Samui Wining & Dining
Going Native

Joining the locals for dinner at Lae Lay Esan Restaurant in Bangrak


18“Lae Lay” means “to watch the sea”. A name coined by owner, Khun Kae, to represent not only the seaside location, but also the mood he intended to cultivate at his restaurant. Situated on a quiet stretch of road at the north end of Bangrak, the venue couldn’t be better suited to some relaxing sea-gazing. Wining & Dining’s resident photographer, Khun Grit, and I went down to meet Khun Kae and sample some of his Esan food early one evening – just as the sun was going down.

    Esan food comes from the northeast of Thailand, and is renowned for being pretty spicy. Like all Thai food it utilises lots of herbs and spices, and everything is made fresh, fresh, fresh! As is the case with many Thai words, the English translation for Esan is just a phonetic estimation, so the spelling changes depending on who you ask. You’ll see it spelt Issan, Isaan, E-san, and at Lae Lay, Esan. But don’t get confused, it’s all the same thing.

      Open from 11:30 am until 10:00 pm, the retaurant is a sizeable beachside property, with a large car park that offers free parking. From the roadside you’ll easily spot the signage across the front of the site. They’ve also got a few signs up with the name in Thai, cleverly incorporating a few red chillies in the place of some letters. Traditional bamboo chairs are juxtaposed with steel and glass tables to form a nice mix of old and new. A grass-thatched roof adds to the authenticity, and ceiling lights with red lampshades create a warm ambience. The restaurant is split-level, with one part being at street level, and the other down on the beach, with about a 50/50 split in seating capacity. You’ll hear subtle but upbeat music played throughout, which suits the beachside locale perfectly. There are also some lovely little features dotted around too, like water fountains and potted plants.

       The menu is extensive to say the least, featuring, among other things, a large number of Esan dishes, both well known and quirky. It kicks off with a page of salads, such as hot and spicy green mango salad, then goes on to soups then roasted and grilled dishes – and that’s all before the appetizers! Then it moves on to curries, stir-fried dishes, deep fried dishes, steamed dishes, rice and noodles, sandwiches and burgers before finally getting to dessert. But despite its length, it isn’t in any way a daunting menu. Professionally printed on thick shiny paper, this menu is clear and well presented. On every page are images of the dishes, both to help you choose your order, and also so that you can easily identify the theme of that particular page. Khun Kae even goes one step further and says that anything that’s not on the menu, you can request and they’ll make it for you, no problem.

        Khun Kae offered up a veritable feast for us to enjoy, spanning a wide variety of dishes from his menu. First we sampled the pork soup, consisting of a clear broth filled with lemon-grass, carrot, onion, spring onion, ginger, galangal and tender slow-boiled pork pieces. It was served in a clay pot resting atop a burner to keep it warm. Next we moved onto a papaya salad with fresh crabs in a spicy fish sauce and lime dressing. Then we had the pièce de résistance, the Lae Lay Special: a deep-fried whole fish served with two salads, one traditional Thai and the other Esan. The fish itself came impressively presented, upright, and alongside it a carved tomato glowed thanks to a candle that had been placed inside its hollowed-out centre. The dry red curry with fish was equally impressive, served inside a young coconut. In it was crabmeat, shrimp, calamari, and white snapper – all super tender. Dessert of mango with sticky rice was the perfect way to polish off the meal.

      To drink, Khun Kae gave us a very refreshing orange shake and Thai-style mojito, which really packed a punch – in a good way. What could better than to sip on a mojito made with local ingredients (such as fresh Thai mint and palm sugar) on Bangrak Beach at twilight? And Khun Kae doesn’t skimp on drink decorations either! The orange shake came with both a fresh flower and orange segment balanced on the top of the glass, as well as a twirly straw to drink it out of.

      As we finished the meal and watched a man walk his buffalo down the beach to bathe it in the sea – the man and his animal amiably bobbing side by side in the surf – we realised that we’d got just what we’d come for: some great local food with a side of authentic culture too.


Christina Wylie



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