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Modern Food in Bangkok

by Geoffrey Smith May 5, 2007

Photo of Street Food

Lunch on the roadside in Bangkok.

I love food and I love Bangkok. And it just so happens that Bangkok is brimming with great food. I spent some time there recently and I decided to document my culinary travels over the course of a week. I know this website is called Urban Dish Seattle, but if we ever expand the reach of Urban Dish, Bangkok is high on our list.

I actually used to live in Thailand, I also speak Thai fluently, and my wife is Thai, so I have a pretty good idea of what Thai food should be. But that’s not really what this article is about. If you talk food to anybody who has been to Southeast Asia—foodies especially—they will invariably talk about the wonders of street food. “Did you eat the street food?” It’s almost like a badge of honor to affirm that you have indeed partaken of the potentially dangerous, authentically superior cuisine of the roadside. And, for the most part I understand this. Thai street food is certainly some of the best food I have ever eaten anywhere, no question. But at the same time street food has a few shortcomings.

Photo of Street Food

Latenight meat-on-a-stick.

Often the most memorable meals to me have much more to do with atmosphere and the elevation of one’s mood: with flavors, friends, drinks, conversation, and scenery. Street food can do wonders with flavor, but that’s about where the wonder stops. I have no desire to sit on a 2 foot plastic stool and preside over a three hour meal with friends sans booze while trucks and motorcycles belch exhaust in my face as I wipe my sweaty brow with a tiny piece of toilet paper. There's another area where street food can’t always excel: innovation. The vendors selling food on the roadside are specialists, they tend to focus on a handful of similar dishes and crank them out. People know what to expect and they come back to the same vendor time and time again because the food is both delicious and consistent—like fast food should be. Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, and in fact it’s pretty great. (If only we had fast food of this variety and quality in the west!)

But this time around in Bangkok I wanted to seek out something different. I was in search of innovative Thai cuisine that was slightly off the beaten path. You can easily get haute “Royal” Thai cuisine in many of the larger hotels prepared by some of the world’s best chefs, but I wasn’t after that. I was looking for smaller restaurants big on atmosphere, pouring handmade cocktails, dishing up unique menus, and offering an attitude that was a bit more down to earth than the big hotels, but also a bit more upscale that the usual roadside fare. By the week’s end I was fully satiated and perhaps even a little drunk. I was successful, and this was good. Here are a few highlights:

Hazara

Hazara: Face Plaza

Okay, so right off the bat I’m breaking the rules and eating Indian food. But this is really good Indian food. The Face is a complex hidden away on Sukhumvit soi 38 and is made up of the Face Bar, La Na Thai restaurant and Hazara restaurant. I decided to go with the "frontier Indian style" Hazara. The whole place is built around a torch-lit, classic Thai house with outdoor/indoor areas, fish ponds, lush bamboo gardens, giant carved statues, opium beds to lounge on, and excellent frozen cocktails to stave off the heat. This night also rekindled my long love affair with rum in the form of a several ice-cold mojitos. The food was great: spicy tikka masala, fresh raita with huge chunks of Thai cucumber, and some freshly baked garlic naan. The decor was dark and sexy and I really like how they rely on traditional Thai methods of cooling the house so it never feels like air conditioning. This is a great place to go if you want to impress your friends as there’s really no sign out front and once you enter the dimly-lit, lush garden and wander up the stairs toward the house it’s hard to believe you are still in Bangkok.

Hazara Soi 38 Sukhumvit Road Tel: 66 2 713 6048 www.facebars.com

Mahanaga

Mahanaga

They’re calling this food Thai Fusion. Mahnaga is an old colonial house turned into a cozy cocktail lounge that opens up into a lush garden courtyard where you can dine under the stars. I happened to be there in the hot season so they had me sit inside the air-conditioned pavilion alongside the garden, as nobody seemed to want to be in the heat. The look is Moroccan inspired with plenty of drapery, tajines, and a waitstaff done up in Moorish gowns. The food was excellent. Small portions with lots of flavor and heat. I started with grilled pork satay wrapped in pandanus leaves served with pita bread. I followed that with more mojitos and yum neua yang saranea which was a spicy grilled New Zealand sirloin salad with lemongrass, mint, and fresh grapes. The heat was kick-starting my endorphins and the rum was stupefying my ability to speak Thai, but all was well. I finished my meal and retired to the plush lounge and ordered up some caipirinhas and sunk into a cozy chair in the corner to watch the crowd. Mahanaga is a great blend of classic and modern Thai and I actually went back later on in the week for more of the delicious caipirinhas. I only wish I could have dined in the candle-lit garden outside.

