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What to Order in a Thai Restaurant

I live in central New Jersey and am within striking distance of at least half a dozen Thai restaurants. I love Indian food but my knowledge of Thai food is only slightly greater than zero!

Here's the question. I would like to go to a Thai restaurant - is there a "classic" dish that I should order to introduce myself to the cuisine? I'm OK with spiciness but I'm pretty sure that most restaurants will adjust for American taste.

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  1. Pad Thai is lovely and classic; perhaps Red Curry Chicken also.

    1. Yes, I would agree Pad Thai and a coconut curry - I prefer the green myself.


      1. my curren fav lunch from a local thai place is Kai Yaang with sticky rice, sweet chili dipping sauce and green papaya salad

        a pretty popular american Thai rest dish is Pad Thai.

        also, my fav appetizer is Miang Kum. spinach you wrap around a bunch of different flavors.

        1. Pad Thai is absolutely a classic. Also a good guage of the quality of a restaurant - my mom orders it every time she tries a new thai place & judges the restaurant on that.

          My absolute favorite dish, however, is Drunken Chicken.

          1. If you want the pizza of Thai food then order Pad Thai. If the place is good, it will be amazing.
            The first time we went to a Thai restaurant I ordered the fish curry and it was amazing. I make it at home quite a bit now.


            1. I prefer Pad See Ew (savoury) to Pad Thai (sweet).

              And order a curry, whether masamun, red or green.

              1. Yes, Pad Thai is an excellent starting point. It's practically the national dish of Thailand. It's served all over the place and Bangkok is teaming with pushcarts that will prepare a heaping, fresh portion for you for about 30 cents. seriously.
                Thai curries, unlike Indian style, are coconut based. Mango salad or Papaya salad is also an excellent example of typical Thai flavors. Harder to find in the US is a dish called Larb, or Laab. It's basically a mined meat salad made of either beef or pork and is usually very spicy. Thai fried rice is also good. Unlike Chinese style fried rice the Thai version is flavored with a fish sauce called Nam Pla that's the foundation of almost all Thai cooking.
                Also, know that in Thailand only noodle dishes are eaten with chopsticks. Everything else is eaten with a spoon or pushed onto a spoon with a fork. (it's considered rude to put the fork in your mouth) So look for a fork and spoon on the table along w/ chopsticks as it will usually indicate that the restaurant is a bit more authentic.
                Hope this helps. Good luck!

                4 Replies
                1. re: Gnu23

                  This is a very good way of eating a lot of things, and when I can get away with it, I do. Some high-end NY restaurants serve some dishes that way (or use a sauce spoon), in part because some top chefs trained in Thailand.

                  1. re: Gnu23

                    Wow, thanks for the ettiquette advice! I knew about the chopsticks, but not the spoon use.

                    1. re: prunefeet

                      It is not only not proper etiquette to eat rice-based dishes with chopsticks, but also impossible with a wet curry. I find it absolutely disgusting that so many diners eat Thai food demurely with those damned chopsticks and leave all their rice- which is the heart of the meal, the curry is there to flavour the rice- on their plates. And 95% of the time, the resto does nothing in the way of education, which pisses me off just as much. Putting chopsticks instead of a nice big spoon with fork as the place setting sends me right out the door.

                      1. re: John Manzo

                        Years ago a Singapore restaurant owner told me that a Hollywood film crew has used his restaurant in a major action film. Before filming, they removed all forks and spoons and substituted chopsticks.

                  2. Mmm, green curry is very tasty. Really clears my head out too!

                    Try Basil Chicken also. It's spicy and tastes wonderfully fresh. It's basically stir-fried veggies and chicken, but it incorporates a lot of Thai flavors.

                    1. Pad Thai is a good gauge for a restaurant's quality, and a good introduction to the complex flavors of Thai cuisine. And Thai curries are wonderful.

                      But I have a sincere weakness for Thai soups. One particular type is listed in our area's restaurants as Tom Kha Kai; chicken and mushrooms in a coconut milk-based broth spiced with fragrant lemongrass and diced red chili. This is a serious craving for me-- once every couple of weeks I must get some. I don't care if it's hot or cold outside-- I must have it!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: rjw_lgb_ca

                        I love Tom Kha :)
                        also love Tom Yum - pretty similar but no coconut milk and add tomatoes
                        I always order them with chicken.

