Years of eating sub-standard Thai food everywhere other than Thailand had me conditioned to break into a state of despair any time anyone suggested we ‘go out for Thai’. I am realistic; I know that the authenticity of any of that food I was eating was dubious. However, I am also proof that after one too many gluey pad Thai noodles or watered down green curries, your faith in the real real is also somewhat watered down. In my early twenties I endured the tacky cookie-cutter Thai restaurants which were the scene of every second (alternating with Indian) BYO dinner in silence because I didn’t want to rock the boat. In my late twenties I became more sure of my distain and only very occasionally put aside my prejudices for the much-lauded Thai restaurants in London, only to be disappointed time and time again. Then I went to Bangkok.
Though there was no instant epiphany, that would have been too easy. Bangkok showcased just one teeny tiny part of this country’s food culture, but it seemed like a good place for me to start my Thai food education. My first visit made me ‘not hate Thai food so much’, my recent visit helped me understand and respect it a lot more. With all the temple-touring and must-do sightseeing out of the way on the first trip, we spent our days focused on food. Bangkok is one of those cities so food-centric that you can literally eat your way round the world by jumping on the Sky Train, but some of the best food you’ll taste will be still the local dishes. These are the places where the locals will queue, the recipes have been the unchanged for the years, and people will excitedly traverse the city for… these are the places that gave me a true taste of Thai food!
Guaytiaw Pik Gai Sai Nampung
Chicken noodle soup at 9am? This one in particular is nourishing, comforting, damn delicious and often runs out before lunchtime so you have no choice but to get it for breakfast. We went in search of this auntie down a nondescript Sukhumvit lane, her shop sticking out like a sore thumb from a bygone era in between some seedy sounding bars. Once there, our order was simple; two bowls of her famous (all the newspaper clippings to prove it) gow low pik gai. For the noodles we chose the giem ee, imagine small squares of rolled up rice noodles, which came in a clear, fragrant chicken broth and were topped with a handful of beansprouts, spring onions, and two glossy braised chicken wings. The meat from the wings literally slides of the bone and the noodles are so slippery, all makes for one satisfying meal which can be slurped up in minutes!
Mr Joe Crispy Pork
Watching great hunks of moo krob, or crispy pork belly to you and I, get the cleaver treatment as we waited for our own order was a cruel and unusual punishment. Especially as our order seemed to have got lost in translation and when it finally came, was a bit of a disappointment. We suspected we got a dud end bit of the pork as the meat was a tad dry, though the skin was true to its reputation – ridiculously crispy! What we preferred more was their kuay jab, a peppery broth with noodles, lots of pork offal and more crispy pork. This bowl of goodness is rich and hearty, and makes for a great lunch!
Pork Leg Rice on Phayathai Road
We hadn’t planned on eating here, but once a certain someone caught sight and smell of the pork legs braising away in a giant cauldron by the side of the street, there was no turning back. We stopped, we surveyed the goods, and we ate… nothing fancy, nothing unusual, just a solid offering of springy noodles, unctuous pork, tofu, and a scattering of greens all drowned in the umami-rich braising stock. This was an ideal spot for a quick lunch after our tour of the Jim Thompson House, which is fantastic albeit a bit rushed!
Go-Ang Kao Mun Kai Pratunam
When the Michelin Guide decided that there was a chicken rice in Bangkok worthy of a Bib Gourmand, I knew that as a Hainanese chicken rice fanatic, I had to taste it for myself. Go-Ang was already well-loved before the Michelin folks came along, but I’m they’ve just added fuel to the fire and time to the queues. We arrived early for breakfast before our day trip to Ayutthaya and nabbed two seats fairly easily and ordered within minutes. There’s an English menu with pictures if you want to go off piste with maybe half a chicken or some offal, but we stuck to the standard plates of rice, chicken, broth and sauce. I would have preferred the chicken to be a bit more tender and moist, but overall, combined with the fragrant, slightly oily rice and lashings of the soy sauce and chillies, this was a tasty offering. However I am bewildered by the Bib; if this is the Michelin standard for Hainanese chicken rice then they best be prepared to hand out many, many more if the guide ever gets to Malaysia!
Be careful not to get swept up with the swift-shuffling office lunch crowd on Wireless Road when you are looking for Sanguan Sri because the front door is easily missed! It’s completely out of place on this busy, corporate part of town but this old-school restaurant serves hearty, no-nonsense Thai food. They have daily specials which we discovered run out very quickly, but the rest of the menu is great too – we kept it simple with a chicken curry and a prawn and basil leaf stirfry. Nothing here is going to win prizes for looks, but it’s how it tastes that counts!
I have Instagram to thank for discovering this local gem in Thonglor – just one photo of their steamed sea bass stuffed full of fresh herbs and lime, and I had a good feeling about this place. The thinly sliced boar bathed in a fiery chilli sauce had me reaching for spoonful after spoonful, and the crispy salted fish salad was full of bite and flavour too. However, the sea bass really was the star of the show – I loved the succulent flesh infused with such fresh sharp and spicy notes. There’s nothing noteworthy about the decor, atmosphere or even the service but the food is homely, delicious and cheap.
Saeng Chai Potchana
Unless you know exactly what you want, like most of the locals who were sitting around us, be prepared to spend longer than you should flipping through the extensive and well-worn menu at Saeng Chai Potchana. A quick glance (ok, more like a gawk) at neighbouring tables showed that a broth with cowslip creeper flowers and stirfried clams were a crowd favourite. Neither appealed that evening, so instead we opted for raw prawns topped with some of spiciest chilli sauce I have ever eaten, there were tears, an incredible dish of pork entrails, mixed vegetables, and a moreish combination of tofu, bamboo shoots and pork crackling! This is Thai/Chinese cuisine as its comforting, flavoursome, and messy best, and all very reasonably priced too.
Som Tam Jay So
One midweek lunchtime, we found ourselves sitting alongside throngs of office workers in Silom, eagerly anticipating the arrival of our food at the well-known and much-loved Som Tam Jay So. The regulars know to grab a small slip of paper printed with the menu, tick the dishes they want, then thrust it into the hands of one of the constantly moving wait staff. However, those without such experience or a grasp of the Thai language should focus on four main items: grilled pork neck, grilled chicken wings, laab, and of course… a som tam. After much deliberation, we gave the wings a miss, opting for a double portion of the pork instead and have absolutely no regrets. The slices were wonderfully succulent with bits of fat and char happily dispersed throughout. It was the perfect balance to the fiery laab (eyes were watering at one point) and sharp, tangy som tam!
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