I love Bangkok. For some reason the place gets a bad rap with a lot of travelers and is generally used as a transportation bridge more than as a destination in its own right. Lame.
The city is a crazy blend of high brow culture and urine soaked debauchery. You can go straight from a world class folk museum to a Michelin starred restaurant* to watching a lady do things with darts that you'll swear is just not possible. Did I mention I love Bangkok?
It doesn't hurt that the city is incredibly safe. Sure crime happens, but as far as mega-metropolises go, Bangkok doesn't have many streets I wouldn't stroll down even at night.
The last time we were here (in '07) the only thing that drove me crazy were the taxis. They sucked. They constantly tried to rip you off, would never use a meter, would drop you off at random places, would refuse to honor agreed on prices, etc. But that's all changed! This time the taxis were amazing. No hassle, straight meters, we didn't even have drivers try to take us the "scenic" route. It was like Christmas covered in candy in a sexy g-string.
So the Thai capitol is cool. Great. "But where should I eat?," you plaintively whine.
Well golly gee I'm glad you asked because we just so happened to have spent a week trying to answer that very question. Keep in mind that we skew heavily toward the scruffy and unpolished end of the spectrum.
Now for your referencing/planning enjoyment, here it is; our April 2012 list of 5 (with a bonus) places you really should eat in Bangkok:
1. Pad Thai from Lueng Pha Pad Thai
Let's get this out of the way right up front. Like mango sticky rice and banana pancakes, if you are a tourist in Bangkok everyone and their dog will try to sell you pad thai for every meal (even elevenses). For the most part it is a horridly bland and poorly prepared noodle dish that you are better off ordering in Idaho than from most vendors in Thailand.
That being said, when it's done right, with love, quality ingredients, and little bit of flair, it's a damn fine dish worthy of your time to track down and devour.
And you should track it down at Lueng Pha.
Three words: Shrimp head fat.
In this one vat of vibrant orange elixir, Lueng Pha manages to decoct a shrimpiness so deeply and intensely shrimpy that even other shrimp are all like, "oh snap! No you di'int!" But they did.
This tiny family-run place only serves one thing. Can you guess? You can get it in a variety of ways but what you need to order is called pad thai, shrimp fat, fresh shrimp, wrapped with omelet. It's 70 baht. The menu is all in Thai but the proprietors are pretty handy with the translation so you shouldn't have much trouble.
Your dish will come with a side of pickled bamboo shoot, bean sprouts, green onion, chilies, and lime. I recommend making generous use of them all.
If you want to make an evening of it, Lueng Pha is right next door to the much more famous Thip Samai.
Thip Samai also turns out a not too shabby pad thai and it's a lot of fun to eat at both places for your very own noodle showdown cage match.
This is Thip Samai. Don't get them confused.
Lueng Pha: 315/1 Maha Chai Road, Samran Rat, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok
2. Hoy Tod from Nai Mong Hoy Tod.
This place only sells two things. Oyster pancakes and mussel pancakes. But for all intents and purposes they only sell one thing: the oyster pancakes.
We tried a lot of versions of this dish, but the guys at Nai Mong have clearly made a pact with the devil. For what is basically a mollusk-topped, asian-style eggy pancake, the hoy tod here is entirely too rich and complex for its humble list of ingredients.
They start by stirfrying an egg in pork fat, then quickly mix in a thin batter of tapioca and rice flour. After a couple of minutes a hefty scoop of oysters (we had 15 in one serving!) and a sprinkle of chopped scallion get added. Finish with a spoonful of murky brown gravy and presto, your taste buds freak out like puppy in a box of packing peanuts.
If I had one complaint it would be that the bottled chili sauce they serve on the side really could use an upgrade. If they made an in-house version they could double their food-pimp rating overnight.
Did I mention the place is massive?
For the record, everyone else on the on-lines is going to tell you to order the hoy tod extra crispy. The extra crispy version is fantastic and you should definitely eat it. However, don't skip out on the soft option either. They're like two entirely different dishes. Not only is the texture a 180 degrees about-face, but something about the altered cooking styles brings out a totally different flavor profile. At 70 baht a pop, you should just shell out for the double header.
It's the one with the brown awning.
Nai Mong Hoi Tod: 539 Thanon Phlap Phla Chai, Bangkok (China Town)
It's a little tricky to find. It's on Thanon Phlap Phla Chai between Trok Charoen Chai 2 and Thanon Santiphap. It's on the right hand side about 50 meters north of Thanon Charoen Krung (if you're facing north.)
3. Boat Noodles from ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือร้านลุงประตูน้ำ
So I'm not exactly clear on the English translation for this place. It's something like Uncle's Dam Noodle Shop, but that's really not gonna help you out much. This place is entirely off the tourist radar but extremely popular with the locals. If you come during lunch time expect to wait, share a table, and then wait some more once you order.
Boat Noodles is a vague term for a huge selection of soupy (and occasionally dry) noodle dishes. The only real unifying characteristic is that the servings are quite small. 3-5 bowls per person would not be unusual.
The broth is almost always some variation on sweet, sour, and spicy with a variety of fragrant additions like cinnamon, clove and star anise. Pork blood is also a common ingredient. (But don't worry- it adds body more than flavor.)
