid.
It was all super-tasty. Some dishes were sublime. Great drinking food that we washed down with great cocktails. As we’d expected. Opposite Mess Hall has been one of our favourite casual Bangkok eateries since it opened in 2013 and Jess’s food is deliciously unique with idiosyncratic flavour combinations that for us are quintessentially contemporary Australian: often unexpected, sometimes strange, they always work, and always leave you wanting more.
‘Trashy Chinese’ by Jess’ definition is the Westernised Cantonese food that he (and we) grew up on, the food that is still possible to find in ‘Chinese’ restaurants in suburbs and towns across Australia, and in the US, UK and Europe in similar, yet different forms.
For sophisticated Australian foodies, it’s the food that came before we understood that Chinese ‘cuisine‘ is regional; before we knew what Cantonese, Sizchuan, Fujian, Hunan, and other Chinese cuisines were. It’s the food that influenced contemporary Australian and before that modern Australian cuisine.
It’s the food that lingers in countless shopping mall food courts across suburban Australia, that influenced Aussie chefs like Jess; the food that has become a guilty pleasure for some. Hence the affectionate ‘trashy Chinese’.
Some dishes like ‘fried rice’ at Big Trouble evoked childhood memories. But in name alone, not flavour. These were far too good to be trashy. We wish the food at the suburban Cantonese joints our families took us to as kids had tasted this good!
There were spicy sea prawns stir-fried with hot chilli paste (B400); delicious tempeh or pork belly bao with Sriracha mayo and kimchi (B120); heavenly bone marrow dumplings with horseradish, ox tail and cheek broth (fantastic value at B300); crisp Barramundi fillets with celery, ginger, spring onion, rice wine, and soy (B400), which was possibly the most Australian-Chinese of the dishes, yet still not trashy; a wonderful General Tso’s Rabbit of buttermilk fried rabbit with chilli and peanut; a delish duck fried rice with organic egg, turnip cake, lap cheong and kale; and a damn fine Drunken Chicken with bamboo, corn, chicken crackling (B250).
We interviewed Jess about trashy Chinese food, his favourite Chinese restaurants in Bangkok, and his tips for experiencing the Old Bangkok Chinese neighbourhoods, Bangrak and Chinatown. Here’s chef Jess Barnes guide to trashy Chinese food in Bangkok…
Chef Jess Barnes Guide to Trashy Chinese Food in Bangkok
Q. What’s trashy Chinese food?
A. Trashy Chinese is just our take on bastardized Chinese food. It’s not meant to be authentic. It comes from our experiences and travels, the things we like to eat, and versions of things we ate back home. We do our best to use quality ingredients and practice solid technique but it’s jovial. It’s meant to be fun.
Q. Did you eat Chinese as a kid growing up in Australia?
A. We ate a lot of Viet-Chinese in South Australia – sweet and sour pork, salt and pepper squid, pippies in XO sauce, beef and black bean, that type of shit.
Q. Did your mum cook Chinese at home?
A. Mum was a terrible cook so dad or myself did most of the cooking. My dad taught me how to make a decent fried rice, which I’m still trying to work out.
Q. Did your family have a favourite local Chinese joint with a Lazy Susan that they frequented on Friday nights?
A. On special occasions we would go to a Chinese restaurant called the Prince Room. I fondly recall fried ice cream, wondering how the fuck they pulled it off. Ha! Ha!
Q. Are you a fan of Bangkok’s old Chinese neighbourhoods like Bangrak and Chinatown?
A. I’ve been living in Bangkok for almost six years now and always in Sukhumvit, so trips to Chinatown are always exciting and I feel a million miles away from the cacophony that is my ’hood. As a young backpacker years ago I was excited and disgusted by Khao San Road but knew it wasn’t the real Bangkok. To find that, it takes time to dig beneath the surface.
Q. Best trashy Chinese food in Bangkok?
A. A few of my favourites…
Boon Pochana – open late, the food is not too greasy, not too spicy and great portions. Love the pan-fried soup dumplings here. Chefs love this place. 152/8-9 Silom Road, Silom.
Yong He Dou Jiang – amazing dumplings, mutton soup, fried chrysanthemums, and house tofu. I don’t like the stinky ass century eggs. Yukky. It’s under BTS Chong Nonsi.
Da Bai Bao Dian – These buns in Chinatown are so good.
Q. Some favourite spots to eat in Old Bangkok, Bangrak and Chinatown?
China House – fancy dim sum at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangrak, which is nice for a treat.
Jae Fai – half on the street with a shop-house, Je Fay is very special. I’m not a big seafood eater, but the crab with curry and egg, and the crab omelette are the best in town. 327 Maha Chai Road, Phra Nakhon
Roti Mataba – Roti Mataba on Phra Athit Road, Phra Nakhon, has been around for years and is always great.
Sala Rattanakosin – this restaurant is great for dinner and drinks with a spectacular view of Wat Arun.
Q. If people only have time to try one Chinese dish in Bangkok what should it be?
A. Splurge on the suckling pig at Tang Jai Yoo in Chinatown. 85-87 Soi Yaowaphanit, off Yaowarat Road, 11am-2pm & 5-8pm.
Q. Things to buy in Chinatown?
A. I’m a sucker for pomegranate juice and hot chestnuts on Yaowarat Road. I also like the Indian Quarter in Phahurat for spices.
Q. Food aside, your top tip for Chinatown?
A. Check out the night markets on the weekends; the Thieves Market is particularly interesting.
Q. Your top Chinese cooking secret?
A. Learn how to season a wok correctly and always use clean oil – covers a lot of bases.
Q. So what’s cooking at Big Trouble in Little China?
A. Blaire is a good guy and a great chef. The menu is very simple at the moment but we plan to step it up this week with a few more items like: octopus, ink and black pudding fried rice; Tim has this awesome tripe and short rib dish he’s doing which we will adapt to a kimchi hotpot; cumin lamb buns made in house; and we have a local organic and sustainable prawn supplier now, so we will do some chicken and prawn dumplings with black vinegar; and crispy leeks, saffron, lobster, and chorizo congee.
The original Opposite Mess Hall on Sukhumvit Soi 51 has now closed and Jess is now helming the kitchen at Lady Brett, Thonglor. Look out for ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ pop-ups at Maggie Choo’s.