Dave and I get a lot of emails asking for restaurant recommendations in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand, so I thought I would write a blog post with some of our thoughts on the food here.
Many people that come to Thailand on their honeymoon or for their yearly two-week vacation like to go out to nice restaurants while they’re here. I totally get it, and before we lived here, if I’d been traveling here just for a couple weeks I’m sure I would have done the same. After living in Thailand for two years, however, I can confidently say that if you spend your whole trip here seeking out the trendy/fancy restaurants, you will be sorely missing out. The reason is because in doing this, people end up skipping the more local Thai places and I think they are doing themselves a big disservice.
There are some very good restaurants here, and a huge trendy food scene. It seems like every month there is a new food trend in Bangkok. One month it’s food trucks, the next gourmet burgers, the next BBQ, and so on. In Bangkok, you can get whatever type of food you want, and chances are that if you do your research, it will be pretty good. It’s great for Dave and me who live here and eat Thai food 4-5 nights a week. We need to get our Western fix once in a while, and we do typically once a week when we try a new trendy Western restaurant. We love these meals and we spend a lot of time looking for the best new places to try (and of course we have a huge list of all the places we want to go to, similar to what we had in NY and Chicago).
For visitors, however, who get to have these Western meals anytime they want at home, I highly suggest sticking to the local cuisine (and preferably at the local restaurants) as it’s SO good and there are so many options. That’s the beauty of Thai food. It’s so much more than just pad see ew, penang curry and pad Thai, which I’m sure are some of your favorites at home. There are soups, salads, meats, seafood, and of course all the amazing rice and noodle dishes (see below for a list of all our favorite dishes here). I can also honestly tell you that you won’t find anything better than the street food and local Thai food that Thailand is known for, so even if you’re on your honeymoon and want to try some nice restaurants in Bangkok and beyond, I hope you leave some time to try the more local places as well.
When I say street food, I don’t mean food that you eat while walking around, I mean more of little popup restaurants that are everywhere. My favorite thing about Thailand (well, one of many) is that I’ve literally never seen a country so obsessed with food. Seriously, the Thais love to eat and just like Dave and me, they plan their whole days around food (no wonder we fit in so well). And, all of the food here is safe. Chances are that you won’t get sick from anything you eat (and if you do, it’s likely because you pushed your limit on the spice level of your food, not because the food itself was bad). Dave and I have never been sick from anything we’ve eaten here. Generally, the Thais know that the Westerners (farangs) can’t handle food as spicy as they like it so they’ll usually ask you… “Spicy?” You can say “Chai” (yes) or “Neet Noy” (a little) or “Mai” (no). Or, if you’re a real daredevil, you can say “Mak” (very), as Dave often likes to say to my dismay. The ice is safe too. A retired teacher we know that lives in our building once told us that he’s lived here for 30 years and hasn’t ever heard of anyone getting sick from the ice. No food vendor or restaurant wants to serve unfiltered ice because it just doesn’t taste good. So, do yourselves a big favor and in addition to eating on the street, also try the iced coffee and the coffee shakes (similar to a Starbucks frappe…just a fraction of the price). They are a savior on a hot day. Oh, and, the pineapple from the fruit street vendors is the best.
Another thing that amazes us about the food here is the sheer abundance of it. You can think you’re in the most remote location, a place where elsewhere, your only options for food would be a gas station or 7-11 or (gasp!) nothing at all. That never happens in Thailand. Everywhere you go, there are always food options, and good ones. This fact works out really well for me, as I always worry that I’ll find myself in a situation where I’m starving and won’t be able to find anything to eat. I’m not sure where this irrational fear comes from, but I don’t have to ever worry about that here.
Even though you can find great Thai food almost anywhere you go/are, we do have a couple of favorite food streets. When I say food street, I mean one street that is set up almost strictly for food, with lots of different vendors, restaurants, etc. The first is the Soi 38 food street in Sukhumvit, across the street (Sukhumvit Road) from Thong Lo (which is one of the most trendy areas in the city). Soi 38 is lined with lots of different vendors. You enter from Sukhumvit Road and about half way down the street on your right, you’ll see an indoor (though still open-air) area with tables where you can sit down. As soon as you do about 5 different people will come up to hand you different menus. Take them all and you can order anything from any one of them. Lots of variety. Your whole meal (typically four dishes for me and Dave, though we’re admittedly typical American eaters in that we order/eat way too much) will set you back about 200 baht ($7) or maybe 300 with a beer or two.
