Bangkok Restaurants: the Top Spots for Thai
By Chawadee Nualkhair
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang
There is such a thing as being spoiled for choice. Bangkok, a city of almost 12 million people, appears to boast nearly as many places to eat, from the lowliest curbside cart vendor to the toniest of five-star hotel restaurants, offering everything from batons of deep-fried dough to truffled risotto. Yet as dazzling as the Thai capital‚Äôs food scene may be, the sheer breadth of options can bewilder the visitor‚Äîespecially when it comes to homegrown cuisine.
Like big-game safari hunters, those in search of Thai food tend to focus on the Big Five: eggy pad thai, basil-strewn green curries, spicy lemongrass soups, fiery globs of green papaya salad, maybe a satay stick or two. Yet untold rewards await the more intrepid diner. If you know where to look in Bangkok, all the facets of Thai food are there for the taking: the slow dried-chili burn of southern food, the subtle complexity of a ‚Äúroyal Thai‚Äù meal, the heady satisfaction of a no-frills seafood platter, and these days, even the perplexing concoctions of Thai-style molecular gastronomy.
So, what‚Äôs for dinner? Whether it‚Äôs on a crowded Chinatown footpath or in a hotel dining room surrounded by a legion of servers; whether it‚Äôs served in a chipped noodle bowl or garnished with a flourish of coconut foam, the tastiest Thai food in Bangkok awaits at the following locations.
Taking It to the Streets
Most Thais consider the sidewalk to be the ultimate preserve of the die-hard gourmet, and will stop at nothing (rain, car exhaust, roaches) to get their fill of some of the best food that the kingdom has to offer.
Bangkok teems with street stalls, each featuring a different specialty or strain of Thai food. Pad thai, fried chicken, rice congee, and soup-noodle vendors abound, while more rarefied offerings‚Äîoyster omelets, sublime coconutty sweets, fermented rice noodles with curry ‚Äîrequire a little more patience to suss out. It‚Äôs no stretch to say that street dishes number in the hundreds here, which is why they can be so fun (or challenging, depending on your point of view) to explore.
The least intimidating introduction to Bangkok street food is probably the loose collection of evenings-only stalls located at the entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 38. Known to locals simply as Soi 38, this side street near the Thonglor sky train station offers a vast range of Thai staples: grilled pork satay paired with a generous helping of pickled cucumbers and shallots; fiery-sweet pad thai; silky egg noodles with Chinese-style wontons; and that perennial favorite, mango on sticky rice (khao neow mamuang). All vendors here enjoy a devoted following, and have a reputation for being hygienic. Best of all? A gigantic meal for four will typically set you back a mere 400 baht (about US$13).
Another good place to dip a figurative toe into the waters is Polo Fried Chicken, a longstanding outlet off of Wireless Road that specializes in the pungent flavors of Isan, as Thailand‚Äôs rural northeastern region is called. The stand‚Äîalso known as Gai Tod Jeki‚Äîis so successful that it now boasts an air-conditioned dining room, a delivery service, and a vastly expanded menu that includes, inexplicably, southern Thai favorites such as gaeng trai pla (fish-entrails stew). But stick with what brought Polo Fried Chicken its horde of customers in the first place: crispy, deliciously meaty fried chicken, garlanded with deep-fried garlic and accompanied by sticky rice and a sweet red chili dipping sauce.
No survey of Thai street food is complete without a mention of Chinese-style grilled duck or barbecued pork on rice. The best place to get this is always up for debate, but one of the oldest and most popular vendors of this dish is Jibgi Ped Yang, across the road from the old Nang Lern wet market in Banglamphu. Juicy cushions of meat come with clear bowls of broth flavored with scallions and lime and generous portions of fluffy white rice. It‚Äôs the perfect lunchtime treat.
By now, any longtime Bangkok food fans reading this may be thinking, ‚ÄúBeen there, done that.‚Äù So consider this: Nai Mong in Chinatown, home to what may possibly be the most succulent oyster ‚Äúomelets‚Äù in the city‚Äîcrispy disks of egg and flour topped with a bounty of barely cooked shellfish. Lovers of all kinds of seafood, meanwhile, will have to work a tad harder to find Elvis Suki, tucked in a side alley across from the Hua Chiew Hospital. Here, one-of-a-kind grilled scallops paired with slivers of pork, Thai-style seafood sukiyaki, and a whole sea bass grilled in banana leaves set pulses racing.
