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Bangkok Chow Report (long)

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Just back from a chow-focused week in Bangkok, and wow! What a city for food lovers! There is no doubt in my mind that, for Chowhounds, Bangkok is as essential a destination as Paris. Just incredible. I did a lot of research on this board before my trip. I also got many suggestions from R.W. Apple's two excellent stories on Bangkok dining (available in Travel section of NY Times website). Thanks to the hounds who informed my trip!

An important phrase for spice lovers is "gin pet dai" - "i can eat spicy." We found that we often had to repeat this phrase about 4-5 times in order to be understood and believed. Beware, because they will automatically tone down the food for Westerners unless you tell them otherwise.

And now, on to the chow ....
(Restaurants & markets are ordered roughly by geographic location; numbers are not meant to signify preferences or rankings).

1. Chote Chitre, 146 Phraeng Phuton, 2221-4082 (hard to find, but close to main tourist sites such as Grand Palace and National Museum. If walking south on Tanao Road, pass Bunsiri and 3-4 more side streets. If you see a blue sign with a white leaf (some Thai bank) on the left hand side of the street turn right into the second street that you walk past). We ate lunch here on our first day in Bangkok - wonderful. We liked it so much that we intended to go back but never had the time, unfortunately. Food here is truly made lovingly, each dish to order. Also, unusual herbs are used, so in general the balance of flavors is more sophisticated than you will find elsewhere. We ate banana flower salad and tom yum soup many times all over thailand. All good, but the versions here stood out. The banana flower salad is incredible, much less sweet and peanuty than at other places. The tom yum is fiery, with a touch of coconut milk and giant river prawns that you eat head and all. We also tried the famous mee krab but I found it too sweet (if you like mee krab though, you will probably like the version here. mee krab is a salad composed mainly of crispy fried noodles in a sweet sauce, somewhat like an indian chaat, but less tart).

2. Thip Samui, 313 Maha Chai Road (near golden mount/democracy monument), 2221-6280, from 6 pm on: This place is famous for producing definitive pad thai priced at 25 baht per order. We got the plain version and found it somewhat underwhelming in flavor, though the texture of noodles was excellent. Others were ordering the version that comes wrapped in a fried egg, which may have been better. We found generally that pad thai was a blandish, comfort food type of dish all over Thailand, and we needed to dress it up with a lot of fish sauce and chili at the table.

3. Raan Jay Fai, 327 Maha Chai Road, 2223-9384, from 6 pm on: Just a few doors down from Thip Samui, Raan Jay Fai has a superlative pad khee mao, with amazing wide rice noodles and a lot of wonderfully fresh seafood. Recommended.

4. Hemlock, 56 Phra Athit Road. We went here because it is generally well reviewed, somewhat hip, and it was also right around the corner from our guesthouse. It was our most expensive meal in bangkok, but still only cost about $11! Amazing! This place has a nicer, more refined atmosphere than many places we visited, nice if you want a quiet soothing spot. We enjoyed a miang kam starter (betel leaves that you fill with dried shrimp, onion, chili, peanut, etc., and a sweetish sauce - little flavor explosions!) and a salad of bananaflower, wingbean, morning glory, bamboo shoot, and chicken. A standout dish was steamed mullet with chili-lime sauce. The texture of the fish was amazing - so thick and firm, yet luscious, with a wonderful sweet, pure flavor. The dish came with nice bitter greens as well. Overall, food at this restaurant was lighter than many of the other places we ate.

5. Roti Mataba, 136 Phra Athit. We had several breakfasts at this well-known roti spot and were partial to the version filled with egg, which you sprinkle with course sugar and drizzle with condensed milk. Curry versions also good.

6. Open air market at a pier close to Wat Pho. (don't remember exactly which pier, but the market is large - you can't miss it!). We sampled quite a few things here but standouts were a disk of fried dried shrimp seasoned with chili, lemongrass, and kaffir lime, and stinky, homemade, grilled pork sausage served with chili and garlic. This market is also good for mangosteens and other exotic fruits, and we had a very nice grilled sticky rice and banana. But the commercial-looking sausages that look and taste like little round frankfurters are to be avoided.

7. Polo Fried Chicken, 137/1-2 Soi Sanamkee, off Wittayu/Wireless Rd., 1252-2252. The Soi is hard to find - you need a good map. The chicken is just as good as everyone says. Justifiably famous! However, I did not care for the som tam, which I found too sweet, lacking in heat. Do yourself a favor and order extra chicken instead. Due to the fame of this restaurant, every place on the street now serves fried chicken, but Polo Fried Chicken has glass doors, bright lights, and air conditioning.

