One Night in the Café de Bangkok: Gilbert’s Newest Thai Restaurant

Story and Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, December 2019 Issue.

According to Tom

“Nithid” Rochanakit, the owner of Café de Bangkok, in Thailand food is

medicine, history, and even poetry. His face beaming with pride, Rochanakit

shared the story of Thai King Rama II. Both a foodie and man of letters, the

king was once so moved by a chef’s dish he wrote: “any man who has tasted the

curry is bound to long for her.” Rochanakit’s passion for food is equal to that

of the historic monarch. The finest Thai dishes were once reserved for the

royal family alone. Rochanakit treated us like his own family, sharing both

princely dishes and street food favorites.

Café de Bangkok opened last month in what

was formerly the Thai Mint Café in Gilbert. The old restaurant’s sign was still

there when we visited, though there was a banner indicating it is now the Café

de Bangkok. Parking was no problem. The entryway featured pumpkins, scarecrows

and other seasonal decorations. Entering the restaurant proper, the decor was

more modest: flowers, bamboo, some old furniture and a few signs reading eat

and home. While the front of the house is somewhat a work in progress, the food

is delicious and beautifully presented. Plus, Rochanakit, his lovely wife and

cute kids go out of their way to may you feel welcome.

Coconut shrimp, spring roll, chicken satay and chicken curry puffs.

The interior was surprisingly large.

Catching the restaurant between rushes, we were the only customers for around

15 minutes. It felt a little awkward at first, but we were promptly seated and

served. Both I and my dining companion were ravenous, so this worked out. Soon

enough, other patrons started streaming in, adding a pleasant static of human

chatter to the stately jazz background music. I suggest asking to say hello to

Rochanakit before ordering if you’d like recommendations. He also goes by

Nithid or Tom. We didn’t speak to him until after ordering and regretted

missing out on his suggestions. 

We ordered two Thai iced teas and the

combo appetizers, one on the menu, to tide us over while we crafted a plan of

attack for entrées. The teas came in extra-large mason jar glasses with

handles. A beautiful sunset dipped behind the strip mall on the other side of

Gilbert Road as we sipped our voluminous teas. Even more beautiful still was

when our appetizers arrived. They came on a white porcelain tray centered

around a little cast iron burner. It looked like a group of thin-skinned

Arizonans crowding a chiminea when it drops below 60. The order ended up being

more food than we expected, including chicken satay, spring rolls, coconut

shrimp and chicken curry puffs. It was all so good that I was glad to have

starved myself for several hours beforehand.

A yellow coconut curry with chicken, potato, onion and carrot.

After some quick

pointers, we got to work on the chicken satays. We heated them on our table’s

little hearth. The sound of the meat sizzling brought big grins to our faces.

We watched the juices bubbling on the surface. When the extruded fats fell into

the flames, they popped with the scent of roasting meat. We both really enjoyed

this dish, which was simple and well-executed. For dips, there were peanut

sauce and a sweet cucumber sauce. On Rochanakit’s suggestion, we heaped

generous portions of both on our meat sticks. Together they added savory and

sweet notes to the fire kissed chicken. What made it even better was the

entertainment value of cooking it at the table. It makes for a fun date night

diversion, especially if you are DIY inclined.

We worked our way counterclockwise,

advancing next to the spring rolls. Outside they had a delicate thin layer of

crisp. Inside their texture was almost creamy. These were a good snack,

especially when slathered in sauce. The coconut shrimp had a flaky breading. A

strong fresh coconut flavor infused every bite of these plump sea arthropods.

Last, but certainly not least, were the chicken curry puffs. These were a

little like tiny, aromatic South Asian pot pies. The golden shells were doughy,

crunchy and buttery. Inside there was a rich but subtle blend of spices. We

took our time savoring each bite, so some of the items lost heat. I’m not sure

if it really qualifies as a food hack, but we just plopped whatever it was on

the little burner until it was warm again. If only every restaurant offered

pint-sized barbeques on your table.

Crispy egg noodles with marinated pork, mushroom, Chinese broccoli and carrot.

The menu also offers five salads and three

soups. We didn’t quite have room this trip, but we’re already planning our

return. When we do go back, I want to try the Som Tam Goong Tod, 26, which has

a shredded papaya base topped with carrots, green beans, tomatoes and fried

shrimp. It comes with a dressing made of ground peanuts and sweet chili lime

juice. I also want to try one of the special Thai street noodle bowls.  

Our eyes widened as our first entrée, the

Pu Goong Ob Woon Sen or 39, arrived in its darling clay pot. It’s a stir fry of

clear vermicelli noodles, fried shrimp, shitake mushrooms, celery and ginger.

After the usual warning about not touching the scalding object, Rochanakit

lifted the lid. A small cloud of fragrant steam exploded up and out. He

explained the dish is still cooking in the pot and suggested stirring it before

digging in. When we got to eating, our delight continued. Rochanakit explained

he starts the dish by cooking the noodles in bacon and ginger to soften and

flavor them. My mouth felt alive, gentle heats pulsating over my tongue and

inner cheeks. The flavor permeated each angel hair strand of the airy noodles

before they dissipated like clouds on a summer afternoon.

Next to the party was the Gang Ka-Ri Gai,

32, which was a yellow coconut curry with chicken, potato, onion and carrot. It

comes topped with fried shallots and scallions. It was true comfort food. Its

golden aroma really cleaned out our sinuses in a good way. We thoroughly

enjoyed the dish. However, once Rochanakit regaled us with the history of

Massaman curry, we experienced a little regret. This faded fast when we

realized it was the perfect pretext for a return visit soon. 

A stir fry of clear vermicelli noodles, fried shrimp, shitake mushrooms, celery and ginger.

Rounding out the evening was the Rad Na

Mee Grob, 54. The base of crispy egg noodles has marinated pork, mushroom,

Chinese broccoli and carrot cooked with it. A soybean paste gravy sauce comes

on top. It arrived glistening like a poorly written vampire in the sun. Though

all that glitters is not gold, this dish proved as tangy as its vibrant

appearance suggested. 

When we left, Rochanakit and his kitchen had really made an impression. He sat with us and discussed all things Thai and Thai food. He excitedly scrolled through the Café de Bangkok Facebook page, sharing the stories of the customers whose pictures he posts there. This one is a man who gifted Rochanakit a book for small business owners. Another is a family who’ve eaten at Rochanakit’s restaurants for years. Their kid has grown up on Rochanakit’s fried rice and pad Thai, and he has photos to prove it. It may sound silly, but the little bits of interaction with the hotpot and burner really enhanced our experience. They’d be perfect for breaking awkward silences or initiating “accidental” hand brushes. Gilbert might be a schlep, but it’s one we plan to make again soon, and with a larger party.  

Photo courtesy of Joe Eats World

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