Love Thai food discoveries but dislike “night market” crowds? Check out these fantastic alternatives to exploring Thailand’s classic and contemporary food landscapes.
t’s challenging to pinpoint the exact moment when the global street food trend became a “thing,” and if it took root in Bangkok. In any case, there is strong evidence that extensive media coverage of the Thai capital’s many kiosks and night markets generated curiosity about a more inclusive type of culinary adventure beyond the realm of the white tablecloth restaurant.
However, it is important to consider that Bangkok recently enacted laws and restrictions affecting street vendors. Furthermore, as Thai food is firmly ensconced in the American mainstream–especially Southern California–are there hidden treasures and innovations in Thailand worth at least 18 hours of flying time?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” However, it takes some research and planning to find the hidden-in-plain-sight gems. This is where apps like Yelp and the sites of area bloggers come in handy for sussing out what’s new, different, and generating a legit buzz among residents. While night markets and stalls are still wildly popular, experienced foodies may prefer finds away from the maddening crowds…where one can sit down, relax, and savor the food.
All Roads Lead to Bangkok
Bangkok is a logical place to get acquainted with Thai food trends, as one has to land there to get elsewhere.
First or second-time visitors who want to beat the year-round summer heat or get their bearings on the range of Thai cuisines on the cheap have a few nice options: Terminal 21’s Thai-centric food court (terminal21.co.th), and Asiatique, which has a similar feel to the promenades in Huntington Beach and Santa Monica. Both are accessible by the elevated BTS trains covering the city center.
Baan Kanitha by the River
2194/ Charoen Krung Rd, Asiatique-The Riverfront
(66) 2 108 4910 | www.baan-khanitha.com
Asiatique, financed by national Thai beer brand Chang, features a section of kiosks each specializing in different regionalized “street food” from different parts of the country, from the spicier foods of the northeast to seafood-focused items from the south. While the interiors of Asiatique’s Baan Kanitha location almost looks like a western turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor, it delivers a great riverfront view as well as southern specialties such as the crowd-pleasing Meang Kam appetizer with dried shimp and a host of mix-and-match condiments; deep-fried sea bass in red curry; Phad Thai Khung Lai Sua and Pla Khung Lai Sua (both featuring enormous prawns); Pad Thai Khung Lai Sua and Pla Khung Lai Sua, and Gaeng Massaman curries with chicken or beef.
653 Bld. 7, Baan Silom Arcade, Silom Road, 2236 4829-30
(66) 2 258 5308 | talingpling.com
Other finds reveal “local” doesn’t have to necessarily be plain or gritty. Take Taling Pling, an exceedingly girly pink-and-purple space that reconciles beautiful tapas-sized portions and rich, complex flavors of such specialties as bean salad with curry paste, minced pork and prawn and coconut cream; stir-fried ivy gourd leaves in oyster sauce with minced pork, a vermicelli variation of pad thai with crab, bean sprout, peanuts and dumplings stuffed with minced pork and crab.
In Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, notable spots break down into two categories– “New Thai cuisine” and family-owned places with their own spins on larb, pad Thai, khao soi (regarded across the board as the regional dish of the area) and a few originals one won’t find in Southern California because of the availability of particular ingredients. Since Chiang Mai is a much smaller town, and easier to navigate thanks to affordable cab rides within certain distances and car rentals, special dining experiences present themselves a little more readily.
RatiLanna Riverside Spa and Resort
33 Changklan Road, Muang, Chiang Mai 50100
(66) 53 999 333 | ratilannachiangmai.com
RatiLanna is a good home base, just a few minutes outside the city’s ancient walls. The resort features an excellent buffet breakfast, huge rooms, and excellent services, including their own cooking classes and a concierge who can refer you to the better independent restaurants in town. Standout places that allow visitors to sit, relax, and enjoy the food are plentiful, and have distinctive personalities, although they all integrate some aspect of a “home-y” dining setting.
The Whole Earth Café
88 Sri Donchai Rd, Chiang Mai
(66) 53 282 463
The Whole Earth Cafe, a former ashram that still has the “no shoes” rule in place, is now a place of worship for diners who like clever, poly-cultural riffs on Southeast Asian favorites. The current owners fuse Thai, Indian and Vietnamese ideas together in a warmly lit room and patio that creates the feeling of dining in one’s home–but a home where creative people of different backgrounds intermarried. Interestingly executed highlights include samosas (that resemble Argentine empanadas), seafood curry pudding with squid and fish, okra masala, fish cakes, and chicken-mushroom curry.
The Café at the MAIIAM Museum
122, Moo 7 Tonpao Amphoe San Kamphaeng, Chang Wat Chiang Mai
(66) 81 386 6899 | maiiam.com
The lines between indoors and out blur in the cafe of the MAIIAM Museum, and provide a framework for dishes that echo the colors and textures of the works on display. Delicate dishes sampled at a special opening reception included fried brown rice with pork “Chu Chee;” fried chicken with locally-sourced herbs; Massaman beef with curry; and rainbow trout atop a spicy salad.
1, 14 Chareonraj Rd. Wat Kate Muang Chiang Mai
(66) 53 303 030 | thedeck1.com
The sleek riverfront spread that’s perfectly presentable for date night and business lunches, features a menu by Chef Jannarong Suriyae that will change one’s perceptions of restaurants offering western and eastern dishes. His best creations are founded in classic northern Thai, while upgraded with unexpected European and North American flourishes. Dishes emblematic of this include the signature duck curry with lychee, grapes pineapple and tomatoes; a Thai salmon salad that is a zesty twist on tuna tartare; chicken in pandan leaves with Thai spices; and refreshing spring rolls.