                      2. For a good intro to Thai food, take a couple of friends and share. Thai meals consist of soups, salads, curries and stir-frys. For soup, try Tom Yam Kung (spicy/sour shrimp soup) or Tom Kha Gai (sweetish/mild chicken soup). For salad, have Yam Neua (spicy beef salad) or larb gai (ground chicken). For curry, I prefer green, but massaman is less spicy. Stir-fry--so many but kha prao is spicy/basil. Pad Thai is something Thai people eat as a snack.

                        1. A very unique and fun dish at Thai restaurants is mee krob, usually found on the appetizer section. It is crisp-fried rice noodles in a sweet-tangy sauce, usually with some chicken or shrimp, and often served with bean sprouts and shredded carrot for a fresh crunch. It should be light and tasty and delicious.

                          1. Thanks for all these great suggestions. I think I'm going to try to get another couple to go with us so we can share!

                            1. I second the laab idea(chicken or pork). It can be fairly spicy, but along with the potential chile heat comes the refreshing citrus/nam pla dressing, the cooling cabbage or lettuce, and the airyness of the roasted rice powder combined with the chosen meat. Tom Kha Kai is one of my absolute favorite soups(when prepared competently...I tend to just make it at home). Pad Thai tends to be the "gateway drug" of Thai cuisine and is just as often an insipid product(too heavy a hand with the peanut because Americans think Thai food is satay sauce(um......duh...Indonesian). The predominant flavor of a good pad thai is tamarind...not peanut. Also try tod mun( tiny fish cakes) if offered, or "tiger cry" which is thinly-sliced beef grilled and served with a mildly-sweet citrusy sauce. The above dishes are a decent introduction to a cuisine(one of my favorites) that upon further investigation reveals ever more nuances, flavor profiles, and, of course, regional specialties.

                              1. I'm partial to glass noodles & angel chicken wings. Yum!

                                1. I love the curries. They are my favorite, and if well done, a procession of different flavors explode in your mouth. (Not necessarily, a super-hot-spicy explosion, though some are.) They are nothing like Indian curry, and I believe the Thai word, gaeng, just means a dish with some spicy liquid. My guess is the British named it curry because it was exotic and looked like Indian curry.

                                  1. I agree that pad thai is a must. Let's hope it's a good restaurant, or else it could turn you off pad thai forever.

                                    I think you should try a salad. Thai salads are pretty distinctive, especially the green papaya ones. They're also pretty spicy.

                                    1. ah, cast my vote for pad see ew!

                                      1. Don't forget sticky rice and mango for dessert.

                                        Some places make their own coconut ice cream. I have some that was mind-blowing great .. like eating light, fluffy coconut-flavored fresh-fallen snow.

                                        1. Trust me on this one... my ex is Thai, and I really appreciate 'authentic" Thai cuisine....

                                          Pad Thai would not be considered a major benchmark. It's okay, but there really are other dishes that you should key in on...

                                          Here are a few:

                                          1) Pad Kra Pow... aka "Basil Chicken"... this should come finely chopped, not with big chunks of chicken.

                                          2) Som Tom.... aka "Papaya Salad"... this should be shredded young papaya with plenty of lime juice, sugar, garlic, fish sauce, peanuts, and dried shrimp and/or dried crab (the plumper the better)....

                                          3) Tom Yom Soup... either shrimp or chicken. If you are at a super-authentic place this will be mostly a "clear broth" soup. However even "authentic" destinations in the USA prepare this with "chili paste", giving it a red coloration. That's not the end of the world. Should be reeking of lemongrass, galanga, lime leaf, and plenty of thai chili's. Familiarize yourself with the flavors of lemongrass and galanga for this potentially extraordinary soup.

                                          Lastly, you must pair a great Thai dinner with the appropriate wine, if you are a wine afficiando.... go with a Riesling (kabinett or spatlese), or a Gewurztraminer for one of the ultimate food & wine combos in the culinary world.


                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: Chicago Mike

                                            I don't know if my first Thai dinner will be "great" but I was very interested in your wine suggestions. How about a veltliner? I was also thinking about a good wheat beer from Belgium or Germany. What do Thais normally drink?

                                            1. re: ambrose

                                              Wine is not something that Thai people have with food. Singha Beer is the drink of choice. Since Mekong whiskey is not available in the US, you could substitute Dewars. Nam cha (unsweetened iced tea) is popular.