If noodles are your thing, head to Lookchin Anamai in the Huai Khwang area (it‚Äôs across from another medical landmark, the Bangkok Hospital). Named for its famous grilled meatballs, served slathered in a sweet chili sauce, this eatery is praised also for its rice noodles in beef broth, quick service, and reputation as one of the cleanest street stalls in the city. Of equal repute is Raan Jay Fai, just down the road from an old whitewashed citadel called Mahakan Fort. Manned by Jay Fai herself (loosely translated, the name means ‚ÄúSister Mole‚Äù), the one-person ‚Äúkitchen‚Äù churns out plate after plate of pad kee mao goong‚Äîstir-fried noodles with shrimp, chilies, and holy basil.
Not surprisingly, some of the most faithful Thai dishes in Bangkok come courtesy of the old-fashioned restaurants in the inner city, all of which have been around for decades. One such gem is Methavalai Sorndaeng, a favorite of Thai grandfathers everywhere. Here, 1950s decor and sedate Thai music performances (evenings only) combine with hard-to-find central Thailand treats such as kratong tong (tartlets filled with minced meat) and khao tang (coin-shaped rice crackers topped with minced pork and prawns) to create a sort of time warp that dispels the clamor of Ratchadamnoen Avenue outside.
Diners in search of a more casual vibe need look no further than the original, much-lauded branch of Krua Apsorn. Plaudits certainly don‚Äôt extend to the decor‚Äîthink school cafeteria‚Äîor the Samsen Road location, which can be frustratingly difficult to get to. Instead, the draw here is the well-made, well-executed food: hoy mangpu pad cha (mussels stir-fried with basil and chilies), gaeng som (southern Thai-style curry with lotus stems and prawns), and deep-fried chicken wings. Another oldie but goodie is Sanguan Sri, set on Wireless Road in a gray, nondescript building that has all the charm of a bomb shelter. Open only for lunch, the restaurant is routinely packed by Thais looking for old-style curries, often accompanied by plates piled high with kanom jeen (Mon-style fermented rice noodles).
The largely residential Sukhumvit area, known for its sushi bars and Thai-fusion vanity projects, is not without its own tried-and-tested eateries. A case in point: Ruea Thong, a two-story shophouse restaurant on Thonglor that throngs with local hipsters. Snail curry and a salad of catfish eggs with shredded green mango are just some of the menu‚Äôs highlights. Or there‚Äôs Ruen Mallika, which occupies a traditional teak house crammed with low wooden tables and triangular pillows. The cuisine here is royal Thai‚Äîsimilar to conventional Thai food, but with more emphasis on presentation. Standout dishes include tod mun goong (deep-fried shrimp cakes) and nam prik kai pu (crab-roe chili dip).
While southern Thai food is well represented in the capital, one of the best places to have it is Khua Kling Pak Sod. The iconic dish from which the restaurant takes its name‚Äîkhua kling, or minced beef or pork seasoned with chilies and kaffir lime leaves‚Äîis a specialty of the kitchen, as is an eye-watering gaeng luang (yellow curry) and stir-fried sator (‚Äústink beans‚Äù) with shrimp paste and prawns. Thankfully, there is also a wide variety of kai jiew (deep-fried omelets) with which to combat the spice.
For some reason, finding good northern Thai food (aharn nuea) in Bangkok is a tougher proposition. Often confused for the spicier, more straightforward fare of Isan, northern dishes are actually a mellower, fattier celebration of the herbs and vegetables (and pigs) that grow so abundantly in the mountains. In Bangkok, your best bet for this is Maan Mueng, hidden away in a northern Bangkok suburb. Dishes range from the curried noodles known as khao soy to sai oua (minced pork sausages), naem (cured pork sausages), and nam prik num (green chili dip); diners with an adventurous bent should sample the samong moo‚Äîpigs‚Äô brains grilled in a banana leaf.
