Bangkok is a vibrant city that is filled with lots of interesting foods. Wherever we are, we like to try lots of local foods. Tom is more adventurous than Joyce, although she tries more things than she used to do—even if she still bulks at chilies. After all, life is too short to have a burning mouth.
But what better way to try a lot of different foods than on a food tour. Not only do we get to see and learn about a particular neighborhood. we also get explanations about some of the local foods. In Bangkok, we took two food tours with Bangkok Food Tours (www.bangkokfoodtours.com).
Yaowarat (Chinatown) Night Foodie Walking Tour, where we visited some of the neighborhood’s religious and cultural sights, learned about its customs and had tastes of foods from everyplace from low-cost stalls to high-end restaurants. Sights included the Triamet Temple (home of the 3.5-meter tall, five-tom solid gold Buddha), China Gate and the Ginza-like, neon-lit Yaowarat Road. Most of the evening, however, was devoted to tasting, rather than to sightseeing. Tastes included four different types of dim sum (especially shrimp shumai with pandan (also known as a screw pine, which is green and often used in cooking), a crab stick wrapped in pork and seaweed, and shrimp and scallop in curry) at Canton House, three types of Chinese buns (barbecued pork and pork with egg were our favorites) and desserts of black sesame and crushed peanut fried in a tapioca flour crust and durian ice cream. Yes, durian. If you have travelled to Asia, you will recognize it by its strong, potent smell. The taste is milder, but it is still an acquired taste. As a footnotes, most taxis and hotels forbid people from bringing durian into their cars and establishments due to the strong smell. Trust me, if you have smelled it, you will know it.
We also tried some more spicy and challenging dishes. There was, for example, rice noodles in peppery soup with pig entrails, duck cheeks and Tom’s personal favorite, spicy lime soup with calamari at the amazing and immensely popular T&K seafood, where people will wait for a hour in block-long lanes. Shark fins were also available for purchase. Overall, it was a very fun evening and an opportunity to try many types of food we would have never otherwise ordered.
Historic Bangkok Food Tasting and Culture Tour, provided an opportunity to learn about and taste our way through this 100-year-old transportation and shipping center of the city. Its role as a transportation hub (one of the largest harbors and the first street in the city) brought Thai, Chinese, Indians, Muslims and even a few westerners together into a melting pot of culture and food. Although the neighborhood currently houses banks and corporate headquarters (especially along Silam Road) and high-end boutiques, antique stores and jewelry–particularly silver shops, it still maintains many of its oldest restaurants. These include the 70-year old "Muslim" restaurant (yes, that is its name, although it does incorporate Thai elements into many of its dishes) and the 60-year-old Banlee Bakery. Also newer institutions, like Kalpapruek. After stops at all types of stands and restaurants to learn about local specialties, we tasted about a dozen different dishes from stalls, to plastic table joints to upscale restaurants. Tastes included papaya salad, lime soup with fish and pork balls and fried pork belly, chicken curry with onion, fried catfish with green mango sauce, stir-fry chicken with holy basil, pandan egg custard buns and coconut sorbet. Not surprisingly, Tom’s favorites tended to lean to the spicy side (and the irresistible pandan egg custard bun). Joyce prefered the non-spicy. Another excellent tour on which we were lucky enough to have Lucy, the same guide we had on Saturday night.
We also ate at multiple restaurants in the Sukhumvit Neighborhood where we stayed. Restaurants are more touristy than authentic and many cater to tourists, such as with mini-floor shows. And yes, we even saw a butterball turkey dinner for Thanksgiving…although we didn’t partake. Our three neighborhood restaurants were:
- Bl Lan, one of Asia’s Top 100 restaurants (https://www.theworlds50best.com/asia/en/asias-50-best-restaurants.html#t31-40) was good, but not a particularly good price/value. After twice requesting and being refused opportunities to arrive before our 8:30 reservations. We arrived to find the restaurant half empty. We had three dishes: a sampling of five appetizers (we really enjoyed the roasted apple with caramelized coconut, but weren’t impressed with the others); Tom had red curry duck with eggplant and palm hearts (quite good, although it could have used more meat and less fat); and stir-fried local gourd with prawn, chicken and organic egg (okay, but no pronounced taste). The food, and especially the wine prices were among the steepest we have found in Asia and the end of what we had experienced in that price range. Service was adequate, but certainly not exceptional. We would have expected more–even in the U.S. for our $140 bill.