As for the noodles themselves you can get thick or thin rice noodles, glass noodles, and several styles of wheat noodle. The toppings include: pork, beef, fish balls, fish cake, pork cake, beef balls, fried tofu, fresh tofu, dried tofu, wonton crisps, morning glory, pork cracklings, peanuts, fresh herbs, dried chili, fresh chili, fried shallot and garlic and possibly a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria.
What we did (and I would highly recommend) was to tell the waitress that you want 10 bowls (or 15 or 20, etc.) all mixed. There is almost zero english happening here but they seemed to understand "mix" pretty well. Alternatively, you can walk over to the huge prep table and point to any combination you want.
Each table also comes pre stocked with individual bags of their house made pork rinds. Give them a quick toss with their tangy green chili sauce and dash or two of the prevalent fish sauce and you can easily snack away the time while you wait for your noodles.
ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือร้านลุงประตูน้ำ (Uncle's Dam Noodle Shop): A little tricky to find but it's near the very famous Pratunam Chicken and Rice (across from Pratunam Center). Located in an alley between Petchaburi Soi 30 and Thanon Ratchadamri on the north side of the canal just south of Thanon Phetchaburi.
4. Gai Tod (or Kai Thawt) from Soi Polo Fried Chicken
The name pretty much says it all. This place fries a mean chicken. It doesn't hurt that they top it with a mountain of crisply fired garlic and serve it with a pile of herbs and snapped long beans, along with two styles of chili dipping sauce- one hot and one sweet.
A lot of folks claim that Soi Polo is an Isaan (a northeastern style of food) restaurant. While the family may have originally been from that area, the current menu houses a pretty good blend of north and south. Definitely go for the the sticky rice, an Isaan staple, though. It's a great accompaniment.
Soi Polo pounds together a fine som tum (papaya salad) as well and it helps to cut all the 'fried', but if you can find it in your heart to make room for a little more grease I implore you to order the tod mun pla grai.
^^^These little guys right here.
These flavor packed curried fish cakes are some of the best I've had. Light, approaching fluffy, with a satisfying jumble of textures and flavors, you almost don't need the cucumber and peanut side sauce (but you should probably eat it anyway.)
Soi Polo Fried Chicken: 137/1-2 Soi Polo, Bangkok (off Thanon Withayu aka Wireless near Lumphini Park)
5. Crab Omelet (Kai Jeaw Poo) and Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao) from Raan Jay Fai
I'll be honest, you can really order anything at Jay Fai and odds are it's going to be pretty rocking. The place is a bit of a conundrum. It's a grungy little open front shop similar to hundreds of others in Bangkok. What sets it apart is the quality of the ingredients and the skill in the preparation. The dudes (and ladies of course) at Jay Fai can seriously cook. This may have been our best meal in Bangkok.
Love the menu.
I should probably mention the other thing that sets Jay Fai apart- the prices. The place is eye-poppingly expensive with mains typically falling in the 350-800 baht ($11-$25)range; unheard of for roadside dining here. Why do they charge so much, you may wonder? Because they can.
Plates coming out at Jay Fai are just so damn tasty you lose all fiscal reason and your pockets and wallet end up stuffed with prawns and gravy instead of any cash you may have had. Not that that's a bad thing.
The omelet is a golden brown torpedo of just set egg, enveloping the meat of approximately 206 crabs. Some of the sweet chunks of crustacean were larger than a few steaks I've been served.
Clearly from mutant crabs.
The pad kee mao is a sloppy mess of wide rice noodles woven through mounds of plump shrimp and crab with super fresh veggies like mushrooms, baby corn, and green beans thrown in for good measure. Basil, chili, and a pleasantly oily sauce round out the concoction.
Jay Fai also whips up a fairly intoxicating tom yum. The vibrant broth barely contains the heady flavors of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and other herbs. Not to mention the tender octopus, squid, and prawns.
Yeah. You should probably just eat here.
Raan Jay Fai: 327 Maha Chai Rd., Old City, Bangkok
Open 3 p.m.-2 a.m. except for the occasional Saturday.
Bonus: MBK Food Court
If you're short on time or are out and about with an indecisive group, or just want to sample a shit-ton of different dishes with minimal expenditure of effort, head on over to the MBK Food Court.
They actually opened up a second more staid version on the 5th floor, but you'll want to escalate directly on up to the 6th. Near the front you exchange money for little (fully refundable) coupon slips and then you can pick and choose from dozens of stalls hawking items from all over Thailand and a few other countries to boot.
There's a really good vegetarian place, some excellent curries, and the fruit place in the center makes a right nice durian rice (a good introduction if you haven't made the full conversion to the pungent, spiky fruit.)
MBK Food Court: 6th floor, MBK Center, corner of Thanon Rama I & Thanon Phaya Thai, Bangkok
Bangkok is a warren of great food and if you spend any amount of time there I'm sure you'll stumble onto some hot delicious action. I hope these will get you started though. If you have some recommendations of your own please send them along; I've no doubt we'll find ourselves back in Bangkok in the not too distant future.