Visiting the Center of Beyond

Tender beef soup noodles at Muang Loei Pochana

I’ve been to Loei more than a couple of times now, after falling in love with the province just last year on a research trip. Its dreamy mountains, idyllic riverscapes, and, yes, obviously deliciously unique cuisine are things that make the AirAsia plane rides to the tiny one-plane airport in town a bearable necessity, even if flights frequently get cancelled or reshuffled around due to lack of customers. I mean, the appeal is inherent in the name itself: Loei is so remote, suspended in a limbo between North and Northeastern Thailand and perched on the topmost edge of the country, that its very name means “beyond” in Thai.

Even so, I have never been to “town”, as it were, mostly dissuaded from the enterprise by, well, not hearing a thing about it from anyone else. There is a popular notion among expats in Thailand that one provincial town looks exactly like any other; although this is absolutely not true in many cases, it would probably hold true for Muang Loei.

But there’s still food. After all, it’s a town populated by Thais, and Thais must eat, preferably good food! That’s what you will find at Muang Loei Pochana, an old-as-it-gets-here noodle joint run by a wonderfully saucy lady, who, when asked the secret for her delicious guaythiew, told us to “study hard for many years”. The noodle soup here is deceptively simple: beef or pork broth, your selection of rice noodles, extremely tender slabs of marinated meat, a sprinkling your choice of fresh herbs, green leaves and bean sprouts. So simple are the noodles, in fact, that the regulars here enjoy more than the typical condiments on the side (you know, fish sauce, granulated sugar, chili powder, pickled peppers in vinegar, the whole deal). Instead, we get a small bowl of fresh bird’s eye chilies and a tiny jar of shrimp paste — all the better to dip in your chilies and enjoy alongside your noodles. A freshly made dollop of red chili jam for the broth rounds out this lovely picture.

When pressed on which noodles she’d recommend (she sells both beef and pork versions), she recommended beef, and I was glad she did: meat soft like a strip of cashmere in a straightforward but flavorful soup. The noodles were like an afterthought, and that is the paradoxical point with a good noodle soup, isn’t it? You never come to a Thai guaythiew shop for the rice noodles. Just like you never come to the town of Loei for the town itself.

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