- Kinnaree, which is laid out around a pretty garden,is clearly focused on tourists., including with its server-staged shows and photo opportunities (yep, that is Joyce before even having any wine!). We found the do-it-yourself chicken and shrimp wraps a bit skimpy, but enjoyed both our entrees: roast duck in spicy red curry with pineapple and lychee and stir-fried soft shell crab with spicy tamarind sauce. The mosquitos were eating Joyce as we were eating our dinner. After about 20 bites, we discovered that restaurants have spray Joyce can use to protect herself. We returned to this same restaurant on our last night due to its location, for an early dinner before a early morning flight. After an amuse bouche of chicken and the beggar’s purse with sweet sauce,we had two appetizers (shrimp and minced chicken wrapped in rice paper and lightly fried with plum sauce,and barbecued salmon, squid and shrimp in spicy lime sauce) and one entree (marinated river prawns wrapped in pandan leaves with ginger and sesame sauce. All good and,with fewer customers, much faster service.
- Chili Culture Thai Kitchen. After deciding against Marshmallow, the restaurant recommended by our hotel (we found the menu too pedestrian for our taste–the most interesting dishes we found were sate and pad Thai), we selected a more interesting restaurant across the street. The menu looked interesting and Tom felt that a restaurant whose specialty was curry would probably do a good job with it. Big mistake. Pork sausage, a specialty of northeast Thailand, was bland and deep fried. Grilled calamari with oyster sauce had potential, but the oyster sauce was almost nonexistent. The prawn curry with hearts of palm was beyond disappointing was the blandest, tasteless, most watered down curry Tom has ever had. Worse, when we asked for more oyster sauce for the calamari and more curry or chili to add to the curry, they didn’t understand our request.For an area that caters to tourists, this was not a good experience.
- Monsoon, Tom enjoyed a nice Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soup which is starting to become a staple on every meal he has) and Joyce went American comfort food with a Monsoon Burger (one of the biggest we have ever seen.with blue cheese, mushrooms and loads of bacon) along with somewhat greasy, but very good onion rings.
- Kiwi Bar and Grill. Who would have thunk? A New Zealand themed restaurant in Bangkok serving traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving day. Butterball turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes,roasted pumpkin more. Almost enough to make us fell like we were home. But not quite enough to prompt us to pass up another Thai meal
- Khao San Road and the neighboring Ram Butttri were the highlights of our day: or actually evening. Although the streets are relatively mellow during the day, their confluence of Eastern and Western cultures, bars, restaurants and stalls selling everything from Thai pancakes to fake ID cards (student, drivers licenses. PADI scuba diving certifications, diplomas and so forth) draws thousands of people. People are milling along the streets with varying degrees of purpose and the bars and restaurants are filled. We were totally drawn in, having a couple drinks at a Khao San bar, a good dinner (grilled shrimp and grilled red snapper with coconut curry paste) at the improbably named My Darling, Ram Butri restaurant. Then, after watching and speaking with very relaxed people exiting the outdoor massage parlor, we decided to see for ourselves. It worked: a half-hour foot and leg massage ($3 and heavenly) followed by a loosening up of our heads and shoulders made us so mellow, we had to make another stop. Back on Ram Butri, we stopped at a hookah bar for an apple-flavored smoke and a couple more drinks, all the time being serenaded by a band playing 60’s and 70’s songs. And, yes, althought the original Swenson’s ice cream store is3 blocks from our San Francisco home, we did run into Swenson’s here (although we didn’t partake).