BANGKOK (BUSINESS TIMES) - To try or not to try, that is the question. Street food in Bangkok, that is, as you salivate at the sight of succulent sausages, glistening fat squid and giant salt-crusted fish broiling over a makeshift charcoal brazier; breathe in the pungent sweet-savoury fish sauce fusing with herbs and lime juice to turn shredded green papaya into signature som tam; the fragrance of condensed milk and bananas wrapped in tender, chewy prata.... but whoa. You involuntarily reach into your purse for antiseptic wet ones, as if wiping your hands will sanitise the dodgy, almost squalid - by Singaporean NEA standards - surroundings all this delicious food is cooked in.
We admit to being the sissified diners who rely on the comfort of food courts, Nara Thai and a healthy imagination to indulge in our street food fantasies. It took us years before we realised we could eat at the hawker stalls in Or Tor Kor market without dying or exhausting our carefully packed supply of charcoal pills or lomotil. We've had the famous oyster omelette in Chinatown, and even ate at a zi char coffeeshop. Yes, there have been near-misses, but we lived to tell the tale.
On a recent trip, we threw caution to the wind and embarked on a mini-odyssey in pursuit of real local flavours - with a few sanitised places thrown in for good measure and to counter our stomach's culture shock. We didn't go in blind, of course. We had recommendations from locals and as long as you go by the golden rule of picking freshly cooked food as much as possible, you'll be fine. And the flavours are so worth getting over your germophobia.
Here's a list of places that barely skim the surface of what the city has to offer, but is tried and tested and stomach upset-free.
Supanniga Eating Room
28 Soi Sathorn 10 Silom, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500
If you need to ease yourself into your dining sojourn, Supanniga is your comfort zone. We've seen it recommended in some guides but it's a pretty watered-down version of Isarn or Northern Thai cuisine that emphasises sticky rice and larbs or spicy salads. That most of the customers are foreigners should give you an indication of the food - acceptable but no kick. The Isarn signature grilled pork collar is replaced by 'premium pork' (190 baht or S$7.60) steak that's on the dry side. It comes with sticky rice and a chilli powder dipping sauce nam jin jeaw. Try the Khao Pad Nam Prik Pao Pla Sa Lid (160 baht) - spicy fried rice that packs a kick, eaten with crispy fried fish; and Yum Nue Lai (160baht) - slightly chewy shavings of beef shank tossed in a spicy dressing and crispy garlic chips. Skip the recommended Moo Cha Muang (190 baht) - with its too-dry chunks of pork in a rather weak sweetish gravy, simmered with herbs and cha muang leaves which give it its name. The place is cosy and casual, with cheerful crockery and decor. T: +66 02-635-0349. Opening hours: 11.30am - 2.30pm; 5.30pm - 11pm (Last order at 10.15pm), daily. www.supannigaeatingroom.com
Khua Kling Pak Sod
98/1 Soi Thonglor 5, 55 Sukhumvit Road
Apparently a favourite of celebrity chef Gaggan Anand, this place comes with a fire warning. No one leaves this place without huffing, puffing and flapping in agony from accidentally chomping on kamikaze chillis embedded in seemingly innocent salads and stir-fries in this cosy, old-fashioned restaurant that specialises in family-style southern Thai cooking. Expect proper restaurant pricing, but the family-style cooking is hearty, and cooked without any shortcuts to please foreigners. So dig in and suffer the pain. Everything is consistently tasty. We had Yum Woosen Goong (180 baht) - glass noodle salad with prawns; Ga Lam Plee Cha Nam Pla (160 baht) - cabbage stir-fried with fish sauce; Sataw Pad Kapi Moo Krob (180baht) - stink beans stir-fried with crispy pork belly and shrimp paste; an evil Gaeng Pu Bai Cha Plu (380 baht) - yellow curry with betel leaves and lumps of crabmeat, with Kanom Jeen (thin rice noodles); and Pad Ka Prao (160baht) - minced chicken stir-fried with Thai Southern chilli and basil.
