The Chao Phraya (River of Kings) cuts through the entire city of Bangkok and is often used for commuting.
Part I: The Chao Phraya (River of Kings) cuts through the entire city of Bangkok and is often used for commuting. We decided to skip a game of cab chicken and take the water taxi to Wat Pho, the home of the awesome reclining Buddha. The trip up the river offered a unique perspective of the dichotomy of wealth and poverty in Bangkok. Large luxury hotels on the riverbanks were interspersed with hovels and shanties; crumbling examples of stunning Siamese architecture stood alongside large concrete structures. Barges and longtail fishing boats drove alongside fancy water taxis and private vessels. The muddy water churned with plants, oil, and the occasional discarded water bottle.
The dock at Wat Pho is home to a popular dried fish market. The pungent smell of salty dried fish hit us long before we reached the actual stands. Contained in various straw baskets and cardboard boxes, the fish and prawns were piled high in the shade of several storefronts. To dry the fish, the locals filet them open before coating them in salt and drying them in the open air. By the time they reach the markets, the fish are tough like jerky and the tiny prawns are crispy like popcorn. We were told that locals most frequently use the wide variety of dried fish to flavor soups or add chopped to salads and noodle dishes.
Following our quick tour of Wat Pho, Nicole and I decided to use the 80% accurate map in search of a highly recommended restaurant nearby. Four blocks into our journey, we began questioning this decision, until three blocks later, we miraculously found it. I can assure you this was 50% map reading skill and 50% pure luck since, as predicted, the restaurant was at least twice as long from Wat Pho as the map had led us to believe.
Arriving at Chote Chir, a six-table restaurant down a tiny winding side street, was the ultimate reward. Written about in all of our guidebooks, and several New York Times articles, it has been in operation for over 100 years and is now run by the granddaughter of the original owner. A sign bearing welcome messages in three languages outside the door hinted at its international popularity.
We were seated at a simple four-stool table on the narrow sidewalk lip in front of the store. We immediately ordered two Cokes, which came in wonderful old glass bottles, and perused the menu in search of the widely revered seafood dishes we’d read so much about.
Everything is made to order and our menu of Smoked Green Eggplant with Shrimp, Banana Blossom Salad with Shrimp, Fried White Fish with Mango Salad, and Crispy Noodles with Crab rolled out of the kitchen in five-minute increments after placing our order. This timetable allowed us a few minutes to savor each delectable dish before starting the next.
This meal alone made the entire 20-hour flight worth it. If there is one single restaurant you should seek out in Bangkok, this is it. The green eggplant dish was a revelation of sweet, spicy sauce tossed with delicate pieces of shrimp and smoked green eggplant — a slightly sweet, more delicate version of its purple cousin. The white fish, which was so fresh I was convinced it had been caught only hours earlier, was fried in a light tempura-like batter and paired with a salad of crunchy, julienned, green mango, shallots, and chili bathed in a lime dressing. It was a revelatory version of fish and chips that far outshined any kind I’ve ever tasted. Banana Blossom Salad turned out to be the slightly polarizing dish at our table. It combined chicken and shrimp with the shredded flower from a banana tree, all tossed in a coconut chili sauce. I adored the sweet coconut-flavored prawns tempered with a mellow heat, but Nicole found it too sweet.
After our meal, I sat down with Tim Krachoichuli, the owner, to discuss her successful restaurant. She explained that her grandfather started it over 100 years ago and it has been situated on the historic side street since its inception. While the location hasn’t changed, the food has. She finds people like more modern flavors and less explosive heat than they once did, hence her attention to balancing sweetness and heat in each meal.
Her attention to freshness, she explained, is of paramount importance. Each day, everything is cooked in the back by herself and an assistant; nothing is ever frozen. Her fish is bought fresh at the market each morning and she opens her restaurant from 12-noon to 9 p.m. daily. As we had suspected, the Banana Blossom Salad, Fried White Fish, and Red Curry with Prawn are among her three most popular dishes. She would like to serve more crab, but they’ve become exorbitant at the markets and she only buys them on occasion and serves them as a special.
Part II: The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is the most elite hotel in the city and we simply couldn’t pass up the chance to eat at Lord Jim’s. Of their four restaurants, this exclusive establishment is poised over the Chao Phraya and focuses on seafood dishes. Interestingly, we found their menu had a slightly more traditional western bent. The offerings included oysters, scallops, crab, and lobster, all prepared in familiar styles to what we find in America, especially the Whole Boston Lobster, with small hints of Thai flavor.
