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On occasion, I’ll come across a list of the world’s “top food cities,” and Bangkok isn’t on it. Meanwhile, half of Western Europe is present. That irritates me. Sure, one can make the argument that food is subjective. But including an obscure Italian town and leaving Thailand out is a travesty. Biases aside, Bangkok is among the world’s great culinary destinations. People who love to eat out (or at all) will have a blast there. Its proximity to the sea. The complexity and freshness of its ingredients. The prices (you can get a filling, tasty meal for $1.50). The thrilling diversity of flavor and spice.
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Strolling down Yaowarat Road first thing in the morning is a sensory eruption. The smells of broth, fish sauce, makrut, and meat fill the air in the main artery of Bangkok’s Chinatown. It’s incredible. So when Thailand finally opened its borders to tourists, I didn’t hesitate. I immediately booked a flight to Bangkok, a place I longed for since the pandemic began.
The eight-day itinerary was straightforward: to eat and eat well. No meal was a disappointment because I researched eateries before the flight. Here are some of the best places I ate on that memorable, gustatory journey.
Eat out at the Iconsiam Food Court
Coming from Manila, it may seem counterproductive and unadventurous to end up in a mall. But Iconsiam is a genuine achievement in engineering and design. For me, the crown jewel of this glorious venue is the food court. It’s the Rolls-Royce of food courts. To put things into perspective, there’s an actual river with a floating market in it!
You can find every regional Thai dish of every regional Thai cuisine here at a high level. It’s a vast and electrifying place; a culinary wonderland, if you will. If you have limited time in Bangkok, you must go here. I had a plate of panang curry over rice for a measly 50 baht. I followed it with an aromatic bowl of boat noodles with innards and a sluggish afternoon walk.
No waiting time at Nhom Rim Klong
Have you heard of Michelin star chef Jay Fai and her world-famous crab omelet? She’s been in Netflix shows and YouTube vlogs, so to book a table here, you need to email them months in advance. Walk-ins will encounter a long queue. Like any self-respecting capitalist, Jay Fai has also jacked up her prices. Or so the locals tell me. Is it worth the hype? Probably.
But in Nhom Rim Klong, a short cab ride away, there’s no waiting time. What it has is a crab omelet as filling and palatable as Jay Fai’s version. It’s not cheap either, at least by Bangkok standards where spare change can feed a family of four. But with the amount of fresh crab you’re getting (a lot), the cost is completely justified. Also, get the salted egg squid and the crab-fried rice. Because in the seaside metropolis that is Bangkok, crab is king.Â Â
Indoor dining at Polo Chicken
I was sort of hungover when I visited this spot for lunch, so I was ravenous. Going here was one of the finest decisions I made in the last two years. Polo Chicken is a popular joint. Since my last visit, they upgraded to indoor, air-conditioned dining. Given that the Thai heat is as intense as its chilies, I had no qualms with the new setup.
Polo Chicken is best known for (what else?) its fried chicken. It’s deep-fried, lightly battered, and very crispy and moist. It comes smothered by a mountain of fried garlic shallots. That makes the golden-brown bird a veritable work of art. Don’t limit yourself to the chicken, though; their menu is extensive. Its gems include the deep-fried sea bass and the sai oua (herbal Chiang Mai pork sausage). The former comes with a seafood sauce–a flavorful umami condiment. Sticky rice is mandatory here, too.
Hole-in-the-wall Som Tam Jay So
You may already have an idea of what a Thai hole-in-the-wall eatery is like. This place ticks all the boxes. Open-air, run-down, with red monoblock seats and ubiquitous imagery of the Thai monarchy. There’s also a makeshift grill filled with delicious things. Som Tom Jay So specializes in Isaan food, or food from Northeast Thailand, along the border of Laos. And no, you won’t find any pad thai here. (That dish is actually atypical of the everyday Thai diet. It’s far more common among the visiting farang or foreigner.)
Their grilled chicken wings were sizeable, tender, and charred to perfection. Their som tam had astringent flavor, fermented soft shell crab, and chilies. (The latter was so fiery that I started sweating and the staff cackled at my pleas for water.) Last but not the least, I had their larb moo. It’s minced pork with cilantro, fish sauce, lime, raw shallots, and toasted rice powder. Larb is everything you want in a Thai dish: exhilarating, sour, spicy, sweet. Sticky rice is mandatory. The dizzying combination of these flavors put me in a Zen-like state.Â Â
Eat out at Yaowarat Road
Yaowarat Road in the evenings is quite a scene; it’s picturesque in a chaotic, urban kind of way. After six, the street hawkers come out in full force. To the indecisive, this may not be your ideal venue, as the wide variety of choices can be overwhelming. You can find vendors slinging boat noodles, Chinese cold cuts, ripe durian, and more. I settled at one of the few stalls with a manageable queue. There I had a basic albeit satisfying plate of moo krob krapao and a crispy fried duck egg with orange yolk over rice. I do not regret that decision.Â Â Â
Let me make it clear: Bangkok needs to be on your travel log if only for the gastronomic experience it offers. Eat out at any of the places I mentioned. You’ll see.
(Ed’s note: Daniel Mabanta is the owner and founder of Khao Khai, a resto born of his love for travel, food, and adventure.)
Photos and Words Daniel Mabanta
Featured Image Macky Arquilla