                                          2. I started out eating Pad Thai and Tom Yum soup - it's so great! Now, I love red curry coconut and basil chicken.

                                            1. lab larb laab however you spell it

                                              try some thai salads

                                              and any chicken or beef ka prow (sp?) basically minced meat cooked with basil and some chiles - very delicious with a bowl of hot rice

                                              btw I learned the chopstick thing the hard way :/ I thought thai people ate rice and noodles and everything else with chopsticks, turns out I was wrong

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: bitsubeats

                                                I have to admit, I miss using chopsticks, because I just prefer them. My mom and I used to use them to eat anything cut small enough, regardless of ethnicity. I prefer the feel of wood in my mouth to metal as well...so if I get takeout, I'm using the sticks.

                                                1. re: bitsubeats

                                                  You spell it however by whoever it's transliterated...there's no strict codification i.e. larp and laab are both attempts to present a similar sound somewhere between ah and ar in the middle with an unaspirated 'p' -b at the end.

                                                2. Panang chicken curry - 3 stars if you can. It's coconutty, peanutty, tangy, sweet, spicy

                                                  THE BEST!!!

                                                  1. My "test" of a new restaurant is trying the soup. If the soup is "on" it is a good sign of what to expect for the rest of the dinner. Try the Tom Kah (coconut milk base) or Tom Yum (hot sour) soup.

                                                    Panang Curry and Pad Thai are classics. Order both and serve family style with your dinner companion.

                                                    I am a bit confused about the use of chopsticks. I was told by the owner of a great Thai restaurant in Gainesville that she finally gave in and ordered chopsticks as so many of her customers asked for them. She laughed and told us that they are not normally used when eating Thai food. Several years later we visited Thailand and I did not see chopsticks in any restaurant. It has been my belief that they are only offered in Thai restaurants in the United States since so many are under the wrong impression that all Asian dishes should be eaten with chopsticks. Am I wrong?

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: Windsor

                                                      I was in Thailand for a few weeks last October and, before leaving the States, I tried to do a little culinary research so I would know what to expect. One book I picked up explained that Thai cuisine is a mixture of all the surrounding cuisines that have crept into the country over the centuries. For example, the Portuguese traders introduced the chili pepper to Thailand and the noodle dishes, along with the chopsticks, were introduced by the Chinese–much like the legend that Marco Polo brought spaghetti back to Italy after travelling through China.

                                                      The book, whose title I’ve forgotten, mentioned that, due to the Chinese influence, only noodles were eaten w/ chopsticks. However, while I was there I never saw any chopsticks in any Thai restaurants I went to. The only time I saw them was when a Canadian couple asked the proprietress for some. She come up with a set but I could tell she was laughing at their cultural confusion.

                                                      Like it was mentioned above, it’s very hard to eat rice and curry with chopsticks, The best, and properly Thai way, is to push the food onto the spoon with the fork. Putting the fork in your mouth is not considered proper form, much like putting a knife in your mouth is considered bad manners to us.

                                                      But these are all minor details as the OP was asking what they should order for the first time. Try it all! And eat it with a fork and spoon. If the resaurant staff notices they’ll think you’ve been eating Thai food all your life.

                                                    2. In addition to pad thai and a curry (my favorite is green), I love Kow Soy (which I probably spelled incorrectly) which is a curried soup (usually with chicken, in which case it is Kow Soy Ka) that has rice noodles inside the soup and then a nest of fried noodles on top.

                                                      In northern Thailand, they make a wonderful spicy beef salad.

                                                      And try a Thai Iced Tea (made with cocount milk).

                                                      1. Great thread guys, I'll have to keep some of this in mind the next time we go to our local Thai place. I've eaten Thai food plenty of times over the past several years, but I didn't really know much about what was more authentic and what was more Americanized. We're recognized by the proprietors now, but we've never really talked in depth about that sort of thing. Wonder what they would say if they saw us suddenly pushing our food onto our spoons with our forks.... ;-)

                                                        1. There's a blogger in Bangkok (found thanks to food media board) who just posted an essay on what to order and how to eat it.


                                                          1. Pork larb. Tom kha gai. It's all negotiable after that.

                                                            1. Isn't Green Curry usually the hotest of the Yellow,Red,Green curries? Might be on the hot size for an introductory dish. Then again many Thai dishes are "sneaky" hot anyway. I think all three curries are great.

                                                              Pad Thai is a good classic Thai dish thats not hot. Tom Yum/Yom soup is also classic Thai.