8. Open air night market on Wittayu/Wireless Rd., around the corner from Lumphini boxing stadium. Only had room for a sticky rice with mango, but there were a lot of good-looking things on offer.

9. Sara Jane’s, Wittayu/Wireless Road opposite US Embassy, consular section, inside and to the back of Sindhorn building. Our favorite Issan sausage of the whole trip - highly recommended. Also excellent som tam and bamboo shoot larb. Just a very good place in general for Issan standards. We went at dinner and it was empty, but the food very fresh.

10. Food court at MBK mall. A good place to try a lot of street-food type dishes, because everything is clean and clearly signed. We had pork knuckles over rice, and som tam with salty (raw) crab, which was excellent. But the standout here was our dessert of sticky rice with durian - highly recommended. This general area is also good for trying fruit shakes at various stands - we had a pineapple-watermelon combo, which was just an outstanding combination of flavors. I also saw a khanom jiin place in the tangle of alleys that make up siam square - which turned out to be the only khanom jiin spot we were able to find in all of bangkok - unfortunately, we passed it up so never got to experience the authentic version of this dish.

11. Khrua Rommai, 16 Sukhumvit Soi 36 (Skytrain Thong Lo): This place is a must visit!!! Thank you to the Hound who recommended it! It was probably my favorite dining experience of the whole trip. Another restaurant in which all the food is carefully cooked to order, and many unusual fresh herbs are used. The spicing and balance of flavors here were just superb. And the setting in a leafy courtyard was charming, if somewhat ramshackle. Any Issan standards will be good here. We had nam prik (which appeared to include roasted green chiles of some type - unusual) served with sticky rice and pork rinds, pork laab, and a dish recommended by the waitress called "prawns in hot sauce" which turned out to be 6 giant river prawns in a salad of lemongrass, herbs, and chili - fantastic. Everything here really was extraordinary. The kind of high quality home-style cooking that Chowhounds cherish.

12. Aw Taw Kaw Market (across the street from Chatuchuk Weekend Market). A "gourmet" market and a must for any chowhound! We ate two meals here, sampling around, some things were better than others, but the whole experience was fascinating. We particularly liked grilled catfish on a stick, served with toasted chili and a sweet sauce. Pork noodle soup also very good, as was grilled ham served with two dipping sauces (one green, one red). We also liked little coconut custards in a crispy shell (especially the ones with scallions on top). We were not enthused by a crab curry offered by the lady selling seafood whose stall has a picture of herself with a condiment company (too sweet, not spicy at all) or by a kind of sweet, peanutty sausage served wrapped in lettuce leaves. There are also many interesting drinks and fruits sold here, as well as spices, meats, and fish. We liked the lotus root, tamarind, and passionfruit juices that we tried very much. Foodfirst wrote an extensive post about this market some years ago, and R.W. Apple has written about it as well. But we found it most helpful to just dive in and taste what seemed interesting to us.

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  1. Wow! Thanks for the detailed report. I've been combing the boards looking for ideas and this came just in time. I leave next week!
    I'm glad you had a good meal at Chote Chitre, that's number on on my list for this time. I'm also glad about the rec for durian w/ sticky rice at MBK-I'll look for that.
    Did you go anywhere else in Thailand?
    Thanks again.

    4 Replies
    1. re: K Johnson

      have a wonderful time - we loved thailand!
      we also went to petchaburi (we were almost the only farang in town, and the local stray dogs definitely noticed our presence) and three national parks in the south (kaeng krachan, ko surin - amazing snorkeling - and khao sok) and can give limited food and lodging recs for these areas if you are interested.

      1. re: queue

        I am going to Bangkok for a month on business (my own), probably staying in Bangrak. Any good rec's for a guest house or hotel? My new company is paying, not some deep pockets, so looking for frugal.I need to be near jewelry manufacturers. I am thinking late May or June. Yes, I know I will hit the rainy season, can't be helped.

        1. re: Joan

          You might check the Grand President for a monthly rate. We had a nightly rate of $60 for a one-bedroom apt. that was comfortable (with kitchen). It's well located and has some terrific restaurants on the street. You want to be near the Sky Train and this place is.

      2. re: K Johnson

        My guess is chowhounds will steer clear of this place anyway, but we had a horrible meal at the Mandarin Oriental's Normandie Restaurant, involving wearing ties and jackets (the men), the women not being presented with menus with prices (though I, one of the women, was hosting a dinner, which they were aware of) and I was shocked to learn that the dinner for 4 was $1087. The food was tasteless, wine equally mediocre, the cake presented for the birthday actually inedible (though attractive). The setting is fabulous, but I'm still reeling from the disappointment and price.

