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Bangkok's teeming boulevards are notorious for their political riots and traffic jams. Some argue that they're also the world's best al fresco restaurant.
Locals say the tastiest food in Bangkok can be found outdoors. A vendor fries bananas at the Damnoen Saduak floating market. (Photo by iStock)
A 19-year-old guy — nicknamed "Heart — who live in my neighborhood has a hopeless, puppylove crush on a Japanese girl. One day over lunch, he asks my advice. He’s talked to her twice on the street. How should he proceed?
“Easy,” I said. “Ask her out to a romantic Thai restaurant and order something amazing. She’ll love it.”
But Heart shook his head. “A romantic Thai restaurant?” he said. “You know where all our good food is. Out on the street.”
Actually, the kid’s right. Bangkok feels like one big chaotic, urban kitchen. Noodle carts clog the streets, tempting pedestrians with the smoky scent of char-grilled pork. Sidewalk stalls sell bright orange and jade-colored curries, pre-bagged for commuters walking home.
Meals are consumed at plastic tables just feet away from traffic or in renovated garages called shop houses, where the wall decor consists of little more than a dry-erase board with today’s specials scrawled in Thai.
Romantic decor isn’t necessary when the food’s this good. There are upscale, swanky restaurants in Bangkok, but few offer Thai food. Probably because diners resent paying four times the price for the same papaya salad they can buy right outside.
As Heart rejects my advice, I glance down at the remains of our lunch: scattered skewers, still sticky from threading garlic-stuffed sausages. He bought them from a local vendor who’s rigged a charcoal grill to his bike and advertises by riding down the street belting out songs about his delicious sausage.
Our dessert also came from a pushcart, pineapple slices we dipped in a curry powder made from ground crab.
Maybe eating on the street with stray dogs circling your feet lacks first-date ambience. Maybe it’s hard to get a girl’s attention when a cycling vendor is singing sausage songs at the top of his lungs. Or maybe Heart needs to find someone whose heart melts for duck noodles, slurped al fresco in a noisy night market.
Yes, that’s probably the best advice.
For occasions when street stall ambience just doesn’t cut it, head to Bo.Lan – hailed by Bangkok tastemakers as the city’s hottest Thai restaurant. The praise is largely deserved. Bo.Lan (which means “ancient” in Thai) is the lovechild of Thai-Australian chefs who met in the kitchen of London’s famed Thai restaurant, Nahm. Now back in Bangkok, they craft meals with food nerd seriousness.
The chefs have resurrected forgotten, centuries-old Thai curry recipes. They extol Thai food philosophy – which emphasizes balancing sweet, sour, spicy and hot -- and serve five-dish courses that offer that perfect balance. They also love tinkering with the menu, so go with the specials, and try mainstays like their smoked trout salad and green coconut curry with tender beef.
The décor is as seductive as the food. Bo.Lan is actually a refurbished house lined with dark wood grain and lit mostly by candlelight. The restaurant’s only drawback is its price, a steal by Western standards but rather pricey for Bangkok. It’s the perfect place to impress a colleague or a date – especially if they’re food nerds too.
Getting There: From the “Phrom Pong” sky train station, walk towards Sukhumit Soi (Lane) 26. Take a left on Soi 26. From there, it’s a 10-minute walk to the restaurant. When you reach the Four Wings Hotel – located at a little curve – take the first right. You’ll see the restaurant on the right. In hot or rainy weather, taking this route by cab is preferable.
There’s no better way to decorate a window than with dead ducks dangling from steel hooks, tempting all that pass by with their crispy, ruby-colored skin. At least the owners