Good old-fashioned streetfood remains the pride of Bangkok and here are some that prove why it’s still foodie scene king
by Dave Stamboulis
While Bangkok has become the next big thing on the world foodie circuit, with its dazzling combination of rooftop restaurants, ethnic cuisines, and trendy fusion joints making headlines around the food world, good old-fashioned street food remains the pride and joy of the City of Angels. The city has always been famed for its street eats, which range from curries and noodle soups to traditional sweets. Knowing how brutal it can be to sit on a stool in the sweltering heat, some of the more popular places have gone slightly more upscale, throwing in a few metal tables under an awning and a fan. However, even some of the small, hole-in-the-wall hovels can be considered to serve up street food.
Here’s a list of some of the top eating spots and a look at the variety of dishes available.
Jae Fai (327 Mahachai Rd, Tel. 02 223 9384): This street-side eatery has achieved almost legendary cult status, ever since New York Times food critic Bob Halliday was taken here and got blown away by the food. Come here at 6 p.m. and you’ll be treated to the spectacle of new Mercedes and BMW’s rolling up to the curb, all vying for a table in this decades-old shop house. Here, an old auntie stands over a flaming wok and serves up Bangkok’s tastiest and most expensive pad kee mao drunkard’s noodles. While a normal plate of pad kee mao costs no more than THB 40 anywhere in town, at Jae Fai they go for THB 400, mostly due to the whopping large prawns and fresh seafood used in the cooking. Featured in street food tours and now in most guidebooks, Jae Fai is at the top of most visiting foodie’s must-try lists.
Korpanich (431-433, Tanao Rd, Tel. 02 221-3554): While khao niaow mamuang (mangoes with coconut milk and sticky rice) is one of Thailand’s most popular desserts or even main dish treats, there are a few spots that are known for being the creme de la creme. Korpanich, a family-run business that has been around for over 80 years, is one of them. Located in the atmospheric Saochingcha Giant Swing district of old Bangkok, where there are no shopping malls or high rises, Tanao Road is home to specific one-dish shop houses, which have been in business for years. The original matron of this establishment worked in the Royal Palace kitchen, and claims that the recipe is from there, and Korpanich uses the finest mangoes, along with the top coconuts from Chumphon Province in the south, and the best sugar from Kanchanaburi. Just a whiff of these sweet mangoes when walking past the shop is enough to draw folks in.
Khao Raat Gaeng Jek Puey (corner of Charoenkrung and Mangkon, Chinatown, Tel. 02 222 5229): More popularly known as “rice and curry musical chairs” due to the fact that there are no tables here to eat on, just individual chairs that get pounced on immediately upon anyone getting up, this is one of Bangkok’s most delicious and atmospheric traditional rice and curry eateries. Khao raat gaeng means rice and curry, and is the number one lunchtime option in Bangkok, with stalls usually having an array of curry dishes to spoon on top of rice. This stall, built up against a wall, has been here for decades, and is usually sold out of food by 4 p.m. Customers choose from an array of toppings, from fiery coconut curries to other food that get dished out over rice. Even in the rainy season, with no umbrellas to take shelter under, they still draw a crowd and they don’t have enough chairs to satisfy the musical stool group.
Nai Mong Hoi Tod (539 Soi Prapachai, Tel. 02 623 1890): It doesn’t look like much from the outside: a small awning in a cul de sac off Charoenkrung Road in Chinatown hiding a few tables inside, but the Shell sign posted up on the wall says it all. Awarded a “Shell Shuan Shim (outstanding dish award)” for its seafood omelets, the lady behind the griddle here whips up Bangkok’s best hoi tod oyster and mussel crepes, served piping hot and fresh. The crepes can be ordered regular or super crispy, with aficionados lining up for perfectly thin crepe, mixed perfectly with succulent seafood, served with a chili dipping sauce. English isn’t spoken here, but they now have an English menu to handle all the visiting foodies who have learned about this delicious hole-in-the-wall.
PAD KEE MAO
Known as “drunkards noodles,” pad kee mao is not named for having alcohol thrown into the pot. Some say it is due to the noodles being so spicy that the person eating it must be smashed enough to withstand the heat emanating from the dish. A more prudent argument bets that in order to withstand the spice, the diner needs to drink a lot. Yet another says that due to the spices, drunken noodles are actually a great cure for a hangover. I also heard one opinion that it isn’t the patrons who are drunk, but rather the chef, attesting to the wide array of vegetables and meats thrown into the dish, along with the abundant spices. At any rate, pad kee mao is a delicious dish, made from broad rice noodles that are stir fried along with meat, fish, or tofu, bean sprouts, and plenty of chilies and basil. Vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce are also often thrown into the mix, leading to a sensory overload of flavors, maybe just enough to get intoxicated by!
KHAO NIAOW MAMUANG
Often served for dessert, but heavy enough to be a main dish, mangoes and sticky rice is one of Thailand’s most favorite foods. The ingredients are highly important, and the best places serving it are not cheap, as they use the best mangoes, coconut milk, and sugar. Another secret to getting the perfect blend is ensuring that the coconut milk is served at the ideal warm temperature, directly onto the gelatinous sticky rice. This is a hot season dish, best enjoyed during the heat of summer when the mangoes are at their most flavorful.
KHAO RAAT GAENG
is not actually a single dish, but a style of eating popular both for lunch and other meals, there are many stalls and small shop houses serving khao raat gaeng throughout Bangkok. Favorite toppings include green and red curry dishes, fish, vegetable offerings, and dry dishes with holy basil or peppercorns on top. It’s common for most customers to get two toppings served with rice.
While most foreigners are enamored with pad thai, Thais often go for hoi tod, which is the seafood version. Cooked on a hot iron griddle, hoi tod means fried shellfish, and usually oysters or mussels are the seafood of choice. They are spread onto a light crepe batter and cooked at very high heat and tossed, so that the seafood becomes completely entwined with the crunchy batter, with bean sprouts added to the mix. And of course, it all gets served up with chili sauce and lime.