While southern Thai food woos diners with chilies and northern Thai plies them with pork, many Thai-Chinese eateries focus on quality seafood in a bare-bones setting. One such place is Nakorn Pochana, known for its crayfish tails, abalone, and stir-fried curried crab. Another Thai-Chinese family favorite is Chandrphen, set in a cavernous space off of Rama IV Road (try the barbecued chicken). Finally, diners too busy for a trip to the beach can make a beeline for Laem Charoen Seafood, a Rayong institution that brings a touch of the seaside to Bangkok via its steamed crabs, wok-fried scallops, and deep-fried sea bass.
What is modern Thai food? In some cases, it‚Äôs a reworking of the food itself with the help of a few ingredients or techniques borrowed from the West. In others, it‚Äôs a reworking of the format‚Äîa more caf√©-style, dessert-oriented menu, or a bistro-like setting. Whichever you choose, it reflects the way many Bangkokians dine out today.
Taling Pling won‚Äôt win any style awards. The ambience at the original restaurant off of Silom Road resembles the lobby of a two-star resort hotel. Instead, the reason this place is so beloved among middle-class Thais rests squarely on its dependably decent curries, yums (tart, spicy salads), and stir-fried dishes. The formula is catching on, as the popularity of Taling Pling‚Äôs various shopping-mall ‚Äúgastro-caf√©‚Äù offshoots can attest.
While Taling Pling is packed with locals, the wood-paneled Soul Food Mahanakorn on Thonglor caters to a more international clientele. This is strange, since the flavors coming from the kitchen of this self-styled ‚ÄúThai izakaya‚Äù are resolutely homespun, despite culinary tweaks like crumbled bacon and smoked chicken. Crowd favorites include the minced-lamb grapao (stir-fried with holy basil and presented atop a mound of rice with a single runny egg) and yum makuea yao (grilled, smoky eggplant covered in a tangy dressing).
Stylishness is also a big draw at Le Lys, where Thai food (and homemade pork rillettes) is presented in a homey setting off Nang Lin- chi. Owned by Frenchman Philippe Delmas and his Thai wife Paty, Le Lys makes food that veers toward the traditional with minor adjust- ments and major hits of flavor: an Isan-style larb salad is dressed up with minced salmon, while tender, perfectly cooked morsels of duck arrive swathed in Penang curry. It‚Äôs the atmosphere that is more of a fusion: Thai artifacts mixed with a breezy French-colonial feel, complete with a p√©tanque court.
If you‚Äôre looking for someone to credit (or blame) for the multitude of cute Thai caf√©s-slash-cakeries that now predominate the Bangkok dining scene, look no further than Kalprapruek. Here, reliably tasty one-dish wonders like guay tiew rad na (fried rice noodles in gravy) combine with old-style Thai interpretations of Western dishes (sa-tu lin wua, or beef-tongue stew with rice), Italian-ish pasta, and a veritable army of cake desserts. The result is a mix so bewitching to Thais that dozens, if not hundreds, of caf√©s with similar menus now abound in the capital. The original, off of Silom, is the first and still the best.
Fine Dining, Thai-style
Bangkok Restaurant: David Thompson, Nahm‚Äôs Australian chef, on one of his a forays to Nang Lern Market.
To many locals, ‚Äúhigh-end Thai restaurant‚Äù is an oxymoron. After all, Thai cuisine is meant to be eaten at home or in a casual setting, shepherded by grandmotherly types who have spent the entire afternoon pounding chili pastes in a sweltering kitchen. The following restaurants challenge this perception, fusing Thai flavors with upscale surrounds and high-wattage prices.
Despite the indignant newspaper editorials he has inspired, Australian chef David Thompson is an accomplished Thai cook, resolutely faithful to the varied traditions of the kingdom‚Äôs cuisine. Meals at his restaurant at the Metropolitan Bangkok, Nahm, are de-signed to be served family-style; a large chunk of the menu is devoted to krueng jim (shrimp-paste-based condiments that Thompson likes to refer to as ‚Äúrelishes‚Äù), largely overlooked in much contemporary Thai food. Also food for thought: the stately surroundings, reminiscent of a Sukhothai-era temple, and the exuberant zigs and zags of flavor, which can backfire (too-salty stir-fried frogs‚Äô legs) or soar (jungle curry; the unrepentantly aromatic durian on rice). If chefs could be musical divas, Thompson would be the Patti LaBelle of Thai cuisine.
