Three words: mall food courts.
Don’t worry, we’re not here to pad Thai-shame you. (Locals eat the dish, even though it’s not native to Thailand.) We do, however, have some tips for avoiding overpriced, under-seasoned meals while visiting the glorious food city that is Bangkok.
While on a two-week trip to Thailand’s capital with the sole intention of eating no less than 1,000 noodles, I spoke with two locals about how tourists can find the city’s best—and, coincidentally, most affordable—food while avoiding the eateries and stands that cater exclusively to tourists.
Mall Food Courts Are Always an Excellent Choice
Not only are malls appealing to Bangkok’s overheated residents because of the sweet, sweet air-conditioning, but the dishes served inside their food courts are some of the best in the city. Many of the stands at Terminal 21, for example, are offshoots of Bangkok’s most popular street carts.
“We are a hot country,” says Wa, a Bangkok native. “People run to the mall to shop or to eat or to do everything. The cafeteria is so good in the mall.”
Peggy, another Bangkok native, tells me she’s been eating at the MBK (Ma Boon Khrong) Center food court every day while taking care of her sick mother, since she no longer has time for sit-down restaurants.
“You get the best of street food there,” she says. “Everything is delicious and cheap. Normally it would cost much more.”
And she means cheap. You can get massive meals at the food court for around 80 cents. (I’m still dreaming about a 50-cent khao soi.)
Clarify Your Desired Spice Level
When you order food at the mall, a street cart or even a restaurant, the cook may assume you want your food less spicy than a Thai person would. If you like heat and don’t want your food to be automatically robbed of chilis, speak up.
“Most places foreigners go, they kind of assume you can’t take the spiciness,” Wa says. “Maybe the first thing they ask you is, ‘Do you eat spicy food?’ And if you do say, ’Yes,’ they don’t even think you can take that. If you want to eat very spicy, or just make it normal Thai-style, say, ‘Thai-style.’ They’ll get it.”
Peggy, however, asked me to mention that not all Thai people like spicy food; she pointed to my chili-flecked papaya salad and said wouldn’t be able to eat it.
“We’re not all the same!” she said.
Don’t Be Embarrassed About Eating Pad Thai
Despite its confusing origin story and popularity among Americans, pad Thai is beloved in Thailand, and you can find great versions at street carts.
But if you’re looking to try a dish that “Thai people east almost every day,” as Wa puts it, consider kaprow, a rice dish that comes with meat or fish stir-fried with Thai basil. Som tam (papaya salad) is another easily-found street dish that many locals eat daily.
Even though pad Thai isn’t necessarily an everyday dish for locals, you can find exquisite versions.
“It’s one of my favorites,” says Peggy. “I like the sweetness and the sour. When you eat it on the street, they use real palm sugar. It’s so much better.”
Wa says that Bangkok’s Chinatown is one of the best places to eat in the city, even though people think of it as a tourist attraction.
“People here go to Chinatown for food all the time,” she says. “It’s some of the best food in the city. The price is a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it.”
The area also boasts quality drinking spots; Wa’s trendy gin bar, Teens of Thailand, is a favorite among locals and tourists. (The noodle stand next-door to ToT is top notch, too.)
Avoid This Street
A neighborhood you should avoid—well, just one particular street—is Sukhumvit Soi 11, a stretch with touristy bars and mediocre, overpriced restaurants.
“The street food there is extremely expensive for no reason,” Wa says. “It doesn’t even look good.”
Of course, “expensive” in Bangkok, where the going price for a bowl of noodles is about a dollar, is relative. And even if you do get sucked into a tourist trap—an English menu is a giveaway, though now even some street carts have them—you’ll still get a pretty good meal.
“If you go to a touristic area, you’re probably going to eat in a ‘tourist trap’ restaurant, but I will say that even that, Thai restaurants do really well,” Wa says.
Because the food in Bangkok is so affordable to many visitors, Wa suggests treating yourself to the occasional, somewhat-more-expensive meal; she reads the online mag BK, which has extensive food coverage of the city, for restaurant inspiration.
“There’s no place that has crazy prices, but if you come from abroad, and the price here isn’t as high as in your country, go to the nice restaurants, which costs just as much as a sandwich at your place,” she says.
You can get an extraordinary (and refined) meal at the Peninsula Bangkok’s riverside Thiptara for a price that would be unthinkable in New York. Their entrées, from the gai hor bai-toey (marinated chicken wrapped in pandan leaf) and pla-ka-pong neung ma-nao (steamed sea bass), are in the $15 range.
“Sometimes don’t go to the cheapest place,” Wa says. “It’s still cheap at the nice restaurants, and it’s worth it because you can get a really, really good meal.”