Mahanaga 2 Sukhumvit 29 Tel: 66 2 662 3060 www.mahanaga.com

Flava

Flava

I made my way to the Dream Hotel simply to check out the architecture and have a cocktail. The bar was called Flava (cheesy name) but the decor was interesting and the bartenders were very friendly. I started out with a Fire Apple which is made from a whole chili muddled with lime and apple slices then shaken with Fiji rum and strained into a cocktail glass. The taste was bright with citrus and had a nice spicy finish. They also served me various free snacks to go along with the cocktails and my bacon and olive bruschetta was quite good. As I perused the Cuban cigar menu I noticed a bottle along the back wall that seemed to glow brighter than the rest—an eerie green glow. I squinted my eyes to make out the name: Absinthe! They didn’t really know how to serve it properly, and for a moment I think the bar top was on fire, but in the end it all worked out. It was delicious. Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My baby Shot Me Down) played in the background as I drank my third glass and things started to go soft-focus. I wandered into the tropical Bangkok night and somehow made it back to my hotel several hours later. Good times.

Flava Dream Hotel Sukhumvit Soi 15 Tel: 66 2 254 8500 www.dreambkk.com

Thang Long

Thang Long

Thang Long is a simple, straightforward restaurant that does pretty traditional Vietnamese food in a minimalist, modern setting. Concrete floors, cactus, and abstract paintings coupled with huge baskets of mint, basil, carrot, and lettuce that accompany every dish. Crispy lemongrass whole fish, la lot beef, grilled meatballs, all what you would expect. They make a decent cocktail too. A very laid back place and right around the corner from Brown Sugar where you can catch Bangkok’s nightly live jazz scene.

Thang Long 82/5 Soi Langsuan Tel: 66 2 251 3504

Café Chili

Cafe Chili

I mostly ate my lunches streetside but one day I wandered in to Paragon which is Bangkok’s latest super high-end shopping mall. Prada, Gucci, Coach, etc. I was mainly sightseeing but I found a great outdoor cafe area with imitation waterfalls and plenty of foliage. Cafe Chili serves up Isaan food in a luxury setting at probably 5 times the price of the real thing up north. But it was actually quite good and again, very spicy. (Believe it or not it’s not always easy to find spicy food in Thailand if you are a foreigner.) I had larb gai with sticky rice and grilled pork with chili tamarind sauce. Larb is traditionally served with fresh long beans, cabbage, carrots and mint on a bed of ice. The fresh, raw veggies always hit the spot on a hot day.

Café Chili Siam Paragon Floor G Tel: 66 2 61 0 98778

To Die For

To Die For

I mainly went here to check out the design scene housed in the H1 Complex which is becoming the center for design modernism in Thailand. Opposite the Capellini furniture store is To Die For, a French/Italian joint with high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and some pretty decent western food with a few Thai twists. The highlight for me was the central outdoor courtyard with its plush sofas and beds to lounge on while sipping mojitos with the well-heeled set. As with all the places I’ve mentioned, everyone here is very friendly and the service is top-notch. And you really haven’t had a mojito until you have one with fresh Thai lime and mint, so much more fragrant than the stuff we get in the supermarkets stateside.

To Die For H1 Complex Sukhumvit soi 55 (Thong Lo) Tel: 66 2 381 4717

Eat Me

Eat Me

Eat Me is a another great spot for escaping the city. It’s hidden away on a side street off Convent Road and features a great outdoor terrace for dining al fresco. The decor is is pretty minimal/modern and the whole space doubles as an art gallery so the look is ever changing. I started out with a lychee mojito which was slushy and good. One thing about Thai cocktails is that they are often made using finely crushed ice which is key to a quality cocktail—especially those that feature lots of citrus like moijtos, margaritas, and caipirinhas. Western bartenders don’t always understand the whole surface-area thing and use big clumsy cubes that only chill parts of the drink. If needed a Thai bartender will actually crush each individual cube for you with the back of a spoon. Anyway, I had a duck spring roll, some seared scallops with mango and everything was pretty fresh and tasty. The menu is mostly western with various Asian twists, great cocktails and an impressive wine list. The terrace is a nice quiet place to finish off an evening.

Eat Me Soi Pipat Convent Road Tel: 66 2 2238 0931

Thompson Bar

Thompson

If you are at all interested in Thai architecture than a visit to Jim Thompson's house is a must. The former OSS agent turned silk-trader crafted a traditional Thai house in the late 1950s with a subtle western sensibility and plenty of Chinese decoration. The whole place has been converted into a museum and recently a pretty cool restaurant and bar has opend up on the property. I grabbed a quick lunch there and it was actually pretty good. The room itself is modern to say the least, and I'm guessing the new crop of Jim Thompson designers, greats like Ou Baholyodhin, had a hand in the decor. Worth a day trip for sure.

Thompson Soi Kasem San 2 66 2 612 3601

Back to Seattle

I ended up eating a lot of street food and bar food too, and the picture at the beginning of this article might have been the tastiest thing I ate the whole trip: chicken with basil over rice. It was made by an old lady in a ramshackle corregated lean-to near a temple and it cost me about a dollar. In Bangkok it’s likely that as you raise the quality of your atmosphere your food quality will suffer just a bit, but I’m okay with that. There’s room for every kind of food in my favorite city, and I plan on eating it all someday.

Geoffrey Smith is a graphic designer living in Seattle who has an abnormal fondness for cachaça.