      3. Glad you made it to Sara Jane's and Aw Taw Kaw.

        For future visitors to the latter -- for excellent crab curry (actually crab 'nam ya' -- more of a sauce but with plenty of crabby bits) look for the lady with kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles). She has shortish hair and glasses and is across from the stall selling pork-stuffed deep-fried tofu skin and such. The kanom jeen are in a basket next to her big pot of crab nam ya -- an excellent combo. Ask to eat there and she'll bring a plate to you at a table inside the market.

        Totally agree about somtam at Polo Chicken -- 7 or 8 visits and I never was able to convince them to make it 'pet-priaow' (sour hot).

        Great write-up!

        Link: http://eatingasia.typepad.com

        1. thank you for this amazing reviews. i especially appreicate the fact that you are so detail on the location and what to order. that's extremely helpful. thank you :) i also just came back from bangkok last night but my stomach simply cannot handly so much food and there is such amazing food there, not to mention fruits! i have to say i am a bit wary about street food but the food hall at siam paragon is simply phenomenal!!! i can try the street food in a nice setting and i can't wait to go back. the gourmet market there beats everything we have here in hong kong. so called gourment markets in hong kong should be ashamed of themselves!

          1. wow! this is a very extensive review. i've been living in bangkok for almost a year now and never knew some of these places existed. will be sure to check them out soon. thanks!

            1. Excellent report and I visited Roti Mataba, Polo Fried Chicken and Khrua Rommai just two weeks ago. Unfortunately I was only in BKK for two days as there were so many other restaurants that I wanted to try including Chote Chitre and Raan Jay Fai. Roti Mataba was simply excellent and I stopped in there for a late breakfast before a walking tour of the Banglampu area. The roti was perfectly done and I ended up putting in a second order. Polo Fried Chicken was stunning...the garlic dipping sauce is out of this world and the sticky rice was perfectly suited to soak up the goodness. Khrua Rommai was nice, I enjoyed the open air dining experience. The food was excellent, well spiced. I loved the smoky tasting Phad Phak Boong Pha Daeng (morning glory). Bangkok is just a fantastic city. Can't wait to go back.

              1. Hello,
                The market which you mention in #6 I believe is the market at 'Ta Chang' (Elephant Pier). It's about a 5 minute walk from Wat Po/Wat Pra-Gaew, right on the river. You can take a river taxi there too.

                1. Wow..what an amazing report! I am taking notes for my upcoming trip and would love to hear further accounts of recent great meals in BKK or eating tips!

                  Many thanks!

                  1. heya -- thanks for this great report! just got back, and wanted to follow up....

                    re. 6. Open Air Market by Wat Pho (aka market at Ta Chang)
                    fantastic food and fun location! great hainan chicken -- spicy, tender, juicy, and flavorful. absolutely amazing pad thai from the woman 2nd-furthest from the dock, in the middle. the larb gai, spicy as hell, from the shops along the wall, was good, but stingy servings (just a sprinkling of meat over a mound of rice). som tam (papaya salad, "2 chilis") was nowhere near hot enough -- maybe ask for 4 next time? the mangosteens were incredibly expensive and half of them were moldy (I'm just going to presume this is the worst time to order them?). decent, but somewhat bland, glass noodles with chicken and greens. and my brother found these little gelatonous doughy balls and dumplings that were great -- chewy and filled with peanutty goodness.

                    10. Food Court at MBK Mall -- we first found ourselves in the 5th floor food court, which felt like I was in kentucky -- farang everywhere, smelled of antiseptic bleach, and every sign ("chinese food") was clearly printed in english. we redirected to the 6th floor, where it felt a little less tourist-directed. later, though, we passed a small food court on the 4th floor that looked to be the perfect street-foodie treat. anyhow, this is all about the 5th floor, and I ultimately wasn't so impressed at all:
                    - oysters in hot plate -- enh.
                    - steamed pork with rice -- tough, bland, and not at all tasty.
                    - pork knuckles over rice with tons of fat - the first taste was a wham of flavor, but after that, it really wasn't much to write home about the fat slices dipped into the chili sauce made it worth ordering, but probably wouldn't get it again.
                    - som tam - medium spiucy, swimming in nam pla. really loved it.
                    - mama noodles with chicken and gravy - wide, flat rice noodles with a thick sour sauce, and greens, was okay.
                    - tom yum kang was underwhelming.
                    the two standouts were definitely:
                    - muslim chicken curry with rice - wow. this was a knockout. very indian, but sour, tasty, spicy. absolutely fantastic.
                    - spicy seafood fried rice - excellent. reall great.
                    re deserts:
                    - sticky rice with durian -- I'm not a durian devotee, but based on reports, wanted to give it a shot here. anyhow, with each bite it became a little more palateable. from tasting "like car exhaust" to "not so bad"... my chinese brother insists you just not inhale, which seems to defeat the purpose to me.
                    - fried balls filled with bacon/shrimp/other stuff, and doused in mayo and thick soy sauce -- while the sign insists they're a hit across japan and australia, these were not worth it.