The special appetizer, Ginger Crab Cakes with Scallions & Chiles drizzled with Champagne sauce, was a highlight. Prepared with lump meat and lightly fried, the spicy sweet heat played up the crab flavor brilliantly and inspired both of us to add fresh ground ginger the next time we make crab cakes at home. Our main course, snapper cooked in a shell of salt for two, was incredibly moist and flavorful, but needed accompanying Thai green sauce to set it off. Similar to salsa verde, it contained hints of spicy green chilies, cilantro, and oil.
Fortified by a luxurious meal, we decided to end our evening with a trip to Soi 38, the night market recommended to us by Mona. Reputed to have the best fried noodles and mango sticky rice in the city, we couldn’t pass up the chance to try some, even with our full bellies.
True to nighttime Bangkok, the streets were bustling with activity as we cab chickened our way to the market, only to find it clogged with people. The famed noodle vendor, who doesn’t even open his shop until after 9 p.m., near the entrance on the right, was serving up dishes of freshly fried noodles topped with shrimp to lines of eagerly awaiting savvy locals and foodie tourists. Two nearby sticky rice vendors also served rafts of customers small plastic bags of sweetened starch to be eaten straight with fingers. While we could barely stomach another drop of food, the sticky rice proved to be an excellent dessert in a country where sugary desserts are virtually unheard of. The sweet fried noodles, though enticing, would have to wait until our next visit.
Part 1: We first glimpsed Bangkok at night as our car inched through thick late-night traffic to the hotel. The streets were alive with locals doing their daily shopping at the dozens of night markets for food and clothes, endlessly bargaining for a better deal on this or that. Despite the steamy night heat, the atmosphere was vibrant, intense, and cheerful. Down narrow streets. people stood next to stalls eating small healthy meals: steaming bowls of noodles with shrimp, skewers of fish balls with chili sauce, and bags of fresh chilled pineapple. They spoke with each other as they ate, presumably catching up on the day. If we hadn’t been so totally exhausted from the plane ride, we might have jumped out for a quick snack ourselves. With all bowls of fresh noodles and freshly roasted fish staring us in the face, we could hardly wait for our Thai seafood quest to begin.
The next morning, we fortified ourselves with a hotel breakfast of Pad Thai, grilled tomatoes, and fresh guava juice, followed by several bottles of water and Coca-Cola® at the nearby 7-Eleven®. At first, we were disappointed at our immediate reliance on an American convenience store for basic sundries, until we realized this chain is a) one of the few consistently air-conditioned places to be found and b) nearly ubiquitous throughout the country. My discerning seafood radar was particularly amused to discover a wide selection of Lay’s® potato chips in flavors unknown in the US, including Lobster and Crab, indicating the Thai appetite for seafood applies to snacks as well as main courses.
The concierge furnished us with a city map that we were soon to learn was roughly 80% accurate. It seems that most mapmakers and guidebooks agree Bangkok is far too complicated to map, with all of its tiny, twisty streets, so they just list the major ones and allow tourists to get lost if they dare deviate. It also means it is best to take a cab everywhere, since it is nearly impossible to walk from point A to point B without veering off course at least three times en route.
Cabs must know instant disorientation is the case with most tourists, so they may or may not drive in endless looping circles around the city. Despite my best map-reading abilities, this could have easily happened to us. To add to the anxiety of cab transportation, they like to drive three abreast down two-lane streets playing perpetual games of chicken with oncoming traffic as they pass one another. After two devil-may-care cab rides, Nicole and I developed a system for approaching Thai transport: demand the cabbie use the meter, give him the address of the destination, close eyes, hope for the best.
Per the suggestion of most guidebooks and friends, our day began at the Grand Palace. A glittering city within a city, it is the original residence of the royal family and is home to the Emerald Buddha. Local monks and tourists alike flocked to the Wats (temples), praying to the statue and paying respect to the local city. Unlike the mellow heat of nighttime Bangkok, the bright sun was incredibly hot. Fans were strung up throughout the complex and we stopped several times in the shade to slug more water and collect our thoughts. After nearly an hour exploring the stone streets and golden temples, we hopped in a tuk-tuk (the local open-air-style cab which only adds to the anxiety of cab travel) for a quick stop at the Jim Thompson house for more sightseeing; then it was time for lunch.
