Bangkok’s world-renowned culinary reputation is grounded on street food, and some of the city’s very best eats are found not at fancy five-star restaurants, but at humble stalls and low-key restaurants tucked down quiet side alleys – family-run joints that have specialised in the same dishes for decades. Here are a few of our favourites.
The jury’s out as to whether this really is the best pad thai to be found in the city, but the massive queues that emerge every evening should at least tell you something. There are plenty of varieties of pad thai available here and all cooked over charcoal the old-fashioned way, including the speciality made with fresh prawns and wrapped entirely in a paper-thin layer of egg – the finished parcel looks something like a Christmas present! You’ll find it on the English menu labelled as ‘Superb Pad Thai’. In business for over fifty years, the story goes that Thipsamai is an offshoot of Pad Thai Loong Pha, the restaurant just next door which is now eternally eclipsed by its limelight. The also serve their own freshly made orange juice which may actually be the best orange juice in Bangkok!
Expique visits Thip Samai on our Bangkok Night Lights Tour
313 Mahachai Road, Phra Nakorn; a short walk from Democracy Monument; from 5pm daily
This relatively non-descript southern Thai restaurant is wedged in on Phra Athit Road between the Chao Phraya river and the backpacker enclave of Khaosan, but it packs its punches when it comes to well-priced, expertly cooked Thai Muslim dishes. The massuman curry here is the art of perfection, a deeply spiced and just-sweet-enough curry soup with a hunk of chicken and not much else – pair it with white or yellow rice, or a few crumbly roti, and you’ll be transported to Thai food heaven. Roti Mataba has been going since 1943 and, while service often isn’t up to much, the time they’ve had to perfect their dishes means you can pick practically anything from the menu or the open display of dishes and not be disappointed – other popular dishes include Thai-style chicken biryani.
136 Phra Athit Road; turn left from Phra Athit pier, cross the road and you can’t miss it; open all day but closed Mondays
NOTE: As of February 2016, the food stalls on Sukhumvit Soi 38 have been cleared to make way for a condo development – though some of the original vendors remain in the nearby area.
Not an actual restaurant but a great collection of mostly nameless food stalls on Sukhumvit Soi 38, a stone’s throw from Thong Lor BTS station, receives regular applause as an easy and accessible places for Bangkok newbies and non-Thai speakers to get their hands on authentic Thai street food. Prices are low and the dishes the real deal in a neighbourhood otherwise dominated by restaurants, bars and clubs attracting a far pricier clientele. English is widely spoken, and you can – and should – order from a variety of different stalls to try out a number of specialities; stallholders will bring the dishes to wherever you decide to sit. Expect everything from stir-fry stalls dishing out pad krapao (a stir-fry of holy basil, garlic and chilli), pad kee mao (a stir-fried noodle dish known as ‘drunkard’s noodles’), hot and sour tom yum soup and essentially whatever else you want to order, along with stalls touting pad thai, satay, grilled meat skewers, noodle soups, Hainanese chicken rice, northern khao soi curried noodles and desserts like Thai-style doughnuts and mango served over sticky rice. You won’t go hungry!
Sukhumvit Soi 38; take exit 4 from BTS Thong Lor; evenings only
Somtum is the northeastern papaya salad that fuels Thailand – and for a cheap and accessible introduction to food from Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region, you could do far worse than centrally located Hai Somtum Convent, on Soi Convent in Silom. Go with friends and order in a big spread of dishes to share – somtum papaya salad in one of its many permutations, laab or namtok (salads of grilled minced or sliced pork marinated in spring onions and mint), gai yaang grilled chicken, tom saap or gaeng om spicy Isaan soups and maybe a grilled catfish. Wash it all down northeastern style with plenty of sticky rice or rice noodles.
2-4 Soi Convent, off Silom Road; a short walk from BTS Sala Daeng or MRT Silom; open all day but closed Sundays
It might not serve Thai food, but Toney is worth a mention all the same – if you’re craving some decent Indian fare and want to try it at a local street-side restaurant, this is the place to come. Set in the tiny Pahurat neighbourhood of Little India, just bordering Chinatown, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot is made up of a kitchen and seating area that are divided by the alley that runs between them. The clientele is mainly Indian men cheering on whichever football match is being screened on the TV – and chances are whether you’re Thai or not you’ll be the only non-Indian there – but service is friendly and English is spoken. Countless curries are available; we’re big fans of the flavoursome chicken masala, but the aloo gobi and matar paneer are also excellent. Make sure you order in a few roti; watch them being hand stretched and fried just across the alleyway before they make the perfect implement for scooping up the last of your curry juices. And whatever you do, don’t forget a cup of masala chai tea!
Chakphet Road, Pahurat; in a small soi opposite the San Chao Mae Tub Tim Chinese temple; open all day
Thipsamai photo by Andrew Currie; Sukhumvit 38 photo by Johan Fanternberg; all other photos by Chris Wotton.
Where are your favourite local restaurants in Bangkok? Add them in the comments!