The second is Rambuttri Alley, off of Chakrabongse Rd (which eventually turns into Samsen Rd), one street over (and parallel to) Khaosan Road (KSR itself has some good snacks, but we’d stick to just drinking there, rather than eating). If you turn right onto Rambuttri Alley (coming from KSR), you will see a few popup restaurants first thing on the left side, which are all great. If you turn left onto this street from Chakrabongse/Samsen Rd, you will find yourself on a cobblestone street which turns left and runs parallel to the Chao Praya River. We think this street is one of the cutest streets in Bangkok. There are tons of great Thai restaurants on this street as well, with an emphasis on grilled meats (chicken, pork) and seafood.
But ok, let’s get real. A lot of you reading this will want to go to a nicer meal a couple nights while you’re here. As great as the Thai street food is, trying one of the very nice and trendy restaurants here may be on your Thailand bucket list as well. And you should.
Bangkok has great food and tons of famous chefs come here for the thriving food scene. In fact, a restaurant in Bangkok (Gaggan, an Indian restaurant) just got voted as the #1 restaurant in Asia. Before that, Nahm, one of the only Michelin starred restaurants in SE Asia and formerly voted the # 1 restaurant in Bangkok, is on that list as well (though it’s now down to 7 or 8). Our favorite local expat magazine here (similar to TimeOut) just published a list of the 109 best restaurants in Bangkok. While there are many Western restaurants on the list, there are also a ton of Asian ones. They range in price from $30-50 for a meal for two (a typical Western meal for me and Dave) to literally hundreds of dollars per person (usually for a prefix multi-course meal) if your hearts (and wallet) fancy it. If you’re looking for a great spot to eat while visiting, I suggest you browse this list to get ideas.
There are two very nice Thai places that we have heard a lot about and have been on our list for a while. We haven’t been to either of them yet, but will definitely hit them in due time. For us, the few times we have gone to a nice/fancy Thai restaurant we’ve felt that while the food has been good, it’s just not good enough to justify spending all the extra money. When we go out to nicer meals, we like to get Western food, since we just don’t eat it as often. Plus, when our favorite Thai restaurant in the city costs us $10, including alcohol, it’s just hard for us to justify spending $50 or more for food that we probably won’t think is as good (or at least not any better).
Anyway, the two Thai restaurants that are on our list are Nahm (which I mentioned above) and another place called Krua Apsorn. Nahm is about $100pp and offers a set menu. It’s supposed to be excellent, and for a restaurant of its caliber, also very reasonably priced, though per above, it fell considerably on the list of Bangkok’s top restaurants, so either it got complacent, or more likely, Bangkok’s thriving food scene is just that good. Krua Apsorn is supposed to be some of the best mid-range Thai food in the city and its clientele is much more local than Nahm. A lot of middle to upper class Thais apparently frequent it. It’s much cheaper than Nahm (probably around $10-15 pp), but our biggest gripe with this place is that it’s only open until 7pm and it’s closed on Sundays. That’s made it very difficult for us to visit thus far, but we’ll get there. Dave’s foodie work friend went to Nahm and Krua Apsorn and loved both but preferred the latter.
My other recommendation is a place in Chinatown (Yarowat Rd.) serving whole Peking duck. Typically when Dave and I go to Chinatown, we get a whole duck at a popup place on the street for about 500B ($15). When Dave’s parents came to visit us though, we tried Shangrilla (per a teacher friend’s recommendation) and it was excellent. A whole duck there is about 3 times as much though. Chinatown is an area that I consider a must-see while here, so if you want to check it out and eat a nice dinner, this spot is perfect.
As for restaurants in places other than Bangkok, unfortunately, I don’t have any specific recos. We’ve been to most places in Thailand by now but we usually eat at good local spots we see along the way, or find whatever Western food we’re craving. If you ever really get stuck and are craving Western Food, just pop into a Wine Connection. They’re everywhere (Bangkok, Phuket and probably Chiang Mai). They serve solid American cuisine (pizza, pasta, meats, etc) for a moderate price.
In Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai, make sure to try Khao Soi, which is a delicious peanutty coconut soup (get it with pork or chicken). Northern Thailand is famous for it and we often can’t find it outside of Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai. You may have to explain what it is a few times because the word for white rice is also Khao Soi (but with a different tone) and they always seem to be confused when I’m asking for the soup. Also the northern Thai sausage with rice and/or glass noodles inside is insane. Be sure to try that as well.
As for the islands…We love the islands because there are always great Western restaurants. And, unlike in Bangkok where we have to go to a specific area to find a type of cuisine, the islands are great because you can get whatever type of food you want all in the same area and within just a few blocks of eachother. Of course, there is also great seafood. One of our favorite things to do in the islands is to find a place right on the beach (where you can even sit on cushions right on the sand) for seafood. Typically, around dinner time, the restaurants put out tons of different seafood, from whole fish to lobster to shrimp to shark and more. You can pick out whatever you want and then they’ll grill it up for you. If you can find a spot that also has a fire show (Thai dancers performing incredible tricks with fire), then you’ll really be in business, especially with a bucket of whiskey/redbull and maybe even a shisha/hookah.
All in all, the point I’m trying to make in this post is to explain how amazing and safe the street food in Thailand is. Most people traveling here want to do it up a little nicer for meals, which is understandable for dinner (especially because local Thai meals tend to be very quick), but at least try to keep it local for lunch (where quick is good because then you can take in more sights). I promise, you won’t be disappointed. Chances are it might be the best meal you have on your trip! Here’s a list of some of our favorite Thai dishes, including their names in Thai and a description. Enjoy!
Foods We Love (the links are all pictures):
- Som Tam Thai (Papaya Salad): A spicy salad made from unripe shredded papaya served with tomatoes, green beans, peanuts, and sometimes dried shrimp. It can be very spicy, so make sure to tell them if you want it more mild.
- Pad See Ew: Flat/fat noodles stir fried with soy sauce, broccoli, egg, and meat – we like chicken.
- Panang Curry: A mild red curry with peanuts mashed into it. We like it with beef but since beef is harder to come by here and more expensive, you get a bigger portion with pork. Order it with a white rice.
- Morning Glory (called Pa Boong in Thai): We think this is some kind of spinach or broccoli or maybe a mix of both. All we really know is that it’s amazing and comes either in a sauce or fried. Both are great.
- Yom Plah Dough Fu: Again, this dish is a little hard to describe, but it’s little pieces of fried catfish. It doesn’t taste or look like fish at all, but trust us, it is amazing. It comes with this great sauce that you pour on top and usually is served over julianned cucumbers and with onions and peanuts on the side.
- Grilled Pork Neck (called Kor Moo Yang in Thai): Grilled pieces of sliced pork neck, usually served over rice. Sometimes a little fatty though, so watch out for that.
- Tom Yum Kung: A very spicy seafood soup. We love this and order it all the time, usually with shrimp.
- Tom Kha Gai: Coconut soup with chicken. Probably our favorite soup here.
- Jim Joom: A soup that serves 2 or more. It comes in a clay pot and they bring out uncooked veggies and your choice of meat or seafood (or both). You cook the veggies and meat/seafood in the broth.
- Sukiyaki: Very thin glass noodles that can either be served dry or with broth (we prefer the broth version. It’s not spicy at all and is cooked with veggies and either meat or seafood.
- Khao Soi: The only place we’ve been able to find this soup is in Chiang Mai, but it’s been one of our favorite dishes we’ve had in Thailand. It’s a peanut-y curry noodle soup served with your choice of meat. It is amazing, but good luck finding it anywhere other than CM. If you do, please tell us where!
- Whole Grilled Fish: You will see these all over the place. They are huge fish being roasted/grilled on big BBQs. They are served whole and seasoned with salt covering the skin. There are usually cooked with a bundle of lemongrass and other herbs inside of them to add to the flavor.
- Sausage Salad: This is something we get occasionally. It’s light and usually pretty spicy. Comes with veggies and lots of different types of sausages.
- Larb: Minced pork cooked with Thai basil and onions. Served with white rice and we like it with a fried egg on top.
- Fried Rice (called Khao Pot in Thai): The fried rice here is amazing. It’s not greasy like it can be in the US. Instead it’s very light and fluffy. We love it with chicken.
- Thai sauces: Mostly every Thai place you eat at will have 4 sauces on the table. Usually red pepper/chili flakes, a vinegar or fish sauce with chili, sugar, and then maybe peanuts. We never use the sugar, but we love the rest.