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[Eat It]: Thai Boat Noodles

Excellent Thai noodles in the absolute last place you would think to look. Veering just off of Nanjing Dong Lu for a bowl of liquid fire.
Last updated: 2015-11-09
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.
Shanghai continues to surprise me. Just when I was ready to give up on Thai food, I stumble upon something that restores my faith in restaurateurs here. And this place is in the last place you'd look for this kind of food. It's just a couple of blocks northeast of the touristy clusterfuck that is the Nanjing Dong Lu. Its nearest neighbors are an SPD bank branch, a Motel 186, and a few grotty street stalls. It's called First Thai. It's new to me, but the place has been around since October 2013, and, as you can see, it's already got quite a following. It's mostly because of this... Boat noodles. This is something you just don't see much of in Shanghai. It's a Thai snack that traces its origins back to around the mid 20th century. They were a staple along Thailand's labyrinthine canal system. Hawkers used to ply their trade as they traversed the waterways in longboats. Typically it was a one-man operation: cooking, serving, cleaning, collecting money, even operating the boat. That was a lot of work for one person. Because of this, portions were traditionally small—usually just a ladleful for a small amount of money, with the understanding that customers might ask for seconds or even thirds. It's the kind of thing that someone from Thailand craves when homesick, and that's why it's here in Shanghai. A couple of years ago, Thailand native and First Thai owner Pimonrut Pirom was pregnant and experiencing serious boat noodle withdrawal. So dire was her condition that she resorted to returning home and paying a vendor for a recipe just to bring it back to Shanghai with her. She wouldn't divulge too much about the recipe, but she was willing to divulge a few broad strokes, and if you're familiar enough with Thai food, you'll probably recognize them just through taste. It starts with the basic elements of tom yum, that famed fragrant Thai soup base made with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and fish sauce. Then they build on that with soy sauce, five spices, Thai basil, and a secret ingredient. That gets simmered chopped up morning glory, bean sprouts, and scallions. Just before service they toss in a skein of thin rice noodles, pork meatballs, and few slices of pork neck, and pork liver. Oh, and one other thing: chilies. Loads of them. Expected a long, slow burn on your lips as you walk out. First Thai serves them for 20rmb a bowl. It's a larger portion than you'd see on a canal in Bangkok, but you still might want to order seconds. Or you just might want to supplement your boat noodles with something else. Ms. Pirom has staffed the kitchen with chef from Thailand, who does some pretty solid accompaniments for the same price, like this. These are pork cakes. From what I can tell, they're basically the same ingredients as Thai fish cakes, only they swap out the fish with pork. They're pretty tasty. For 25rmb they do an excellent green papaya salad, too. The crunchy, jade colored shreds marinate in a funky, chili-charged fish sauce. It is spicy as hell. My forehead was sweating in 12ºC weather after I tried it. So, yeah. Boat noodles. Good stuff. For a listing of First Thai Boat Noodles click here.