Bangkok Restaurant: Krueng jim, or ‚Äúrelishes,‚Äù bring a taste of authentic Thai home cooking to the fine-dining surrounds of chef David Thompson‚Äôs Nahm restaurant, at the Metropolitan Bangkok.
Krueng jim, or ‚Äúrelishes,‚Äù bring a taste of authentic Thai home cooking to the fine-dining surrounds of chef David Thompson‚Äôs Nahm restaurant, at the Metropolitan Bangkok.
Bo.lan might seem a little bit like Nahm; after all, its co-chefs Duangporn ‚ÄúBo‚Äù Song-visava and Dylan Jones both worked under Thompson at his original Nahm in London. There is the same insistence on adhering to Thai culinary traditions, serving curries family-style, and reference to relishes. But there are also departures, such as the warmer, Thai-homelike setting and quietly showy dishes like the spectacular nam prik gapi plang nam, or stir-fried shrimp paste-based chili relish accompanied by a raft of fresh vegetables.
By contrast, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin can inspire some confusion among diners, ranging from ‚ÄúHow do I eat this?‚Äù to ‚ÄúIs this even Thai food?‚Äù Billed as serving ‚Äúauthentic Thai food with modern flair,‚Äù this dining room at the Siam Kempinski Hotel is helmed by Danish chef Henrik Yde-Andersen and linked to Copenhagen‚Äôs Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin, a pioneer of what can be referred to as ‚Äúmolecular Thai.‚Äù This means a ‚Äúgreen curry‚Äù crowned with powdered spice ‚Äúsoil‚Äù and adorned with a baby carrot, or a pineapple sorbet laced with granules that pop on the tongue. Is it good? It‚Äôs certainly intriguing. And in a food-driven city like Bangkok, what more could you ask from a meal?
Address Book: Bangkok
|Chandrphen||1030/1 Rama IV Rd.||66-2/287-1535|
|Elvis Suki||200/37 Soi Yotse||66-2/223-4979|
|Jibgi Ped Yang||Nakhon Sawan Rd.||66-2/281-1283|
|Kalpapruek||27 Pramuan Rd.||66-2/236-4335|
|Krua Apsorn||Samsen Rd.||66-2/668-8788|
|Laem Charoen Seafood||3/F Beacon Zone, CentralWorld or
577 Prachautit Rd.
|Le Lys||148/11 Nang Linchi Soi 6||66-2/287-1898|
|Lookchin Anamai||3 Soonvijai Soi 7, New Petchburi Rd.||66-2/318-1606|
|Maan Muang||165/7 Sammakorn Soi 16, Ramkhamhaeng 112||66-2/729-6275|
|Methavalai Sorndaeng||78/2 Ratchadamnoen Klang Rd.||66-2/224-3088|
|Nahm||Metropolitan Hotel, Sathorn Tai Rd.||66-2/625-3333|
|Nai Mong Hoy Tod||539 Prapachai Rd.||66-2/623-1890|
|Nakorn Pochana||¬†258-260 Chula Soi 11||66-2/214-2327|
|Polo Fried Chicken||137/1-2, Soi Polo,Witthayu Rd.||66-2/251-2772|
|Raan Jay Fai||327 Mahachai Rd.||66-2/223-9384|
|Ruea Thong||351/2 Thonglor Soi 17||66-2/185-2610|
|Ruen Mallika||189 Sukhumvit Soi 22||66-2/6633-2112|
|Sanguan Sri||59/1 Witthayu Rd.||66-2/252-7637|
|Soi 38 Food Market||Sukhumvit Soi 38|
|Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin||Siam Kempinski Hotel, 991/9 Rama 1 Rd.||66-2/162-9000|
|Taling Pling||60 Thanon Pan, Silom Rd.||66-2/234-4872|