But a recommendation and invitation from culinary adventurer AB earlier this week inspired an excursion to Hokkee Pochana on Chula Soi 34, where it turned out that the kitchen produces haan phalo in the same league as the two high-art versions mentioned above.
Actually, there are two Hokkee Pochana restaurants at the same location. The older one is a few metres into Chula Soi 34 from Banthat Thong Road, and a new, recently opened one is right on Banthat Thong Road, across from the entrance to the soi.
U-a T and friend opted for the older one, which is divided into two parts, one with an old-fashioned, shophouse-like atmosphere, the other an air-conditioned dining room with minimal decor, bright fluorescent lighting and big, round tables for family meals.
After taking seats in the latter room and studying the menu, U-a T and friend asked for a plate of the haan phalo, a serving of aw suan (small oysters fried with rice flour, egg, herbs including spring onion, and sauce), and naw mai thalay phat yawt khanaa (razor clams stir-fried with tender Chinese broccoli shoots and sliced shitake mushrooms).
The goose arrived promptly, accompanied by a bowls of rice and sour, mildly spicy dipping sauce. The meat was lean but not dry, and there was just enough fat adhering to the skin to give the dish a hearty, juicy consistency.
The sauce balanced sweetness and saltiness well, with the savour of the phalo spices prominent, fully flavouring the goose.
A waiter saw U-a T and friend spooning the sauce over rice and brought an additional bowl of it gratis, a nice touch. If, in U-a T's opinion, the dish did not quite match the Nobel-calibre perfection of Chua Kim Heng's haan phalo, it is a close contender with a character of its own that some people might prefer.
Anyone who judged things by appearances might have been tempted to pass on Hokkee Pochana's aw suan when it was first set on the table. The oysters looked plump and fresh enough, but the sticky, greyish rice flour batter they were embedded in largely lacked the appetising colours of yellow egg yolk and green herbs that that usually make this dish look so enticing.
Initial impressions were forgotten, however, with the first taste. It was AB who traced the dish's fine flavour and aroma to the kitchen's technique of apparently browning some of the spring onions in oil to release their fragrance and sweet taste and leaving the others raw. There was enough egg yolk to add richness, and some fresh coriander leaves had been placed on top to give the dish a much-needed cosmetic lift.
Naw mai thalay (sea bamboo shoots) are not a plant, as the name suggests, but a large species of razor clam with a chewy, abalone-like texture. Hokkee Pochana fried them long enough to brown them slightly, then added the tender shoots of the khanaa, or Chinese broccoli plant. The ones here, cooked to just the proper degree of tenderness, were more delicate than the kind usually served in town because they were a choice Chinese variety that the restaurant brings in from Hong Kong.
Sliced shiitake mushrooms added a different kind of chewiness and their distinctive aroma.
The presence of these clams on Chinese menus in Bangkok (Nai So near the Phlabphlachai five-way intersection also does a nice dish in which the clams are stir-fried with asparagus) invites a question. When looking for naw mai thalay to experiment with in the kitchen at home, U-a T discovered that they only seem to be available in tinned form imported from Chile, and at an intimidating price.
Do the clams also thrive in the waters of China? If not, how to account for their presence in the Chinese kitchen? Continental drift?
Hokkee Pochana's technique of browning them slightly and then sauteing them with the Chinese khanaa bring out the best in them. An unusual dish that is strongly recommended.
Prices are mid-range _ just under 700 baht for this meal for two without alcohol. Service was fast and friendly.