Two strikes for Thailand’s meals on the move

Thais seem to have a fixation on mobile meals.

Tuesday night we saw our fried chicken dinner catapulted into the air and caught on a platter by a guy on a unicycle, who then served it to us while off-tune crooners butchered karaoke songs on a stage across the restaurant floor.

The next night, we watched in confusion as a waiter in traditional Thai garb zip lined across a moat in Bangkok’s largest (5,000 seat) restaurant with a flaming bowl of soup extended by his right hand. Private karaoke booths to our rear were happily as unoccupied by the rest of the massive restaurant, so we were at least spared the indigestion-inducing warbling.

It’s as if David Lynch has gotten into the restaurant business in Bangkok.  Think “The Ramen Girl” meets “Lost Highway.” Lousy food with a heavy side order of bizarre imbued by weirdness all around is a sure recipe for a Lynch-style dining experience.

Take Ka Tron “Flying Chicken” Restaurant, for example.

Located on the outskirts of Bangkok, the Flying Chicken is kitsch to the max. Enormous, brightly-painted chicken sentinels stand guard outside the restaurant, announcing to the world both the restaurant’s presence and its culinary intention. Yes, we serve chicken. And yes, prepare yourself for one bizarre experience.

Focal point for the place was a tiny stage in the middle of the floor. Alertly following up on our order, a waiter mounted the steps, lit the two floodlights and rang a bell as our fried chicken arrived on a platter. He stuck the pathetic bird on a catapult and rang the bell three times, prompting another waiter on a unicycle to sprint across the restaurant, up a small ramp onto the stage and catch the mobile meal on a platter.

His exploits elicited a smattering of applause – just me and Gabi, whose surprised “That’s it?” is memorialized in a video I took of the event.

We felt cheated. Promotional footage shows the waiter catching the squab on a spiked helmet as he raced across the stage, demonstrating impressive head-eye coordination.  One of the staff raised our hopes by bringing the helmet on stage, but it never so much as made it onto the head of the unicyclist.

Still, the entertainment – diluted as it was – turned out to be the best part of the meal. The myopic waitress who stared point-blank at our menu as we pointed to our chosen items delivered them minutes after we’d put the menus down, given new definition to the concept of fast food.

We worried that her challenged eyesight might cause her to mistake the appealing “fried rice in physioghamy counts fractures” with the nearby-listed fried morning glory with garlic. We held our breath and sighed with relief when the right dishes arrived.

Behind us in a small karaoke “container”, a bunch of Thais kept the waiter running for ice and soda water to accompany the rapidly disappearing bottle of scotch, which seemed to fuel the onslaught of horrible karaoke leaking onto the restaurant floor. The wailing competed with the hapless offerings of a string of karaoke singers on a small stage across the restaurant that maintained a perfect record of missing each note as the evening wore on.

So, bad singing, bad food and the oddity of our meal going airborne before hitting our table.

Know what? We loved it.

Much as we did the next night at The Royal Dragon.

This mammoth restaurant – opened in 1991 and with its 5,000 seats was the world’s largest restaurant until it was trumped by an eatery in Damascus – serves up lousy food served by disconsolate waiters on roller skates to diners sitting on uncomfortable chairs around tables built on platforms suspended over an 8.35 acre pond.

So what’s the appeal?

It’s the mere scope of the place, the specter of a restaurant whose population (when full) is like a small US town. Like mice drawn to a cheese mountain, diners once poured into Royal Dragon and lined up for the overpriced seafood ($100 for Mekong lobster) and hour-long performance of traditional dance and culture. And just like the food, the entertainment failed to live up to its billing, delivering no more than 20 minutes of action during the listless hour of mostly canned music.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the aforementioned arrival by zip line of the brightly festooned waiter carrying the flaming bowl of soup.

Even Lynch would be challenged to top this spectacle. The guy traversed the entire main restaurant – perhaps 400 yards – in perfect posture, his right hand extending the fiery soup like Lady Liberty in Thai dress – then, aided by a motorized zip line carrier, reversed direction and repeated the performance for the crowd of….

Thirty.

That’s right, 30, and that’s a liberal crowd estimate from my ever-optimistic wife. Aside from us, our section – which had a capacity of 300 or so – was populated by one table of three and another of two. Nothing makes a big room look empty like a sparse audience. Just ask a politician lording over a fundraiser that’s bombing.

The entertainment ended, we poked our way through tasteless plates of soft-shell crab, seafood vermicelli and sweet and sour fish, grateful for the predictability of fried morning glory and garlic – Southeast Asia’s staple vegetable.

The Royal Dragon – much like Ka Tron – felt like a once-heralded place waiting to be demolished and converted into condos. Kitsch on the decline is a sad thing to witness, indeed, and absent some fresh ideas, investment in decent food and a case of Red Bull for the restaurants’ staff, these places seem doomed for the wrecking ball.

So here’s an idea:

Oddly enough, The Royal Dragon is located across the busy street from Ka Tron,  so this gives the two eateries a unique cross-marketing opportunity to help bolster their sagging census.

After all, they are only a well-tossed chicken or an extended zip line ride away from one another.

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