The highlight is Pla Taotoey Tod Prik Kee Noo Suan (190 baht/100g) - a deep-fried giant pomfret fried super crisp as only Thai chefs know how, covered with a bed of chopped fresh chill and garlic that are dynamite in the stomach. T: +66 02-185-3977 or +66 086-307-1850. Opening hours: 11am - 2.30pm, 5.30pm - 9.30pm, daily. Website: http://khuaklingpaksod.com
Sukhumvit Soi 38
800 Sukhumvit Road, Khwaeng Phra Khanong, Khet Khlong Toei, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10110
If you've been heading to the more established Soi 55 food alley and paid premium tourist prices for the supposedly famous mango sticky rice, head across to Soi 38. Locals swear by the Khao Neow Ma Muang with its tender, resilient sticky rice and extra rich coconut milk. All for just 60 baht. It's located at the entrance of the alley - just behind a drinks stall. There's also a stall selling very decent grilled meats and fermented sausages. Walk through the alley and you'll find a small but bright, cheery and clean food court with a few stalls. One of them serves pig's innards soup with blood cakes, if you're so inclined. (Nearest BTS: Thong Lor Station. After exiting, walk towards Sukhumvit 38 Alley and once you're walking down the street, the food court is under a building on the right.) Opening hours: 5pm - 1am, daily.
Thanon Phet Uthai, Khwaeng Bang Kapi, Khet Huai Khwang, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10310 (It's an orange building next to the ESSO station)
The taxi driver we hired for the day tells us about this place that he discovered recently. It's about as local as you can expect with no English menu but plenty of pictures for you to pick from. Don't be put off by the stray pieces of cold meat and fish hanging from a glass case in its open kitchen - we get there after lunch so the workers are having a little siesta. It's a large, no frills open-air space covered by an overhead canopy. Food pictures are plastered all over and it does set off your hygiene radar, but worry not. The som tam doesn't have that limp, sanitised flavour of 'clean' restaurants. This is punchy, a balanced clash of sweet, sour, savoury in perfect ratio so no one flavour dominates. Salted egg gives it extra umami and the sticky rice it comes with is chewy and fresh. The grilled pork collar is the real deal - all delicious fat and meat in tender unison. Gaeng Om Moo is a lovely fragrant broth which gets most of its flavour from a load of spices and vegetables simmered in a light pork broth and probably very little MSG as we had no thirsty side effects later. Neua Nam Tok is an acquired taste of sliced grilled beef mixed in a rich yet bitter gravy of ox blood. It's earthy and odd, but an eye-opening introduction to the complexities of Isarn cooking. And if duck tongues don't weird you out, go a step further and try the Pak Ped Tod - really good deep fried duck beaks with the tongues still inside. They're crunchy and chewy at the same time, like very bony but crispy fried chicken. And the damage? Hardly any dish costs more than 80 baht. T: +66 89-797-0296. Opening hours: 11am - 10pm, Mon to Sat.
Man Fu Yuan Kitchen
8th Floor, EmQuartier, 637 Sukhumvit Road
If you need a breather from the spice overload, take a dining break in the comforting surroundings of Man Fu Yuan Kitchen, a casual version of the Cantonese restaurant that originated in the InterContinental Hotel Singapore. It's run by Patrick Ng, the same person who managed Man Fu Yuan in Singapore and now runs several outlets in Bangkok for its owners, Thai Beverage. The food is slightly tweaked to Thai tastebuds but you'll still find familiar dim sum favourites such as sautéed carrot cake in XO sauce, rice rolls and even localised nibbles like a purple sweet potato fritter (purple being the official colour of the Thai princess) filled with salted egg yolk custard. T: +66 02-003-6240. Opening hours: 10am - 10pm, daily.
Level 4, Siam Paragon, 991 Rama 1 Road, Puthumwan
It seems to be on every Singaporean's must-go list and it's worth stopping by for the sheer convenience and comfort of eating beef noodles in an upscale shopping centre. The shop itself is carved into an open space along with other eateries on the fourth floor of Siam Paragon, just by the escalator. Of course it doesn't have the street food edginess to the flavour but the broth is rich and beefy for 80 baht for a regular bowl but goes up to 950 baht for top of the line wagyu. A rib-eye bowl for 450 baht is more than adequate, and you get generous slices just barely cooked in a coveted bowl of broth. The noodles come in a separate bowl (you can also opt for rice). Forget the beef balls as they're the cheap supermarket variety. Opening hours: 11am - 9.15pm, daily.