Huey Muan Jai Restaurant
Chang Phueak, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
(66) 89 701 2894 | huenmuanjai.com
This restaurant showcases Lanna style fare in an indoor-outdoor setting and has a tiki-bar look to it. Highlights include Hinlay Curry (pork curry); Nam Prick Num (roasted green chili dip); Nam Prik Ong (pork-tomato chili dip); deep-fried pork ribs; streaky pork (pork belly) with cracklings; Sai Aua (Northern Thai spicy sausage); and a very spicy expression of larb, a common appetizer made from ground pork.
Chang Phueak, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
(66) 53 226 857
This simple eatery, with seasonal dishes crafted from local participant farmers in the Royal Agriculture Project, is part of a small complex that includes a sweet Thai craft boutique and a specialty grocery store. On a hot day, the restaurant’s fresh-made pea flower juice, raw mango juice, and watermelon slush hit the spot. And while most restaurants do a variation on Khao Soi, regarded as the official dish of the region, the version here has a hearty homestyle feel to it. Papaya salad, panang curry, trout teriyaki and cumin fried rice are also solid bets.
Chiang Mai Food Tours
(66) 89 126 3657 | chiangmaifoodtours.com
While guide Kristsadakorn Sretsatain introduced me to Huey Muan Jai, the tour also included street food finds beyond the throngs of the night market. They included Rotee Pa Dae (a food stand specializing in a Thai-Indian hybrid of fried flat bread filled with seasoned chicken), Pad Thai 5 Rot Thapae (a humble eatery that only does pad Thai, and in a way not often seen back home, wrapped in an omelet) and the best stands for jackfruit, mangosteen, lychee, grilled bananas dipped in coconut syrup, and addictive jerky-like pork at the Warorot Market.
Chiang Rai and The Golden Triangle: Reaching Higher Ground
While some may argue Chiang Mai is what Bangkok was 50 years ago, this description seems to better fit Chiang Rai and its environs. There are plenty of wonderful casual finds en route to the “Golden Triangle” region that may not be fancy, but will deepen one’s vocabulary and enjoyment of regional Thai dishes.
An hour out of Chiang Mai, adventure travelers will want to book a couple of days at Doi Inthaion National Park, which incorporates a couple Karen tribe villages, a wonderful open air coffee roaster-y (Italian travelers lined up to purchase bags to-go and speaks volumes), and several working farms and orchards.
Krua Tam Nak at Doi Tung
(66) 5 3767 0157 | doitung.org
Those who are a little less outdoorsy will enjoy Krua Tam Nak (translation: “royal kitchen “) the restaurant adjoining the Mae Sai area’s Doi Tung Royal Villa, which features a lavish botanical garden and a museum inside the home of the late Queen Mother focused on her philanthropic work and hand in helping develop King Rama IX’s Royal Agricultural Project. Must-orders include red curry with Mekong river fish, mushrooms mixed with shrimp, and a refreshing lemongrass and fish salad.
673/1 Thanalai Road, Tambon Wiang Muang, Chiang Rai 57000
(66) 53 600 500 | phulaerestaurant.com
There are plenty of good things to eat at Chiang Rai’s night market, but Phu-Lae—a favorite among the area’s governor and other local politicians—takes the guesswork out of figuring out which regional dishes are worth sampling. It’s rumored the governor enjoys its take on red curry, vegetables sautéed in oyster sauce, sweet-and-sour shrimp, and Thai Lanna-style sausage.
Baan Mai Nai Suan
Restaurants abound in the “Golden Triangle” delta, but it’s worth going the extra mile away from the boat docks to dine at Baan Mai Nai Suan. The converted private country home is known for its breezy covered outdoor decks and house-made banana chips, as well as dishes specific to the region including a delightful apple and Asian pear salad; clear catfish soup (a lighter alternative to tom kah soup), fried tilapia with sweet and sour sauce and their own “golden bag” appetizer served with a plum sauce.
It is also worth noting that the Parvati Spa at Le Meridien Chiang Rai does a few wonderful things with food, including an amazing body scrub massage that’s fully customizable. You choose your components based on your skin type and your needs whether it’s acne (jasmine rice), brightening (Tanaka), detoxifying (tamarind), or invigorating (Coffee). The flow of every modality is perfect and you feel very relaxed even with so much going on. The aromatics are divine and the music is just muted enough so you can actually hear the birds and wind and whatever else is going on in the gardens. At 1500 baht, or around $50 plus tip, it’s a most affordable luxury that is almost literally good enough to eat.
Southern Silence and Serenity
99 Moo 5 Ba Kan Tiang Beach, Ko Lanta, Krabi
66 75 607 999 | pimalai.com
Although Pimalai Resort is in the southern reaches of Thailand, and it’s 16 years old, it still may be the best place North American travelers have not heard of yet. The calm, isolated property (whose boat ride transfer to and from the resort is part of the adventure), is a discreetly glamorous alternative to Phuket, Samui and Northern Krabi, whose beaches are now colonized with artsy-multi-use properties, design hotels, and hipster appeal.
Despite poor reviews on food from travel agents and Trip Advisor, it was a nice surprise to discover Pimalai’s Thai and Western food offerings were generally excellent. Standouts included the cod dish and shrimp pasta dishes at Seven Seas, and on the Thai side, tuna tartare, green curry with chicken, garlic and black pepper prawns and steamed fish with chili. Travelers who still have the wanderlust from their earlier days, but have moved on from backpacking and camping, will love excursions to old Koh Lanta (where Andaman, Muslim and Chinese cultures coexist with the Thai many are familiar with). One excellent find is Pinto, located on the river side of the town’s main street, serving excellent, light dishes perfect for the sultry climate, including many delicious vegetarian items.