Our glasses were somehow full again. I emptied mine too fast, laughing. He smiled back, a handsome guy, practically a stranger. Younger than me, but so what? Bangkok doesn't judge your appetites. It feeds them. "What do you think?" He leaned in close, closer.
"I love it."
Love's the wrong word, of course. This was lust, love's more marketable counterpart, the city's stock-in-trade. No doubt I'd wake up the next morning filled with greasy, wash-out regret. But right then morning seemed far away.
"Still like it?" he asked as we paused for breath.
"You know I do."
"Good." He didn't bother to whisper. "Because this is the best fried chicken in Bangkok."
I hadn't come to Bangkok to get involved with a chicken. (Who does? Wait, don't answer that.) The last thing I expected in this city of pleasure was a good time. I'd signed up for a CELTA course, the ESL teacher's equivalent of boot camp. CELTA certifications are respected all across the world. That's because they're hard to get. Candidates spend four weeks being ground to slush under papers and lesson plans. They don't sleep much.
So I was not Bangkok's target demographic (single, thirsty, primed to stay out all night). The city wasn't doing much for me either. Sure, it had some character, with its gap-toothed skyline and office girls riding sidesaddle on motorbikes. But essentially it was just a big city, like big cities anywhere. It could've been Chicago in a heat wave, or Seoul without the street cleaners. My feelings toward Bangkok could be summed up with one word: meh.
That was before I'd fully explored what was on offer.
"Let's order another bird."
"Oh baby, talk dirty to me."
You can buy anything in Bangkok. Anything. It was a promise I heard over and over again, and I didn't doubt it was true. The city flogged itself daily, nightly, to whoever was passing through. You could buy a Maserati in a mall in Bangkok. You could get a crocodile on the street. You could spend money on massages or ping pong shows or other things that couldn't come home with you (not long-term, anyway), but scratched that itch.
But this system assumed that you wanted something. What did I want? I'm not a shopper. I don't even like ping pong the sport. My mid-CELTA needs involved a full night's sleep and whiteout tape that didn't break.
Which was when one of my fellow teachers stepped in. "Have you tried Isaan chicken?"
"What's this crunchy stuff on top?"
"That's the sexiest thing I've ever heard."
Bangkok can't be faulted on the food. You could eat yourself to death for ten bucks in that city. I just ate to happiness, which cost a dollar or two. Chicken rice. Mango rice. Dumpling soup. Fried noodles. My school was just steps away from Soi Convent, a road that disappeared under street food stands and tiny plastic tables every afternoon. We ate there every day except Mondays, the venders' day of rest. On Mondays we turned to the restaurants on the school's ground floor, which sold exotic foods I hadn't tasted in years. There was Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC, all of them inexplicably swank with luxury-style adverts. It was hog heaven.
One of my fellow inmates at the CELTA program had lived in Bangkok on and off for years. We quickly learned to follow him at mealtimes, and he lead us to the most amazing holes-in-the-wall I ever expect to eat in. When he sketched a map showing the way to his favorite Chinese restaurant, we photocopied it and passed it around. I keep mine with the passports and other important documents, in case I go back to Bangkok. That's how good the food was.
So when he suggested a place he knew, about a thirty minute walk but the best fried chicken in Bangkok, did I want to go? There was only one answer. I would've followed that guy anywhere.
No one's going to kiss you after a meal of Isaan fried chicken. We pressed fried garlic into handfuls of sticky rice. We scooped it up with spoons. We ripped the chicken apart with our fingers, dipped it in chili sauce, in lime juice, in the dregs of the other dishes. We licked the plates.
That chicken messed me up.
Sam knew about the whole affair, of course. He was there, and another friend too, a ménage à quatre all scraping garlic blossoms from the platter. It was pretty hot.
Bangkok: a city of distractions and temptations. Surrender to at least one. Mine was Polo Fried Chicken on Soi Polo, just off Lumphini Park. No regrets.
PS - I had to restructure my fried chicken hierarchy after this meal. It now goes Isaan fried chicken, Sokcho soy sauce chicken, all other Korean chicken.
America, I'm sorry, but you don't place.