251 South Sathorn Rd, Khwaeng Yan Nawa, Khet Sathon, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10120
It's a veritable shack located at a busy traffic junction, but the sight of fat tilapia and catfish slowly broiling in their salt crusts over charcoal embers will have you ignoring your apprehension and stepping into this grimy, strictly local-looking place. The staff inside look at you almost accusingly as you stand there doing the tourist thing by snapping photos of the fish. As it turns out, they are super friendly and helpful and - there is an English menu, assuming you can make sense of the blurred photos behind the frayed plastic they're laminated in. A must-try is definitely the Pla Nin Pao or tilapia (just 250 baht) - giant creatures brought to your table with the salt crust neatly sliced off, leaving the most juicy, moist flesh. The slight muddines of the river fish is easily mitigated by the accompanying dips. Som tam also good with the addition of salted egg, and Ka Gai Super (70 baht) really is a super chicken feet soup which we like more for the full-bodied flavour that comes from the liberal use of herbs. T: +66 85-981-5041. (Take the BTS Surasak Station Exit 2, walk straight, past The Bangkok Sathorn, to the corner of Sathon Tai Road and Charoen Rat Road. The entrance is right around the corner.) Opening hours: 4pm to 1am, daily.
3rd Floor, Gaysorn, 999 Ploenchit Road, Lumpini
This posh and tastefully designed restaurant is the brainchild of chefs Jason Bailey and Bee Satongun. But don't be deceived, the food served is anything but modern. The couple are focused on royal Thai cuisine, and many of their recipes utilise such old-school practices. Simmering coconut cream till the oil separates before adding the spice paste is one of them, and results in dishes such as Massaman lamb curry of crispy young Mon Thong durian, and smoky southern yellow curry of red spanner crab. Other must-tries include the sweet and crispy Mee Grob noodles which are infused with citrusy flavours and Thai herbs, served with river prawns. Worth the trip for an introduction into old school cooking using top produce and updated methods. T: +66 02-656-1003. Opening hours: 12pm - 2pm, 6.30pm - 11pm, daily. Website: https://pastebangkok.com
Tum Pak Wan
112 Maxim Building, Lumpini Khwaeng Lumphini, Khet Pathum Wan, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10330
We don't think much of this nondescript 20-seater eatery when a Thai friend first introduces us to it, especially since it is hidden in a building advertising "VISA services" and bears no signage that we can read. But by the time we are seated, a small lunch crowd starts to form outside - made up of local office workers eyeing our table. Definitely a good sign. The menu is all Thai, so you might need a bit of ingenuity to place your order, but our friend helps us get a portion of the juicy Gai Yang (grilled chicken, 70 baht) that's roasted in the large clay pots out front, a Tam Khorat (som tam with fermented fish sauce, 60 baht), and Nam Tok Moo (sliced grilled pork salad, 70 baht) with crispy bits of baked rice crackers. We also throw in a bowl of Gang Hed Pop (100 baht) - a tasty mushroom soup made with a Thai variation of "truffle". Unlike its European counterpart it has a spongy texture which soaks up the hot soup so be careful not to burn your tongue biting into it. T: +66 86 103 2155. Opening hours: 10.30am - 3pm, Mon to Fri.
8 Ekkamai 6 Alley, Khwaeng Phra Khanong Nuea, Khet Watthana, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10110
Gaggan Anand's second restaurant is charming, breezy and friendly, just like the chef. Apart from a sous vide machine and a paco jet, all the cooking is done over fire, using wood and charcoal. As the name suggests, the food is meat-based but with spicy Thai touches. A simple roast chicken is moist and tender thanks to sous vide and a quick broiling. The marinade is similar to Thai grilled chicken and the chilli-infused eggplant dip and grain mustard give a pleasant boost. Also good is the very tender Argentinian beef tenderloin and spicy Thai chimichurri, but the highlight was the beef congee made from slow-brewing the broth over embers for 12 hours. T: +66 91-698-6688. Opening hours: 6pm - 12am, daily.Website: www.facebook.com/meatlicious