This obscure Pranburi Seafood Restaurant called Yok Sod is the only reason I would drive three hours from Bangkok to Huahin. Any readers who are serious food lovers coming to Hua Hin or within Prachuap Khiri Khan province have to make Yok Sod a food destination. I am sure there are many places in Thailand that remain unexplored to me, but for Yok Sod in Pranburi, this restaurant is definitely worth a journey
Rick Stein went to Hua Hin in Episode Three of his Far Eastern Odyssey programme and lamented the loss of street food vendors and good food in Hua Hin. Well Ricky, I’m a big fan of yours and if you are ever back in Thailand, I will take you here and make you fall in love with Thai seafood all over again!
If the words ‘Crab Heaven’ make your legs go tingly and tongues salivating in anticipation of sweet, succulent crab-gasm, let me share with you the secret of Yok Sod’s deliciousness. The mangrove crabs are harvested the same day you eat them from around Yok Sod. This is Pranburi’s premier ‘Farm to Table’ restaurant, where the star ingredient comes from within a one kilometre radius! Thankfully, this Pranburi seafood restaurant is not a one hit wonder, with a small repertoire of simple dishes done to perfection. This is sophisticated cuisine cooked by humble folk. Just remember to get your hotel’s concierge to call ahead to book your crabs. Contact details are listed below.
Yok Sod is located in Pranburi, a district of Prachuap Khiri Khan province. Hua Hin is in this same province, located 45 minutes away by car. If you are renting a car, GPS coordinates are available at the end of this post. If you have no wheels and want to go to Yok Sod, tell your hotel’s concierge about your situation and see what they can arrange for you. Perhaps you could negotiate with a taxi driver a price on a return trip plus lunch thrown in. You just might get lucky.
The upsides of travelling to Pranburi is that you will be travelling through Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, or the Mountains with three hundred peaks. Its a breath taking sight that brought me back to road trips in Europe where we drove through the mountains and undulating hills in search for our next adventure.
Do not be shocked when your vehicle pulls up to this shack in the middle of nowhere with a ragtag bunch of locals in various states of motion. Behind their weather beaten faces lie the soul of culinary artists. Whilst the Jiro’s of this world get much deserved acclaim for their food artistry, I raise my glass to unsung heroes like this Yok Sod lot and thank them for one of the best food experiences of my life. There is an interesting story behind Yok Sod and how a Professor from Bangkok came about to starting this wonderful Pranburi restaurant.
The first thing you will see are baskets full of the day’s bounty, a delicious fate awaiting them. If you have taken my advice to book your crabs, you can ask for them to show your victims to you for a bout of photo taking. Crabs have to be tied up and left out of water and kept damp to limit their activity. Their crabtastic flavour is made up of several amino acids in the flesh that give crabs that sweet, savoury flavour. If they spend too much time out of the water or use up too much energy running around, you will get tasteless crabs with little meat. It is simple as that. At Yok Sod, they are harvested the morning you eat them from a stone’s throw away. Maximum flavour.
My favourite seat is near the estuary running alongside the restaurant. Look down and you will see a hundreds of tiny mud crabs waving in synchronicity like flags in the wind. Salamanders, birds and gobies can be spotted preying on these baby crabs and this dance of life and death, played out many times throughout the course of our meal never ceases to beguile me……until the food arrives.
This simple looking soup of fish and broth is a Tom Som Pla Tuu. Tom Som style of soup is a hot and sour soup similar to the famous Tom Yum soup. The difference is in the use of tamarind in the Tom Som as a souring agent and a more generous helping of ginger. There is a similar looking soup called a Tom Klong which is made with a base of a dried, smoked fish, a Thai style ‘Dashi’ if you will. At Yok Sod, it is prepared with Pla Tuu, a type of Mackerel that you will see in markets all over Thailand, nestled in woven containers with heads bent downwards.
Pla Tuu is famous around these parts and neighbouring Amphawa enjoys a reputation for the best Pla Tuu fisheries in Thailand. Its a soft textured fish with a clean, sweet flavour that reminds you its a Mackerel but without the fatty heaviness of its bigger cousins. A spoonful of soup with the fish really opens up the appetite.
These local oysters briefly cooked in their shells with a sprinkling of crispy shallots and local herbs form one of the most sophisticated appetisers I have ever eaten. The interplay of textures and tastes of briny oysters with sweet shallots and herbs stunned me with its genius.
What is a meal without vegetables and the specialty at Yok Sod is the stir fried Seablite, known in Thai as Bai Cha Kram. The cooking style changes with what they have on hand, with the above dish simply stir fried with punchy Thai garlic.
On another occasion, they had dried shrimp and added it to the mix. Seablite is a kind of sea vegetable that grows on salt marshes and is widely eaten in this region. Harvested from the salt marshes nearby, it gives a wonderful crunch to every bite and is surprisingly sweet tasting. Seablite can be found as well in Europe and other countries and should be more readily available in the markets because it just tastes so good!
