Bangkok is one of the great food cities in the world. On what seems like every street corner, you will find some little food stand in which somebody is tossing together some outrageously delicious morsel for what you would spend on a pack of gum back home. It’s true that there’s some small chance that some of it could kill you, but chances are that it won’t. What’s not to like?
I’ll admit that they dish up some mighty strange stuff on the street. You will see all manner of dried fishes, parts of animals in which you can neither identify the part nor the animal, and heaven knows what else. And then there’s the question of hygiene. It’s not like the board of health is hanging big letter grades right there on the sidewalk. On the other hand, they cook the stuff right in front of your eyes and crank those woks up as high as they go, likely killing the little beasties that might send you to the rail. Now that I think of it, the one time I got really sick when traveling (excepting, of course, the pristine yakitori place that served me raw chicken on purpose) was in a pub in England. That little raw chicken episode probably just toughened me up for the tasty streets of Bangkok, right? Right!
I was ready to tackle the great cuisine of Thailand. So how many of these monuments to glorious street food did we patronize? Er, um, none.
It’s shameful, I know, but before my membership in the gluttony hall of fame is revoked, I am here to tell you that we still ate really well in Bangkok, even if I fall a notch or two in the esteem of the great world eaters.
Thailand was not originally on our itinerary. We were going to pass through here on our way to Burma, but when our dear friend (and faithful blog reader) John told us that he wanted to meet us in Thailand for his birthday, we jumped at the chance. We’ve been here before, but this trip through Bangkok has reminded me that there’s something to be said for revisiting a place that you’ve already enjoyed. For one thing, we were last here almost twenty years ago, and while I remember liking the city for all its frenzied charms, the memories were fuzzy little blots at best. Why not give Thailand another go?
And I’m glad I did! I’d forgotten how much I like it here. In the dim recesses of what’s left of my mind, I know we had fun here once upon a time, but now I remember why. Bangkok is one of those places that’s just funky enough to be endlessly fascinating while still being easy to travel in. The food is crazy good. You can get an hour long foot massage for eight bucks. There’s now a pretty convenient elevated train, which, while it doesn’t go everywhere, still gets you around. Taxis are really cheap and the cab drivers are usually friendly, honest, and mellow (although one cab driver risked all our lives in what seemed to be an attempt to get us to our destination quickly, even though we’d have been quite happy if he’d taken his time). There are lots of really cool temples and other cultural things, but to be honest, I’d be happy if there was nothing more than food and foot rubs.
Let’s begin with my shameful admission that we didn’t eat street food. On our first night in town, I thought we’d keep things simple and stay close to our apartment. I scoped out a place that seemed almost too good to be true, and I’m happy to report that it wasn’t. It’s a restaurant called Soul Food Manhanakorn and it is run, improbably, by a former American food writer named Jarett Wrisley. I am not qualified to say whether having an American food writer open a Thai restaurant qualifies as heresy or not, but I frankly don’t care. It serves craft beer, whimsical cocktails, and takes street food to the next level. They use as many organic ingredients as they can, and like many other places we seem to wander into, the joint would probably feel pretty at home in Brooklyn or the Mission, and I consider that a compliment.
Onto the food…over two meals (yet again, we found a place that we loved and went back – sue me) we had: little wraps of butter lettuce and pork jowl into which you could add an assortment of Thai yummy things like toasted peanuts, fried shallots, tamarind jam, and other jazz like that; a fiery, limey pomelo salad with prawns that I will dream about for years; Issan chicken wings; a classic green papaya salad topped with deep fried chicken skin (!!); that classic wide noodle called pad see ew topped with smoked pork jowl; deep fried okra; and a vegetarian red curry that would make you forget that there’s a big pile of pork jowl sitting in the kitchen waiting to be eaten.
This food was everything I love about good Thai food, which is so hard to find in the states – it finds the perfect balance between spicy, sour, and sweet, and gives you that funky goodness that fish sauce brings to the party. Thai restaurants aren’t known for their service, but when I mentioned to the hostess that we had been there twice in four days, she tried to buy us a round of drinks and dessert. Sadly, we had run completely out of steam by that point, but it’s the kind of little touch that makes you love a place down to your toenails.
We weren’t done with this fancy food. For John’s birthday, we thought it would be fun to see just how much luxury we could squeeze out of Bangkok. The last time we were here we stayed in a guest house in the backpacker ghetto off Khao San Road. It’s more or less the Bourbon Street of Bangkok, with souvenir shops, cheap restaurants, and (I am told) clubs that appeal to baser sensibilities, let’s just say.
This time, we could afford a slightly elevated experience. We made a reservation at a place called the Siam Hotel, which is several miles up the Chao Praya river, the thrumming, exciting waterway that splits the city, and whose waterbuses also provide cheap sightseeing transportation options. If you make a dinner reservation at the Siam Hotel, however, they send a boat to pick you up at the main dock downtown. We scurried down to the dock at the appointed time and there came the boat, which whisked us half an hour upriver to a glorious little boutique hotel and restaurant made out of old teak timbers. We had cocktails on the deck overlooking the river, and a lovely dinner, but the food could have been lousy and we’d still have been thrilled.
So, no, I haven’t been eating squid testicles or lamb’s eyeballs or fish paste that was fermented in some ninety year old guy’s underpants. We aren’t staying in a backpacker’s flophouse, just a good old-fashioned airbnb apartment (it’s not too fancy, mind you, but it’s a far cry from the actual cage we once slept in at a Kuala Lumpur “guest house” in the 90s). No, we’re older and wiser and once in a while it’s nice to shoot the moon, even if shooting the moon only costs you what an impromptu midweek dinner in the Village does. Here’s to middle age!
Next time – I finally get to take a cooking class, we get thrown out of a bar, and I throw in a little gratuitous sightseeing for those of you who are sick of reading about food.