                    sukhumvit 38 - a cute little food stall area just 1/2 block in from sukhumvit. the chicken satay was cheap as all getup, but was thick thickness, consistency, and taste of cardboard. (reminded me of the beijing dumpling stories.) hainan chicken was aces. a really nice spot to sit and watch the street, though.

                    ana's issan - gorgeous spot. the dinner was, by all accounts, delicious, although I didn't get to enjoy half of it thanks to the copious chilis that left my mouth quite numb throughout the night, and led to beer after beer trying to wash the pain away. from my notes, the sausage with green chilli peppers was amazing -- but dear *** please try and avoid the whole green chillis deep inside the sausage. deep fried sea bass with thai spices and chilli sauces was gorgeous. the roadside chicken wasn't very edible at all -- lots of neck, and bones -- but everyone at the table insisted it was normally amazing -- we got the last 1/2 chicken they had, so perhaps we just got the one they'd been planning to throw out.

                    suan lum night bazaar - still operating, and still huge. couldn't resist a mangos & sticky rice. swimming in coconut milk, and delicious, just as I'd remembered. (the thai cover singers with backup dancers on stage made it all the more fun.) (also stopped in for a little karaoke in the minibooths to whet my appetite.)

                    oriental hotel - desserts for mum's birthday. the mango with sticky rice was dreamlike... the most perfect I've had. tapioca balls in coconute milk with raspberry syrup -- first few bites were pure tapioca pleasure, but the glory petered out pretty quickly, and it became just a bowl on bits floating in coconut milk. but those first few bites? mmmmm.

                    single best dish of the few days there:
                    fried rice with chicken, at some two-table shop on charoen nakhon, north of taksin bridge. sorry I don't have a name, but it proves the old adage about BKK, that the best food you'll have will be a nameless shop on a busy street.

                    forgot a few restaurant names which I'll try to update with later...

                    next trip:
                    need to hit this polo fried chicken place -- you guys all seem to love it
                    rut & lek (soi texas? somewhere in chinatown)
                    khrua rommai (from post above)
                    yok yor marina (with floor show?)
                    soi pradit for breakfast

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: andy deemer

                      As you have confirmed, Bangkok's best is usually from the carts, stalls and small shops. But, finding the right spots can be a bit of a crapshoot!

                      MBK's 5th floor food court is "Fifth Avenue", an "international" food court designed for farangs and Thais with more money than sense. It sounds like you actually are describing the 6th floor court.

                      Polo Chicken isn't the most accessible, and in my opinion, no longer worth the effort.

                      If you are talking Lek Seafood, it's directly beneath the Chong Nonsi BTS platform.

                      1. re: andy deemer

                        just got back from a family visit in bangkok as well.

                        didn't get out to eat out as much as usual, but did get to khrua rommai and was disappointed. i sent a friend there last year who loved it, and it got raves here, so i was expecting a lot. my family usually goes to vientiane (the restaurant, not the town) for lao/issan, but i decided to try this instead.

                        anyway, it was good but not great. couldn't find the river prawns on the menu. the setting seemed nice, but the food took forever to come and my issan friend basically forbade me from ever going back because he was appalled by the length of time things took.

                        one caveat is that we got take out and it seemed like a really busy night and after waiting 45 minutes it was obvious we were getting impatient, so perhaps the cook rushed and didn't make things like she usually does. certainly they were very nice there. But as we were coming home my friend said "i can get better, cheaper, faster issan food at the stall on our soi" (sukhumvit 23). and you know what? he's right.

                      2. Thank you! I've printed this out for my upcoming trip!

                        That Chote Chitr must have some publicist! Its mentioned everywhere.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: evening

                          "Chote Chitr must have some publicist! Its mentioned everywhere"

                          You'll find that many places pop up over and over.
                          Most print journalists aren't really that original.