This deep fried fish paired with a sweet soy sauce was addictive! Fished from local waters, it reminded me of another deep fried fish dish from Shanghai. In Shanghai, it was drenched in a sickly sweet soy sauce but in the expert hands of the Yok Sod cooks, I could not help going back for small bites of this unusual sweet and savoury dish.
The squid was another sweet savoury dish, but this time accented with punchy Thai garlic. These tiny cloves pack a sharp punch and really make sense in this otherwise unusual dish as without them, this would just be a sweet squid stir fry. Some may be put off by the idea of sweet and savoury but I am a fan of this preparation.
One of my favourite Thai soups is called Gaeng Som. It is a thick, spicy and sour soup made orange from the spice paste from which it gets its name. The version I eat is made mostly with a variety of vegetables with an omelette made with acacia leaves (Cha om) soaking up the soup like a sponge. At Yok Sod, its made with the smaller crabs of the day and their briny sweetness lends a different dimension to this flavourful soup.
These sea prawns were fresh and tasted good but by this point, I was waiting for the main show.
This picture does not do justice to the size of the crabs. Yok Sod chooses the meatiest crabs at their gustatory prime, that is, just before they enter the molting phase. Words cannot really describe the pleasure of eating these crabs. I’ve eaten snow crab in Japan and whilst I enjoyed them, I would choose Yok Sod’s crabs over Japanese King Crab if both were presented to me at the same time.
Perhaps working a bit harder for a mouthful of crab makes it more satisfying. Maybe eating the roe and tomalley brings a special kind of guilty pleasure. Whatever the reason, these are hands down the best crabs I have ever eaten. Creamy, sweet, savoury, chunky with that tender, flaking quality. You don’t need any sauce or condiment other than a quick swipe in its own juices to send one deeper into crab heaven.
We asked the Professor who started Yok Sod what makes his crabs so fantastic and he said besides the terroir, his secret is to steam only a lively crab (Dying or dead ones are discarded). He left out the part where he instinctively cooks different batches of crabs at the same time, pulling them out as they reach perfection, dipping them into cool water to stop the cooking before chopping them up. He is a man of many hats, having worked as a cook for several years before becoming a Professor of Logistics.
Between plucking crabs in and out of the steamer and chopping ‘em up, he regaled to us how years ago, he did a project with the universities in this area. He saw how unscrupulous middlemen were lowballing crab prices which they then sold on to restaurants for a huge profit. Farmers, as in every part of the world, always make the least money for their hard work. Therefore, this professor decided to open a crab shack, buying only the best crabs the farmers had for up to 3 times their wholesale price.
His Pranburi crab shack, Yok Sod, in return charges its customers a low price due to its location and his need to attract customers. High volume, low profit, a philantropic culinary strategy for a restaurant in the middle of nowhere! The strategy was simple at the start, placing signs on the road telling people that there was cheap crab to be had at Yok Sod. The road that passes Yok Sod services seaside resorts, a golf course and military camp. This well travelled road just needed a gourmet destination and Yok Sod filled tha gap! No sane Asian can ever pass up the chance for cheap crabs, and one only needs to taste Yok Sod crabs once to become an evangelist for their cause.
This way, the farmers and customers end up the winners but success never comes easy to the good of heart. The Professor became victim to harassment and was even issued threats of bodily harm from the unscrupulous middlemen. As Yok Sod’s fame grew, so did their efforts to bring it down. These middlemen were jealous of his success and accused him of spoiling the market, vandalizing his signs and tearing them down to affect his business.
Thankfully, the Professor didn’t retaliate, taking the middle path of Buddhism in understanding that everyone has to make a living. Therefore, in order to continue helping the farmers earn more, he just kept his mouth shut, took down all the signs and quietly continued to run Yok Sod with no further advertising. That is why this is the crab heaven not many people know about. In a rare case of civility, the middlemen stopped harassing him too. Perhaps they tasted his crabs and realised that it takes a special talent to elevate a simple dish of steamed crab into a gastronomic feat?
Yok Sod operates on weekdays and weekends, with the Professor being your chef on the weekends. There may be a profit sharing system going on because even on weekdays, the staff are attentive and the standard of food is still excellent, despite the boss not being around. Talking to the Professor, it seems like he doesn’t really care about the money but enjoys his job as a weekend chef. The simple pleasure of steaming and chopping crabs while the rest of his family and staff do the rest. There is magic in Yok Sod’s crabs, and the Professor humbly says its the crabs and the land that make it taste good. We need more blessed souls like him, and more restaurants with Yok Sod’s philosophy. This simple Pranburi restaurant, a simple crab shack in the middle of nowhere might just be my favourite restaurant in the world.
Pranburi Restaurant – Yok Sod
GPS Coordinates: N12.19420, E99.99381
Phone: 085-0657123 or 0868832356
Remember, get your concierge to call ahead to book your crabs. Don’t leave it to chance.