Making memories with food is oftentimes the best part of traveling to different countries. Food opens up the doors to unfamiliar cultures and communicates without words, sharing traditions and family recipes that you otherwise wouldn’t be privy to.
The real secret is to dine high and low, mixing cheap eats with fine dining to really round out the entire experience of a country. No one will judge you if that sandwich from a food stall excites you more than the supposedly amazing 7-course dinner with dozens of rave reviews. My best food memory of Thailand was the pad thai that cost less than $1 from a street cart which I ate late in the evening at a plastic table on a busy sidewalk in Bangkok. That experience shaped a much more vivid representation of the country than any of the meals I had in a “proper” sit-down restaurant.
The following is a collection places in Bangkok and beyond to fit every budget and culinary experience, whether you want to dive deep into the mecca of street food or discover what some of the top chefs are concocting for their next tasting menu. Some of the places are “insider” tips that you may not easily find in travel guides, while others have been sourced through experts. What they all have in common, though, is the ability to leave an impression on your tastebuds.
Note: On April 18, 2017, it was announced that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has banned street food stalls from the city and vendors have been ordered to shut down by the end of the year. Popular places like Yaowarat and Khao San Road will likely be hit sooner rather than later so best start planning the Bangkok leg of your Southeast Asia food crawl ASAP!
If you’re in the mood for dinner and a show, Vientiane Kitchen is a great middle-of-the-road option. With a Northeastern food menu and Thai dance and music performances, you can get the whole experience here. One of the main draws is that it’s not overly expensive, making it a completely reasonable option for those who have kids or aren’t sure if a dinner show is for them. If you have to duck out early, you won’t feel like you’ve wasted money.
Sra Bua was conceptualized by Henrik Yde Andersen whose restaurant in Copenhagen, Kiin Kiin, has the special distinction of being the only Thai restaurant in the world with a Michelin star. The menu here features a modern interpretation of Thai cuisine and you can opt for a tasting menu or create your own “journey” with dishes such as Hokkaido Scallop, tamarind and lemongrass and pan-fried foie gras, ginger and plum wine. The atmosphere is moody and sophisticated, with an interior that’s full of dark woods, gold, purple accents, and even a lotus pond.
In the heart of Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong District is Paste, a modern Thai restaurant considered one of the city’s best. At Paste’s core is traditional Thai cuisine - much of what is served is based on recipes from 1870-1930 - but husband and wife owner/chef duo Jason Bailey and Bee Satongun use modern cooking techniques to elevate these traditional Thai dishes to a fine dining level. Take for example the watermelon & ground salmon with crispy shallots and roasted galangal powder, which dates back to 1809 as one of the aristocratic Thai dishes served at the inauguration of the temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Le Du’s modern Thai-inspired cuisine includes dishes like poached oyster with chili paste, spicy green mango relish, Thai rice wine sabayon and pandan cake with jasmine tea ice cream, local strawberry. They focus on highlighting the beautiful produce of the country, make an effort to source locally, and let the seasonal flavors shine.
Helmed by Dutch Chef Henk Savelberg (who has four separate Michelin stars across the Netherlands), Savelberg Thailand melds together gourmet modern French with a touch of Dutch. They offer three different tasting menus, as well as a la carte options. Alongside classic dishes like Royal Oscietra caviar and beef tartare, you’ll also find some dishes that have been tweaked ever so slightly with Thai influences, like pan-fried lobster with red curry and roasted peanuts. If you’re in the mood for some serious fine dining, Savelberg will fit the bill.
KRAM is too casual to be considered fine dining but its price point and vibe don’t quite in the cheap eats category either. They serve very good, authentic Thai food here and you’ll find that it’s popular with the expat crowd. Located in a retro-style white house on a side street that’s removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, there’s a lovely spacious garden with picnic tables, bean bags, and strings of lights overhead. Try the fried horseface loach with sweet chili paste.
This popular seafood restaurant sits in the middle range — it’s cheap by tourist standards who are likely used to paying more for fresh seafood but perhaps in the upper range for locals. Regardless, Kuang is loved by both Thais and foreigners for dishes like the flavorful Crab Egg Curry, which is definitely one of their signatures.
Located about 80km north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is home to this incredibly vibrant market. Like most, there are plenty of stalls selling clothing and electronics but it’s the food vendors that take center stage. You’ll have what seems like an endless number of choices for cheap, delicious street food (a lot of which come in under $1) that will cure cravings for everything from mango with sticky rice to fried chicken and — if you’re game — insects. Seating is limited but you’ll be too busy eyeing the next food stall to even notice.
This is a multi-level market in the little Chinatown section of Chiang Mai. The lower levels are almost entirely dedicated to food so you can spend a good amount of time browsing the various vendors. You’ll find popular northern Thai delicacies that are coveted by those down south, including sai sua (Chiang Mai’s famous pork sausage) and nam prik noom (a green chili paste). Another sign that this is a good market to visit? Locals do their food shopping here.
Right in the hub of Yaowarat, or Bangkok’s Chinatown, Lek & Rut is an extremely popular Thai Chinese seafood restaurant that is a hybrid of street food and an actual restaurant. You can sit indoors but the real vibe is outside where you can plop onto one of the red plastic stools and eat prawns while being immersed in the busy-ness of this corner in Chinatown.
Another local favorite, Baan E-Sarn Mungyos is cheap, delicious, and always busy. The crowd is mostly Thai, which is usually a pretty solid indication of the food and price point. The Isaan (Northeastern) menu features favorites like grilled fish (one of the restaurant’s specialities) and green papaya salad (som tam puu).
Outside of Phrom Phong Station, this street stall is very popular with both Thais and foreigners for its magical combination of tasty food at very low prices. In fact, their slogan says it all: “Thai Food, Very Good and Very Cheap”. This is one of those places where you can find all the Thai standards and where you know you’ll consistently get a solid meal for a couple of bucks.
This isn’t orthodox street food - it’s a food court and because of that, you’ll pay a bit more. The draw of Pier 21, though, is that it’s air conditioned and it’s clean, so if you’re worried about getting sick, eating here will put your mind at ease. The food is still phenomenal and you can feast on everything from sweet black beans and sticky rice in coconut milk to savory dishes like Thai omelets and Sukhothai noodles.
This is one of the oldest markets in the city and has tons of food vendors that serve authentic Thai food and desserts. It’s located in a quiet area that is a bit more low-key than other markets so if you’ve grown tired of the shoulder-to-shoulder tourist crowds, this might be a good bet. See if you can get your hands on some rad-na-mhoo (wide rice noodles with pork in gravy soup) and roast duck here!