While there are plenty of expensive white-tablecloth spots around Bangkok serving refined Thai fare, the long lines at outside food carts let you in on the locals' secret -- street food is equally tasty at a fraction of restaurants' prices. Vendors sell popular dishes familiar to westerners like Pad Thai as well as unusual side dishes and local delicacies. If you can't read the menu, follow your senses and point to what looks good. You never know what you might find, and you can fill your belly for just a few dollars, or baht.
Food stalls are scattered throughout the city and some are clustered together in outdoor markets. While many food carts and markets are open all day, catering to office workers looking for a bite at breakfast and lunch, some open only at night. While it's perfectly acceptable to grab street food to go, most establishments have some outdoor seating where you can enjoy your meal and do some people-watching.
Types of Food
Noodles are the king of Thai street food and come in all shapes and sizes. Pad Thai, stir-fried rice noodles served with egg, fish sauce and a selection of bean sprouts, chicken, shrimp or tofu, is familiar to many westerners. However, the traditional street version of this popular dish is dry, unlike the heavier saucy versions often served in the US.
Pad Khee Mao, or drunken noodles, is another popular noodle dish. Wide rice noodles are stir-fried with soy sauce, fish sauce, chili, basil, garlic and sometimes tofu or meat.
Rice is another staple and many food carts allow you to choose your toppings. Diners can pick from a variety of curries and vegetables. The price is calculated based on the number of toppings you choose. Rice served with steamed chicken, known as Kaao Mun Kai, is a classic inexpensive choice.
Tom Yum soup is a hot and sour soup that relies on many Thai staples for its distinctive taste. The soup is flavored with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, fish sauce, lime juice and spicy chili peppers. The soup is often made with shrimp, fish or mushrooms and topped with vibrant cilantro. A variation on this dish is made with coconut milk.
Don't expect to find any lettuce or creamy salad dressings in a classic Thai salad. Som Tam is a spicy salad made from shredded green papaya. Palm sugar adds some sweetness to balance out the tart lime, spicy chili and salty fish sauce. Many street-food vendors serve another popular salad called Larb made of fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves and ground meat.
If you're feeling adventurous, round out your meal with a snack. Food stalls carry a variety of fried or roasted insects, including crunchy ants, grasshoppers and cockroaches. These crispy critters are served whole with a healthy sprinkling of salt, pepper and sometimes chili powder.
Where to Go
Old City, and its most popular stretch, busy Khao San Road, is an essential stop on any street-food adventure. Thip Samai at 313 Mahachai Road is known for its Pad Thai and many variations on fried vermicelli noodles. Try it with shrimp and topped with a fried egg or the signature dish with shrimp roe, prawns, crabmeat, ground cuttlefish, fried egg and a shot of sweetness from slices of fresh mango. The drunken noodles at Raan Jay Fai at 327 Maha Chai Road are legendary. They are served with crabmeat, shrimp and hearts of palm.
There are food carts slinging curry, noodles and rice dishes aplenty in Chinatown. Tourists and locals both line up at the many food carts along Yaowarat Road as well as Thanon Plaeng Naam. Naay Mong at 539 Thanon Phlapplaachai combines eggs and oysters in a light and creamy omelet.
To Market, To Market
Most shoppers head to Bangkok's massive markets to barter on clothing deals or classic Thai trinkets to bring home. Even the most ambitious shoppers need to stop for a snack, and food stalls are tucked into these behemoths to provide sustenance, whether that's a cool coconut juice or a plate of spicy noodles. Chatuchak Market is the grand weekend market with over 15,000 stalls spread out over 35 acres. Som Tam salad is served here topped with peanuts and pickled crab.
The Suan Lum Night Bazaar, found at Rama IV and Wireless/Sathorn Roads in the Pathum Wan district, is a spectacle that's open from 5 p.m. to midnight. In addition to the many vendors selling jewelry, artwork and CDs, there's a large beer garden and plenty of places to fill your belly. Bands take to the stage further adding to the ambience and chaos at this late-night festival.
If you want to experience street food without dining at an unknown outdoor food stall, you might want to head to the mall. While indoor food courts tend to be more sterile and have less character than their outdoor counterparts, they are an integral part of sprawling mall complexes. Check out The Food Center on the 6th floor at MBK, FoodLoft at Central or CentralWorld for a mix of Thai classics alongside international fast-food spots.