From Jim Thompson, we opted for a less stressful transportation system and hopped the immaculately maintained public Sky Train to meet a local friend, Mona. She suggested eating at a food court at a mall nearby her office. Initially skeptical, we agreed to try it. Being a foodie, she assured us food courts in Thailand are different than the ones we are used to. The entire room is so clean you can eat off the floor and when you are finished eating, someone removes your tray and wipes down your seat and chair. To select our meal we bought a card with cash and used it to debit food at different vendors around the room. We elected to concentrate on the seafood vendors, selecting Rice with Shrimp Paste, Papaya with Hot & Spicy Crab, and Noodle Soup with Chicken and Fish Balls.
Our first foray into seafood quickly taught us an important lesson: most Thai seafood dishes do not exclusively contain seafood. Our Rice with Shrimp Paste was expertly styled with a side of beef in sauce, julienned chiles, and steamed vegetables. The soup contained both chicken and fish balls nestled in chicken broth, and the sweet mango and crab salad was dotted with tiny dried prawns. All of our selections, Mona assured us, were representative of the commonly found flavors and ingredients. Shrimp paste is a salty concoction of dried shrimp mashed with salt and chilis and is widely used to flavor soups and salads. The tiny dried prawns in the papaya salad are used as a garnish nearly everywhere and the fish balls are rarely served on their own.
As I snapped several photographs of our meal, I was excited to see I didn’t have to style any dishes, because they actually came that way from the servers. The Thai attention to style and detail in all of their dishes was remarkable throughout our entire stay. To cap off our meal, since most Thai do not eat dessert, we finished with a bag of fresh pineapple chunks and bubble tea from a street vendor outside of the mall.
Part II: After our first day in the hot city grit, we cooled off by the pool with a glass of white wine — mysteriously served in a vase of colored water — and perused the 80% accurate map in search of dinner. Our planned destination was Samboon, a local restaurant recommended by locals and ex-pats alike.
By the time we left the hotel, the streets were transitioning from daytime to nighttime. Storefronts that had been shuttered and locked all day were opening to reveal windows of fresh roasted meats and layers of fresh fish over ice. Schools and convenience shops were simultaneously pulling their shades and locking their doors for the night. Market vendors erected folding tables and umbrellas to set up stalls of fresh fruit, clothes, and souvenirs for tourists. Watching this, given the nearly unbearably sweltering heat of our first day, I began to realize that nighttime makes more sense for many people to do their shopping and eating. The night air, while still tropical, is far more comfortable for walking in when carrying bags of supplies.
We arrived at Samboon hungry and ready for a filling meal. Two bottles of Singha, the popular light local beer, were ordered straight away while we studied the menu. Per the recommendation of friends, we ordered our first dish of Tom Yam Goong — a spicy, sweet, salty shrimp soup that is the national dish of Thailand — Curry Crab Salad, and a Shrimp with Sweet Noodles.
The soup was first to arrive, with its delightful presentation in a large donut-shaped serving bowl with flames dancing through the center to keep it warm. We scooped portions into our individual bowls and quickly fell in love. The sweet heat of the soup was tempered by lime zest and lemongrass and filled to the brim with fresh prawns — probably selected from the tray of fresh prawns over ice two steps down from our table. It was easy to see why this soup is so widely revered and it quickly spurned our trip-long version of Soup Wars. There was no way we were going to go the rest of the trip without enjoying it again.
The Curry Crab Salad, another dish we were soon to see on subsequent menus, was second to arrive. The crab shell rested in the center of the dish, but the meat had already been extracted and shredded and mixed into a soupy sweet curry broth. Spooned over steamed white rice, it was meaty and satisfying with a subtle sweetness from the curry and chili.
Our third dish, the sweet noodles with shrimp, was slightly disappointing. Undoubtedly it had been dumbed down to suit our American palates, but I could see it flourishing with a sweet peanut sauce and dash of chile.
Following our amazingly satisfying meal, we rounded out the night with a visit to Khao San Road, the notorious pedestrian road popular with backpackers and locals alike. The block-long street was teaming with tourists from around the world and market stalls hawking everything from flip-flops and sarongs to fish balls and large barbequed fish on a stick. The vibrant atmosphere further confirmed that Bangkok does indeed transform into a different city after dark. A quick glimpse of Khao San Road the next day showed an entirely different picture of a quieter street, filled with massage parlors, a few market stalls, and hardly any backpackers in sight.