Sawn-off drums filled with smoking charcoal and grilling chicken catch the eye along the lake road in Chaweng. As you drive by you’ll see an enormous barbecue, turning out an astonishing variety of chicken treats at very affordable prices. This is Phumchai Gai Yang, which for many islanders is their favourite place to go. Most people come for takeaway and park their cars along the road or up the lane by Bees Knees Brewpub, which is just a few metres away on the other side of the road.
It’s the brainchild of Khun Phumchai and his wife Khun May who set up the restaurant some four years ago. They work in tandem, along with two helpers, and manage to speedily get their customers’ orders wrapped and ready to go. To say the restaurant has been doing well is a bit of an understatement; it normally sells about 60 chickens per day, but can sell up to 200 on big holidays, such as Songkran.
Khun Phumchai used to work in a local resort, but decided to set up on his own. Obviously he and his wife knew that selling grilled chicken anywhere in Thailand would mean facing some fairly stiff competition. It wasn’t a decision that they took lightly, but went ahead all the same. They knew they’d need to be not just good, but excellent, if they wanted to beat the odds and come out victorious. How did they manage? For a start, they were very picky about the chickens themselves; they had to be ideal for grilling and as tasty as possible. They found the right suppliers and for a long while stayed with them. Later, quality began to decline, so they went in search of a new supplier. Today they’re very happy to be using chicken that comes from Khanom, just over the water on the mainland. Chicken is incredibly versatile, and with the right ideas and preparation can morph into a very delectable item. So Khun Phumchai and Khun May spent time ensuring that the chicken had the best possible preparation, with a medley of ingredients that are rubbed into them before they even come into contact with the grill. This takes time.
The recipe used for preparing the chicken stays true to its roots, and not surprisingly ‘gai yang’ (the term translates very simply as ‘grilled chicken’) has become popular the world over in Thai restaurants. There are many variations on the theme of gai yang, and recipes vary up and down the country, but most versions will have lemongrass in them as well as fish sauce. At Phumchai, they naturally have their own version, and it’s so good that you’ll find yourself eating more than you intended.
The couple gets up at 3:00 am every work day and first take delivery of the chickens before carefully preparing them. Six hours later the restaurant is open, and the first batch of chicken is ready. It’s slow work until the customers arrive and then it’s all speed.
You can order anything from a whole chicken to a simple small skewer – there’s a whole range to choose from, and many people also opt for one of the accompaniments, the most popular being spicy papaya or cucumber salad and sticky rice. Space is limited if you choose to eat here, there are just a few tables, but you’re sure of a warm welcome. Everything’s brought to your table by one of the staff. Since the space that this little restaurant occupies is basically a narrow strip by the roadside, staff actually have to walk along the pavement.
The restaurant’s open daily, except Mondays, from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. As an option you can also order by telephone and the staff will prepare for you to collect at your convenience. Requests come in from far and wide, and even in one instance, from Bangkok. The takeaway in this case went via plane to the customers, who are big fans of Phumchai.
Phumchai Gai Yang is definitely proof you can make exceptional food with basic ingredients as long as you put in the effort to get everything just right. The team of four make it all look easy. Few people though, even other professional chefs, can beat the great taste that’s provided by this small roadside eatery.