Food-loving Bangkok is the destination for intrepid eaters looking to venture beyond pad Thai for world-class fine dining and uncompromising street fare.
Food is a big deal in Bangkok. From the daily alms given to monks to the population’s around-the-clock snacking, seeking gustatory pleasure is a pivotal part of life in the Thai capital. Even the language betrays a national obsession with eating: the popular greeting “gin khao yung?” literally translates to “have you eaten rice yet?”
It helps, of course, that Bangkok teems with deliciousness – easy to find in alleyway stalls and in food courts in ritzy shopping mega-centres. These are rich sources of sustenance, day or night, snack or meal, sweet or savoury. The Thai-food lexicon is notable for its diversity and affordability.
Yet cheap and casual is just one aspect of Bangkok’s thriving food scene. In recent years, fine-dining restaurants have established footholds in the Asian metropolis. At this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, Gaggan, an ambitious Indian restaurant near Lumpini Park, was crowned the region’s best table. Last year the title went to Nahm, the vibrant Thai restaurant opened by Australian David Thompson at Metropolitan by COMO hotel.
That Gaggan and Nahm got the nod over the heavyweight names of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore says much about how far the Thai capital has come in such a short amount of time. “Bangkok has always been a great eating city,” says Thompson, an on-and-off resident of Bangkok for the past 30 years. “The markets, streets and stalls attest to that. But now it’s becoming a restaurant city, too. The scene here is flourishing.”
Of course, the rise of fine dining in Bangkok has prompted debate in some quarters about which style of eating reigns supreme – street or smart? But why should eating be a case of either/or? The bigger issue is trying to cram as much memorable food into your visit as you can. So here’s hoping you’ve packed your eating pants – they’re going to come in very handy.
There’s no other restaurant in the world like Nahm, largely because there’s no other chef in the world like David Thompson. Born in Sydney, trained in classic French cooking and now a full-time student of Siamese culture, his understanding of his adopted homeland’s food is unrivalled. Whether you opt for definitive renditions of the familiar – a lush green curry of beef and eggplant, perhaps – or surrender to the exotic and unusual (that Chiang Mai-style guinea fowl salad!), exquisite flavours are assured. At lunch, Nahm bolsters its impressive menu with superb house-made kanom jin rice noodles.
As far as restaurant design goes, Ledu’s undressed tables and neutral décor might err on the muted side of things but it’s an ideal backdrop for the precision of chef Ton Tassanakajohn. An alumnus of New York’s feted Eleven Madison Park, the prodigal cook is another melding past and present. His yum tua plu (winged-bean salad), for example, reinvents the popular family dish as a plump grilled prawn and slow-cooked egg dressed with a bright tamarind sauce. Later, rice pudding with lush coconut ice-cream and ripe mango gloriously updates khao niaow ma muang, a quintessential Siamese sweet.
A progressive Indian restaurant in Bangkok? It reads like the stuff of purists’ nightmares but considering India’s influence on Thai cuisine, the fit isn’t all that strange. Set in a converted colonial house, Gaggan brings colour and whimsy to the city’s dining scene. Juicy Iberian pork in a sweet-and-sour Punjabi sauce is typical of the house style, while prawns cloaked in coconut foam equals a fresh take on that Bengali classic, daab chingri. It’s intricate stuff – although fork-tender chicken tikka masala and wispy naan are wins for the old school.
Part of Issaya’s appeal comes from the club itself, a secreted, two-storey villa complete with alfresco seating and a lush garden. Chef Ian Kittichai’s cooking sports a similar modern Thai bent. In some instances, the upcycling might be as simple as a traditional coal-grilled hen (gai aob) starring an organically farmed bird. Other times, the old and the new meet headlong via the bold likes of mango-flavoured marshmallows and fluffy babas spiked with local Mekhong spirit. Both approaches pay dividends for the guest, ditto the friendly service and cheery house cocktails.
Not all Bangkok it-chefs want to reinvent the wheel. Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones – two David Thompson protégés who lend their nous and names to Bo.lan – are happy to follow their mentor’s lead by offering real-deal Thai food cooked with organically farmed ingredients and served in elegant surrounds. So far, so very, very good, from the slow burn of juicy pork neck stir-fried with orange chilli to earthy prawn tomalley relishes and the rest of the pair’s seasonally driven repertoire.
This Bo.lan spin-off is a casual eatery excelling in small plates and good times. If you’re in the market for salumi and pasta, there’s Biscotti (Anantara Siam, 155 Rajadamri Road). And Hong Kong’s legendary dim sum joint, Tim Ho Wan, has opened its first Thai outpost.
Or Tor Kor market
Start your self-guided Bangkok eating tour here. Many regard Or Tor Kor as the home of the city’s best produce and the food on offer certainly suggests they’re right – from atypical yet refreshing juices (butterfly pea and coconut, anyone?) to vendors peddling dainty khanom buang (crisp Thai pancakes) filled with coconut cream and egg-yolk strands. Drop by Nam Prik Baan Ya for an excellent primer on the eponymous nam prik – fiery chilli relishes – and some of the most ancient recipes in the Thai playbook.
You can’t miss Lek Gaiyang: look for the plumes of grey smoke and the sweet, sweet scent of burning charcoal. While this stall’s business card extols the virtues of its deep-fried meatballs, it’s all about the charcoal-grilled chicken: tender, succulent and cooked to order like all good birds should be. Cleaved into sensible pieces and accompanied by a duo of chilli-spiked dipping sauces – one sweeter, one spicier, both ludicrously delicious – it’s proof that simple is so often best. Neighbouring vendors put in bravura performances, too, from the pork-satay grillers to the aunty frying savoury vegetable cakes.
Not so much a restaurant as an alleyway with tables and plastic chairs, Jok Prince, it’s safe to say, isn’t going to win any awards for interior design. But as far as jok – comforting rice porridge – goes, this bolthole is one of the city’s best. Lush, smoky and enriched with ginger, egg and juicy pork meatballs, the jok here is worth ditching the hotel breakfast buffet for. Make like the locals and spring for a side order of pa thong ko (golden sticks of deep-fried dough) and really start the day right.
As they have throughout Southeast Asia, Chinese migrants have contributed heavily to Thai cuisine, with chicken rice (khao man gai) a particularly tasty case in point. While the dish is a common sight in the capital, street stall Kaiton is memorable not only for its quality handiwork but also the distinctive pink shirts worn by staff. Like the legendary Hainan chicken rices of Malaysia and Singapore, tender poached chook and aromatic rice are the stars, only here the duo is teamed with a thick, sweet soy sauce laden with chilli and garlic.
Hoi Tot Chalae
That giant hotplate out front isn’t just there for decoration, you know. Day and night, cooks earn their keep greasing, frying, turning and scraping their way through orders of hoi tot, addictive fried mussel and oyster “omelettes” that contrast the crunch of crisp rice flour batter against creamy egg and just-cooked shellfish to winning effect. Like chicken rice, this is another dish with Chinese roots but, after a century on Thai soil, hoi tot is now celebrated as one of the country’s own.
Nervous about dining on the street? Queues are a guarantee of both high turnover and food quality while vendors who cook to order are another reassuring sign. Don’t forget to pack your own tissues, too. Bangkok’s streets can be maddening to navigate, phone numbers and websites are often non-existent and communication for tourists often means pointing, nodding and hoping for the best. Do persevere: the rewards outweigh the risks for intrepid eaters.
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