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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 of Ros Dee think so.
Just far enough away from public transportation to escape broader attention, this neighborhood Chinese-Thai diner is consistently delicious, ranking as my favorite restaurant in Bangkok.
The tables and tile floor are spotless. The décor is stripped-down and modest, just like the name, which simply means “good taste.” The only flourish is the plump manager’s burgundy bowtie.
Like the other customers that pack into Ros Dee, I come for the food and I come often. My favorite meal: bpet pad pet (fried, spicy duck), aw suan (fresh, battered oysters) and pak bpoong fai daeng (a green shoot called “morning glory” fried in soy sauce.) But beware: it’s addictive.
Tucked away in the maze of Old Bangkok, this is one of the city’s most exalted restaurants. Many food writers have fawned over Chote Chitr, describing it as a hidden treasure of Thai food perfection.
Really the restaurant is the worst-kept secret in town, with a framed New York Times review on the wall to prove it. But let exclusivity snobs worry about that. Pronounced “CHOAT-jit,” this place deserves the hype.
It’s run by two sisters. The English-speaking, no-nonsense one will likely take your order. Her demeanor suggests she’s aware that her food is amazing, so don’t get cocky and make special requests. I once watched her glare at a patron who requested she cook a dish without sugar.
The must-try dish is mee growp, or crunchy noodles, which offer a perfect balance of tang, spice and delicate crunch. Order that along with the daily special—everything is consistently above par. If you’re feeling brave after dinner, ask if they have any yaa dong, a Thai herbal whisky commonly considered an aphrodisiac.
Chinatown is hard to navigate so Chote Chitr can be tricky to find. Few cab drivers will know the restaurant’s exact lane, so tell him you’re headed to Saow-ching-chaa, a large public square next to Bangkok city hall. From there, get on the adjacent street, Thanon Bamrung Muang (the street signs are in English), and take the first right on Thanon Tanao, then your first left onto Phraeng Phuton. Or just call the restaurant from the cab and ask the driver to get directions from the owner. Don’t worry, she’s used to it.
Laab Bpet Praram Gao
Even Thai urbanites agree that some of the kingdom’s best food comes from Isaan, a drought-prone, poor farming region northeast of Bangkok. Isaan natives flock to the capital city in search of work, bringing their cuisine with them: a bolder strain of Thai food eaten by sopping up dishes with a pinch of glutinous sticky rice.
This restaurant is little more than a concrete slab, covered by an awning and filled with enough folding tables to seat 100 customers. Its name is one of Isaan’s signature dishes: laab bpet, a minced duck dish spiced with cilantro, mint, chilies and lime. Non-Thai speakers should practice saying “LAHB-bpet” in the cab, as there’s no English menu and few English-speaking waiters.
The surrounding neighborhood is devoted to this one dish, with at least three other restaurants with laab bpet in their title. If you crave minced duck like I do, make a night of it and visit all of them.
It’s spicy stuff, so you’ll want something cold to tame the sting. Get acquainted with the “beer girls,” cheerful 20-somethings employed by outdoor food halls to sell beer. Pay attention to the logo on their uniforms. They’re sponsored by regional brewers like Singha or Leo and are often only allowed to sell their sponsor’s beer.
This is off the beaten path so hail a cab and have him call the restaurant. It’s on Praram Gao Dtat Mai, a small lane between major road Praram Gao (Rama IX) and Petchaburi Dtat Mai.
Recommending an MK franchise to tourists in Thailand is like suggesting Applebee’s to a foreigner on a U.S. gastronomical tour. Yes, this is a cookie-cutter restaurant chain with 300 franchises.
So why go? Because it’s fun. Diners pile into booths and choose from a vast selection of vegetables and meats, including strips of pig heart. You dunk them into a community pot of boiling broth built into the table, and when it’s ready, spoon it into your individual bowl.
Make sure you’re seated by 5 p.m., when the MK anthem erupts from in-house speakers and the uniformed wait staff lines up to perform the official MK dance, often with a comical lack of enthusiasm. It’s like the Macarena but with pantomiming of food prep.
MK franchises are everywhere in Bangkok. MK Trendi, like this one I’m recommending, has the same food as generic MK branches but is slightly more upscale and decorated like a nightclub. MK Gold has slightly better food and is decorated like a golden shrine.
On Friday nights this bar erupts into a lively celebration of the week’s end for college kids and young, working Thais. Collars loosen, whiskey flows and heads bounce to upbeat indie rock.
If you’re looking for fun, this is hands down the best bar in Bangkok, not to mention a great place to observe the mating rituals of Thai 20- and 30-somethings. (Hint: It’s more about playful teasing than overt bump-and-grind.)
Parking Toy is everything a bar should and shouldn’t be. It’s loud but not deafening. Hip but not chic. Fun but not trashy. And unlike Bangkok’s upscale clubs, it has a welcoming vibe. The crowd is overwhelmingly Thai, but don’t be afraid to pull up a chair and chat up the regulars.
Like most bar kitchens in Bangkok, Parking Toy churns out plates of pork ribs and grilled fish as well as all the Thai standards. As for drinks, don't expect anything fancy. Just order a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, perennially on special, and force the youngest person in your party to prepare each drink with mixers and ice. That's how the Thais do it.
Half dessert shop, half fruit stand, this tiny shop specializes in one of the most addictive substances on the planet: mango and sticky rice. It’s essentially a ripe mango, pared into fleshy slivers, eaten with sticky rice and a sugary coconut cream sauce.
The owner, Mae Waree (which means Mother Waree), is famous for insisting on freshness. It’s a humble little shop that only serves to-go boxes, but you’ll see everyone from taxi drivers to business tycoons in BMWs pulling up to the curb.
Don’t expect much variety from this shop. It’s all about the mango and sticky rice. You can, however, choose from two different kinds of mango: the sweeter ok rhong species or the slightly more sour nam dok mai.
NOTE: Thai is a tonal language, so your attempts to pronounce street or restaurant names will be difficult for taxi drivers to understand. For restaurants near Bangkok’s Skytrain stations, foot travel is easiest. For the farther flung spots, your best bet is to jot down the restaurant’s number and have a taxi driver call to get directions. This courtesy warrants a 30 baht tip (90¢).