People sometimes talk about “love at first sight” when they arrive in a new city. That probably isn’t what you’ll experience when you first get to Bangkok.
I know this, because when I moved here in 1995 I was absolutely overwhelmed. The streets were packed with traffic, the sidewalks heaved with vendors and the entire city felt abuzz 24 hours a day.
All this didn’t make getting to know the food scene easy. In fact, I was so intimidated that I set out to write a street-food guide – which turned into three street-food guides – about how to navigate Thailand’s tastiest stalls.
The city hasn’t changed much since then – even though I have: I’m now full-time food writer and no longer entertain thoughts of living in another city. Bangkok is an acquired taste, and anyone who gets here needs just a little time – and a little more gumption – to explore all its nooks and crannies.
It’s worth it.
My go-to breakfast spot is Guaythiew Pik Gai Sainampung, a chicken-noodle shop in an alleyway between Sukhumvit Sois 18 and 20. (It will stand out since it’s the only business on the street that’s not a hostess bar.) The chicken-wing noodles here are famous, but my standard order is the yentafo (pink) noodles, a tart-and-spicy Hakka-style dish flavored with red fermented tofu.
If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll go into the Old Town, to Kope Hya Tai Kee, an old-school coffee shop where old guys still meet up to trade amulets. The line is long on weekends, so it’s best to go right when it opens, at 7am. The special here is the kai kata (“egg in a pan”), a dish adapted from the Vietnamese version of “American breakfast” developed for US GIs.
Alas, Thai coffee is a dying art. It originally took shape because of the high cost of coffee beans, which spurred the addition of other spices like cardamom and sesame seeds. You can identify real Thai coffee shops by the old-fashioned “stockings” used for straining. Thai coffee drinks usually include condensed milk and are served iced in a plastic bag with a straw. Down the road from Pa Tong Go Savoey In Chinatown, one vendor sells deep-fried crullers to go with the coffee.
Some people think the Old Town in Bangkok is just Khao Sarn Rd, the Grand Palace and Wat Pho – but the district also includes Samsen Rd, which hosts a lovely fresh-food market in the mornings. Nearby is Krua Apsorn, which is a really all-around good Thai restaurant that specializes in lunch. The cook is named Auntie Dang (Apsorn is her sister’s name), and her best-loved specialties include stir-fried crabmeat with long beans, lotus-stem curry and deep-fried chicken wings (my favorite).
If you don’t have much time for lunch, head over to Zaap Wan near the Thai Cultural Center. This place specializes in Northeastern Thai (Isan) food like green papaya salad and larb; they also serve up a delicious chicken that is a cross between grilled Isan chicken and Chinese BBQ. Of course, you need to get sticky rice to go with it all. At night, the area behind the Esplanade Mall just across the road is where you can find the Ratchada Night Market, which is fun to visit with friends.
I love the open-air dining room at Samsara Cafe & Meal at any time of the day, but my favorite time is at dusk, since Samsara is right at the river’s edge and you can watch the sun dip down below the Chao Phraya as the sky turns purple. There are no fancy cocktails or expensive champagnes here, just beer. Even so, with the view of the water and the boats floating by, you really don’t need anything else. Remember to check if the place is open if you’re visiting in rainy season, when the Chao Phraya’s banks frequently overflow.
You might be surprised that Bangkok is home to the world’s second-largest Japanese expat community (after Brazil), making its Japanese restaurants truly excellent. One type of restaurant that even my Japanese friends enjoy here is the yakitori, where all the parts of the chicken are grilled and slathered in sauce or salt: they tell me that Thai chicken is superior to the chicken in Japan. Among the best at yakitori is Shirokane Torit-Tama, where the “dinner course” includes a skewer of chicken fallopian tubes with the egg still attached (!). The sake is great, too.
If you’re looking for Thai food, you should try Charmgang Curry Shop, in the very hip Talat Noi neighborhood. Run by three Thai chefs, Charmgang serves flavorful, creative dishes with an open view of the fairly tiny kitchen in the back. The vibe is very colorful and cheerful (even if the decor feels a little bit like a 1990s dorm room). The menu changes all the time – but if you see the “scallop cracker” appetizer, order it. There’s a long table available for walk-ins.
My favorite thing about Mutual Bar is that you have to know it’s there. Even though there’s a sign at the top of the road (Sukhumvit 24), there isn’t even a hint of a corresponding window to prove that a bar is indeed open. It’s only once you take the grungy elevator ride up to the fifth floor do you realize that – yes – something is happening here, and it looks pretty cool.
Dominating the space is a big bar, usually crowded with people; live music happens many evenings. That is why I normally make a beeline for the little room in the back, where people only sit if they are desperate or old (like me). The warm lighting is like an old-timey movie, and all of the drinks are recommended, especially the coffee-like Vivid Midnight.