As travel and food writers we have to eat out every day, sometimes two or three times a day. In Bangkok one of those meals will involve street food. That means we’ve eaten a lot of street food. That doesn’t mean we don’t reach out to people like Jarrett Wrisley of Soul Food Mahanakorn for street food tips.
From Street Food to Soul Food
It’s only when we’re in write-up mode, when we’re busy working on magazine stories or a book, that we’ll stay in and Terence will cook, we’ll order home delivery, or we’ll buy street food from our fried pork lady down the street and eat in. Otherwise, in Bangkok, we’re always eating out.
Every meal we eat – whether it’s at a fine dining resto or a local street food stall – is researched and cross-referenced, which means that in addition to trusted our taste buds, experience and instincts, we also talk to some trusted sources. Why? Because a bad meal is a wasted meal, a meal we can’t write about.
So assuming that not every meal we eat is going to be worthy of inclusion in a book or story, it means we have to eat a hell of a lot of meals, perhaps two or three times the number we will ultimately need, to come up with a final selection for a guidebook or story.
That means in a city the size of Bangkok, we rarely get to eat at a place more than once. Yet we have eaten at Soul Food Mahanakorn four times. And if we could have, we would have eaten there more. If we hadn’t have been working on a book, we might have eaten there every week. It’s that good. Which is handy. Because that’s what food writer Jarrett Wrisley said one of his aims were when he opened Soul Food in Bangkok’s Thong Lor neighbourhood.
Jarrett said he wanted to create the kind of neighbourhood restaurant he likes to go to, that people can drop into every week if they want, a place that dishes up comfort food or soul food…
“… the street food of Asia’s most soulful city. Fried chicken, ribs, papaya salad, crispy fish, fried noodles, curries, dips, and little desserts…” Jarrett wrote in his column in The Atlantic. “I wanted to open a restaurant that serves good drinks, and great fried chicken and street snacks, with comfortable décor… (to) bring the sidewalk inside, and spruce it up a bit.”
And when he did open his restaurant, Jarrett staffed it with people who knew street food: “… my kitchen (staff) had, until three months ago, been cooking food on roadsides,” he wrote in his column. “My head chef had run a small shop serving duck larb (a northern Thai salad). My wok cook worked in a late-night khao tom shop, serving greasy Chinese stir-fries with soupy rice (often to the boldly inebriated).”
So who better than Jarrett to share some insight into eating street food in Bangkok?
Jarrett Wrisley of Soul Food on Street Food in Bangkok
Q. When and where did you first sample street food and what did you eat?
A. The first street food I ever ate, ever, was probably a kosher hot dog in New York, which I still think is pretty good street food, if you’re in the mood. The first street food I ate in Asia was yang rou chuan – little grilled mutton kebabs sprinkled with salt, msg, cumin and chili, in Beijing. I was a student there and those mutton kebabs were incredibly good on frigid winter nights after a few beers. And the vendor’s fire kept you warm while you waited, which was also a plus.
Q. What makes street food in Bangkok so special?
A. I think it’s the dramatic interplay of flavors, the smells, and the visual appeal – that theatre of busy kitchens just sitting there on the sidewalk. It’s the adventure that comes with exploring it all. First-timers always have this sense of surrendering their gut to these unfamiliar forces of spice and herbs and (maybe) dirt – you are truly in the hands of others. But after awhile, it’s special simply because it can be very good and it’s always inexpensive.
Q. How does street food dining compare to eating out in restaurants in Bangkok?
A. I’ve heard so many tourists say “street food is better than restaurant food in Bangkok”. This simplifies things too much. Street food places usually focus on one dish – or maybe 3 or 4 – and most of the food (with the exception of Isaan grilled meats and curry or khanom jeen shops) is of Thai-Chinese origin (noodles, stir-fries, etc).
If you want to get good central Thai cooking you’d better head to an old shophouse restaurant or a more gentrified place. Street food is great, but once you’ve had time to identify its various forms it is more narrow in scope than visitors might think. Our dining scene isn’t all about street food; it’s just a very important part of it. It’s Thai-style convenience food.
Q. Should visitors to Bangkok just dive in and sample street food from the first stall they see?
A. Another common misconception is that “all street food is good food” in Bangkok. This is certainly not true. My biggest issue these days is that the quality and nature of street food is changing – from handmade noodles, soups, grilled meats and desserts to things like factory manufactured sausages and dim sum, pancakes, chewy boiled meatballs, and even Italian pasta with a splash of ketchup on on it (just started to see this one appear in the last few months).
Street food carts are like any other kind of restaurant – a few are great, most are good or merely passable, and some are terrible. To eat well, you need to educate yourself or take advice from other intrepid eaters in Bangkok or elsewhere.
Q. An insider tip for those tackling street food for the first time?
A. A busy stall doesn’t necessarily mean ‘great food served here!’ It could also mean that it’s outside of an office building and people don’t feel like walking far for lunch. What smells good usually is good. What looks old probably is old. Old people eat nicer food than young people. Beware of street food catering to students.
Q. The best neighbourhoods to look for good street food?
A. Get over to Chinatown, or Samyan, or Dusit, or any other older neighborhood in Bangkok where rents have stayed low and competition is fierce. There are certain neighborhoods where good street food flourishes. The touristed area of Sukhumvit road is not one of them, though there is good street food there, too, if you look.
Q. What are a few of your favourite street food dishes that visitors to Bangkok should look out for and where can they find them?
A. Chinatown is great for Cantonese-style roast duck and pork, and crispy pork belly (moo krob). I also love the busier khao tom shops (rice porridge and Chinese/Thai stir-fries) on the sois connecting Yaowarat road to Chaoren Krung. The egg noodles (ba mee) with crab and roast pork at Sawang on Rama 4 road, close to the Hua Lumphong railway station.
Fried chicken, wherever it looks good. Isaan-style sausages (sai krok Isaan) and grilled chicken with sticky rice and som tam at busy, friendly roadside restaurants; look for the grill, and people eating barbecue and sipping beers with ice. And moo bing… delicious barbecued fatty pork skewers.
Q. And are there any street food dishes people should stay clear of in Bangkok?
A. Any kind of processed, gristly meatball on a stick. And deep-fried hotdogs. Thai hotdogs are dreadful things. (Go to New York for that.)
Q. The best time to eat street food?
A. Don’t go too late. Street vendors cook their food for peak eating times. If you’re eating a noodle soup at 3pm, chances are it’s been reduced to a salty slurry by then. Same goes for mushy chicken rice or and pork shank rice (khao ka moo) and whatever else eaten at (way) off peak times. Eat it when it’s fresh (which is when everybody else goes to eat it).
Q. Any favourite online resources visitors to Bangkok can check out?
A. Austin Bush’s blog and Bangkokglutton.com are both good for tips on where to eat.
Q. One final tip?
A. Go with a local. Try lots of things. You’re not going to like it all. But it’s cheap, and by trying more you’ll make some interesting discoveries.
Soul Food Mahanakorn
56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55/Thong Lor
BTS Thong Lor
02 714 7708, 6pm-1am
Jarrett has a wonderful blog he pens sporadically called Light Snacks Will Be Served (go visit and leave a comment to encourage him to blog more often). He also blogs at The Atlantic and is on Twitter: @WrisJarrett.
Also see our tips to eating street food safely.