Step beyond pad thai and standard curries with the expansive menus and authentic flavors of this Tokyo franchise.
Isan is a region in the northeast of Thailand that borders on Laos and Cambodia. Home to a vibrant culture, and one of the centers of the country’s silk production, Isan is also known for its unique cuisine, which stands out even in a nation known for its strong flavors: the local cuisine uses exotic ingredients, and its flavor profiles run towards the strikingly sour and spicy. In fact, some of the dishes that people consider typically Thai—take the spicy meat salads known as larb, for example—come from Isan cooking, although the flavors are often toned down to make them more palatable for general Thai tastes.
What frequently happens with Thai restaurants in Japan is that the spice—both “hot” and “interesting”—gets toned down even further to help the food go down with local diners. So, if you’re on the lookout for authentically spicy Thai fare, you might be in for a challenge. One place that takes this challenge up with gusto is Gapao Shokudo. The group has three locations on the west side of Tokyo: one in Ebisu, one in Aoyama, and one in Shibuya, where we dropped in a few weeks back.
Not far from Shibuya Station, the space is cozy, with table seating for about 12 to 14 and bar seats also available. When the weather is nice on the evenings, the shop’s front windows can be opened, giving diners a view onto the street and passers-by a noseful of the scents wafting out of the kitchen.
We started out with the Mu Nam Tok, which is best described as a salad with an attitude. Made with pork, mint leaves, coriander, and other herbs, this dish manages to combine saltiness, sourness, and spiciness all in one go, and needless to say, it calls for at least one beer to wash it down. It’s easiest to find Singha around town, so we decided to go with a Chang for Round One. (They also serve Leo, and most recently Phuket.)
Round Two was a Phuket, and—given that we thought we should give the restaurant’s namesake a try—we went with the Seafood Gapao, a stir fry with lots of basil and plenty of peppers, served with steamed rice and a fried egg. For each dish, the spice level did not disappoint: the head chef of the restaurant hails from the Isan region, and the flavors of his home province come through on the plate. If you’re feeling bold, you can request “Thai” level spice, but be warned—there are no points gained for being a hero.
Service is laid-back, yet friendly and attentive. And if you happen to get a bit of a “club kid” vibe from some of the Japanese staff, you can chalk that up—in part—to the fact that the owner of the restaurants is also the owner of the club Zero, and former owner of the legendary club Loop.
We were dining solo, so we couldn’t be any greedier than we were, but we’re already looking forward to heading back for their green or massaman curry, and some fried chicken skin. As summer is in full swing, it could be a good time to drop in on their Aoyama location, which is running a beer garden special—all-you-can-drink, plus a selection of dishes, for ¥5,000 a person.
Their site is mostly in Japanese, but you can whet your appetite at Gapao Shokudo’s website: www.gapao-shokudo.com