Bangkok smells like exhaust mixed with noodle stalls, the gasoline-tinged smoke of tuk-tuks mingling with simmering meat, dried spices, and herbs. Even if it’s not exactly your thing, the Thai capital’s signature scent is pretty much impossible to avoid. It’s also indicative of Bangkok’s relentless energy—and its obsession with food.
Yet the city isn’t only grilled meats and stir-fried noodles. Although street food gets all the press, there are countless ways to eat in this sprawling metropolis of 10 million people. Today, air-conditioned malls have as much pull as street stalls. And for an increasing number of Thais, fancy restaurants or reservations-only supperclubs are now attainable indulgences, not remote fantasies.
Since moving to Bangkok 1999, I’ve watched the city blossom into an ever more vibrant—and trendy—food town. Many of my favorite haunts are decades-old standbys, while others are newcomers that only a plugged-in local would know about. If you follow my recommendations, you’ll leave the city with a good sense of the local food scene—yes, there’s a must-stop street stall in the mix, but there’s also a restaurant housed in a 19th-century home and a chichi fine dining spot offering sophisticated wine pairings.
260 Soi Thewi Worayat
+66 82 056 6999
This hard-to-locate stall down a back alleyway specializes in a single dish: kuaytiaw khua kai, a salty, smoky tangle of wide rice noodles wok-fried with chicken, preserved squid, and egg. The ingredients are nothing out of the ordinary, but the fact that the dish is fried in lard over coals lends it a luxurious richness. The plastic stools, the wok smoke, and the sweat pouring down your forehead is bucket list Bangkok.
1266 Thanon Charoen Krung
+66 2 116 8662
With the city’s residents earning more money and wealthy foreigners piling in, fine dining is having a moment in Bangkok. Yet Aksorn, despite its price point, manages to feel homey, thanks to food served family style in delicate, floral-themed crockery. Australian chef David Thompson has dusted off old Thai cookbooks and unearthed recipes that haven’t seen the light of day in decades. With dishes more subtle in flavor and heat than most you’ll find in Bangkok—think Chinese ash gourd steamed with salted fish and pork, or a relish of santol and cashew nuts—the restaurant will make you question everything you thought you knew about Thai food.
Khun Yah Cuisine
89/2 Thanon Tri Mit
+66 2 222 0912
Khun Yah Cuisine, hiding in the compound of a Buddhist temple, is one of a dwindling number of old-school Bangkok-style curry stalls remaining in the city. The format is straightforward: Curries, stir-fries, soups, and Thai-style dips are made in advance and displayed in stainless steel bowls and trays. Your job is to point to the one that looks the tastiest—their pleasantly mild green curry, perhaps, or the “one plate'' special—so the vendor knows what to ladle over a plate of rice before thrusting it your way.
Som Tam Jay So
Soi Phiphat 2
+66 85 999 4225
Bangkok experienced a population boom in the 1980s and ‘90s as tens of thousands of rural northeasterners flocked to the city to work as laborers. Over the subsequent decades, stalls and restaurants specializing in that region’s unabashedly spicy, often grilled dishes have become integral to the Bangkok repertoire. Jay So, a chaotic shack at the edge of Bangkok’s financial district, is typical of the genre. Obligatory here is som tam, a tart, spicy, and funky salad of green papaya strips bruised in a mortar with chiles, lime juice and fish sauce. They also make fantastic grilled chicken wings and a memorably smoky herb-stuffed catfish.
547 Thanon Phlap Phla Chai
+66 2 223 9592
In many ways, Bangkok is a Chinese city, a fact often reflected in its cuisine. One of the most beloved Chinese-style restaurant types is khaao tom kui, with kitchens consisting of a couple of wok burners and a bunch of trays piled high with meat, seafood, and vegetables. At this popular establishment, point to whatever looks good—some clams, maybe, or a clutch of Chinese kale—and a cook will fry it up to order alongside a bowl of soupy rice. As its name suggests, the Chinatown restaurant has supposedly been around for a century, and generations of locals know, seemingly instinctively, to order the savory minced pork stir-fried with Chinese olive, or the spicy, tart dried fish salad.
Basement, Central Embassy, 1031 Thanon Phloen Chit
+66 91 424 4292
Bangkok residents bemoan the city’s “Singaporization,” but that doesn’t make malls any less a part of the city’s cultural—and culinary—landscape. Head to just about any food court, and you can find a cheap, tasty meal, but at Bangkok Bold Kitchen, the food tastes straight out of a rural home. Try the crab and pumpkin stir-fry, given a fragrant boost by the addition of lemon basil, and be sure to sample the rich, lon, or central Thai-style soupy dip, that brings together coconut milk and salted duck egg.
64 Thanon Tanao
+66 81 922 6611
You may not get the chance to eat in a Thai home, but a meal at Ban Wannakovit is the next best thing. Not only does it occupy a renovated 19th-century Ratanakosin Style home, but it also grants access to old-timey dishes seldom found on restaurant menus, such as rice tossed with shrimp paste and garnished with green mango, thin strips of omelet, and pork braised in palm sugar. I often spring for the thin, round rice noodles drizzled with coconut milk and topped with fish dumplings, fresh chile, and slices of pineapple.
Soi Phiphat 2
+66 97 263 5456
You can’t leave Bangkok without slurping down some noodles, and the city’s most beloved bowl is yen ta fo. It consists of rice noodles, crunchy greens, and a variety of pork, shrimp and fished-based dumplings, all bobbing in a broth tinged red from the fermented tofu. The dish exemplifies the slightly sweet, overtly Chinese, seafood-loving palate of the city. Yen Ta Fo J.C. serves a terrific rendition—just beware of the owner, Bangkok’s de facto Soup Nazi, who’s known for complicated seating and ordering rules only clear to him.
39/11 Soi Yommarat
+66 99 651 7292
I don’t entirely understand how Thai Chef Prin Polsuk manages to run a restaurant, as he appears to spend most of his time combing Thailand’s countryside for dishes and ingredients. The ever-changing menu at Samrub Samrub Thai reflects this relentless curiosity, and past themes have featured the sugary, meat-forward dishes of Thailand’s Muslim deep south, and the little-known cuisine of the communities living along the banks of the Mekong River. Unfolding in a small, intimate space, the result is an experience in which Prin is less chef and more culinary tour guide, escorting diners on a journey through Thailand’s fascinating gastronomic landscape.
Chefs and food writers alike can’t stop singing the praises of Haawm, “a speakeasy with reservations,” in the words of one friend (even if supperclub is the proper term). The raucous, informal meals take place in chef Dylan Eitharong’s suburban Bangkok shophouse, where dishes such as Pattani-style white curry with beef and pickled grilled green chiles draw on both influences from every corner of Thailand and a certain American playfulness informed by the chef’s background. This borderless approach is propelling Bangkok’s food scene to its next stop, wherever that may be.