Eat Your Way through Bangkok
Adventurous foodies unite, and allow me to introduce you to the best dining destination in the world: Bangkok. If you first read my overview of the capital, you’ll know that the city doesn’t sleep. In fact, I’m pretty convinced it also never stops eating.
The food options are endless, and we only had two full days to taste the city. This is torturous to foodies, but we accepted the challenge with rigor. Here are our eating recommendations, beginning with the most worthwhile contributor to the scene, quintessential to your Bangkok experience: street food.
If you’ve caught wind of the “street food is being banned” buzz this past spring, fear not: The Tourism Authority of Thailand quickly released a clarifying statement, assuring us that street food will prevail.
With that, street food is just about everywhere in Bangkok, at every hour. The one exception is Monday, during the day, as official street cleaning takes place and street stalls resultantly take a quick hiatus. Plan accordingly to avoid disappointment. And hanger.
The (unofficial) street food mecca of Bangkok is the animated Chinatown, locally known as Yaowarat; think bright lights, packed streets and seriously mouthwatering aromas, most notably in the evenings when the city comes alive. Popular dishes on Yaowarat Street include barbecued seafood (don’t pass by grilled squid without buying a skewer or two), noodles tossed in woks (we’ll get to Pad Thai in a bit) and fresh fruit desserts (does mango sticky rice ever get old?), but you’ll honestly find just about everything. If you’re super daring, Chinatown is the place to locate shark’s fin soup, bird’s nest soup, fish maw and cockles.
Let it be known: Chinatown is not a glamorous, completely hygienic eating experience (you’ll probably inhale your food with a side of exhaust, with one centimeter of space between you and your neighbor), but it’s necessary. Make sure to pace yourself; do not fill up at one stall.
Other street food essentials in Bangkok are som tam (papaya salad, traditionally served spicy), khao pad (fried rice), khao mun gai (steamed chicken on rice), gai/moo bing (grilled chicken/pork skewers), pad krapao moo (stir-fried pork with basil), pla pao (fish barbecued in salt) and guay teow (noodle soup). We also sought out the controversial kuaitia ruea (boat noodles) after our introduction in Ayutthaya; tourists tend to stay away from the noodle dish, as pig’s blood is typically added during the cooking of the soup. I’d like to say it didn’t stop us, but we also weren’t completely aware at the time of consuming three bowls each.
Throughout the city, you’ll find vendors selling several types of sweets. You can’t miss khanom khrok (coconut-rice pancakes), because, well, they look like mini tacos! Really, they’re an ancient Thai dessert, prepared by mixing rice flour, sugar and coconut milk.
The best part of street food in Bangkok? You can feast like a king for close to nothing – $5 USD worth of street food, for example, will require stretchy pants.
Fortunately, we did not get sick once from street food throughout the entirety of our trip. Our ultimate tip is to ensure all food you consume from stalls is fresh (i.e., made to order, still hot). If food is precooked or has been sitting, your chances of contamination or food poisoning are certainly higher.
If you want to be a bit more guided in your street food ventures, check out Bangkok Food Tours – and you get your own personal tuk tuk!
By casual restaurants, we just mean seating is more abundant. You’re likely still eating food prepared on a stall, sitting in uncomfortably close quarters, with minimal air conditioning – if any. Here are two spots you shouldn’t miss:
- Kuay Teow Gai Nai Hong: Located in the Phlap Phla Chai area, just north of Yaowarat, you’ll find a grungy, black and oily alley, serving up the city’s best guay tiew kua gai noodle dish. The most favorable stall is Kuay Teow Gai Nai Hong.
If you’re not familiar, guay tiew kua gai is the “sister” dish to pad see ew (drunken noodles), made in a wok with wide rice noodles, boneless chicken, and either a scrambled egg within or runny egg on top.
- Thip Samai: If you’ve done your research, you’ve likely heard about this legendary Pad Thai spot (more like factory). At 5 p.m. sharp, the fires are kindled, and Pad Thai is quickly churned at each station. You can order your Pad Thai one of two ways: Pad Thai Haw Kai Goong Sot or Pad Thai Sen Jan Man Goong.
The former features Pad Thai neatly wrapped within egg; seriously the best present inside. The latter instead has scrambled egg within, and is made with the head juices from jumbo shrimp. We tried one of each and actually preferred the flavor of Pad Thai Sen Jan Man Goong. Don’t forget to order a fresh orange juice here. And, if you have room for dessert, visit one of the several food stalls surrounding Thip Samai.
Here’s a well-kept secret. On the fifth floor of megamall Terminal 21 in Sukhumvit, you’ll find an epic food court. Designed in the style of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Pier 21 has an overwhelming selection of food options, from traditional Thai to alternative Asian cuisines. If you’re looking for the variety Bangkok’s street food vendors provide, combined with hygiene and air conditioning, this is your place.
Note that you must first exchange cash for a stored value card, which is used to pay for food; stalls do not accept cash or credit card. Keep in mind (and we didn’t realize this at the time) that any remaining credit can be refunded before you leave!
On the polar opposite end of street food, you have the ultimate fine dining experiences in Bangkok, inspired by cuisines all over the world. My husband and I typically prefer authentic food experiences local to the regions we’re traveling within; however, I made the mistake of watching the “Chef’s Table” Bangkok episode (featuring Gaggan) three weeks prior to departing on our honeymoon, and I absolutely refused to miss out.
Now, reservations take several months to secure at Gaggan, especially given the fanfare post-episode. Shout out to concierge associate James at Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit for calling the restaurant every single day, until one reservation opened up two days prior to our arrival in Bangkok; the ultimate customer service experience we’ll never forget and will always be thankful for.
Gaggan, run by the famed chef Gaggan Anand, was named the best restaurant in Asia in 2017, placing seventh overall worldwide. The restaurant serves 22-courses of progressive Indian cuisine, partly inspired by local Thai street food.
Accent on the experiential element of fine dining, as the evening was incredibly informative and engaging. The menu at Gaggan features solely emojis to overcome any language barriers, and with that, you have only a vague idea of the courses being served to you – plus, your waiter encourages you to guess after consuming. We were stumped on quite a few of the unique, innovative flavor combinations, such as pureed corn with goat brain, and passionfruit with foie gras and yuzu jelly .
We had a fantastic seat at the restaurant, with a view directly into the kitchen. Most notably, Gaggan was behind the glass, keeping the team on its toes throughout prep and seemingly bringing the entertainment. At the beginning of the meal, our waiter let us know that Gaggan would come to introduce himself and ask for feedback, and I found myself excitedly and actively formulating the best questions to ask him directly. Unfortunately, when the end came, Gaggan was nowhere to be found – extremely disappointing based on the initial expectations.
Overall, a unique, memorable meal, with a cost equivalent to about a year’s worth of street food in Bangkok! If you’re interested, book your reservation as soon as possible. It was recently announced that Gaggan is closing shop by 2020, although he’s at the top of his game…