Thailand is home to some of the most exciting cuisine on the planet; its reputation for being a culinary destination is cemented by its lively street food scene. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart or the overly particular—the very definition of street food means that you will be seated in rickety plastic stools and uneven tables set up on the sidewalk, your meals will come out on plastic dishes that’s seen better days, and the establishments serving them may not be fully legally occupying the space they’re at, much less possess a permit to be serving food at all. For diners with an adventurous palate, below are some of our top picks:
Khai Jiao Poo and Pad Kee Mao at Raan Jay Fai
A Michelin star is undeniable proof of quality. Since receiving theirs in 2018, Raan Jay Fai and its eponymous chef Supinya Junsuta, better known as Jay Fai, have been the subject of worldwide media attention, including a feature in the Thailand episode of the Netflix documentary Street Food. Diners line up around the block to have a taste of their signature khai jiao poo or crab omelet, a fluffy, wok-fried egg pocket filled to bursting with sumptuous crab meat; and pad kee mao or drunken noodles, stir-fried flat rice noodles in a spicy sauce topped with fresh seafood. Parking spaces are scarce, so take a taxi or a tuktuk, and be prepared for a long wait—up to 3 hours long, according to reviews.
Khao Soi at Khao Soi Khun Yai
An institution in the region and recommended by many Chiang Mai accommodations or Khao Soi Khun Yai or Grandma’s Khao Soi has been in the same spot between two temples, Wat Rajamontean and Wat Khuan Khama, in Chiang Mai Old City for 15 years. The unassuming stall is easy to miss if you’re walking fast, but those who have found it and successfully managed to score a meal have been treated to excellent khao soi, egg noodles served with yellow and red coconut curry, topped with your choice of protein. Chicken is the de facto choice here, but pork is an equally excellent alternative. Grandma’s is so popular that they’ve been known to run out before 1 PM, so hit it early before a leisurely walk around the area.
Pad Thai at Thip Samai Pad Thai
They’ve been serving what critics have called the best pad thai in Bangkok since 1966, long before the Michelin Guide came along and gave them a Bib Gourmand award—not quite a Michelin star, but the guide’s way of highlighting exceptionally good food at a moderate price point. Thip Samai Pad Thai serves their version of this Thai cuisine staple with plump pieces of shrimp, tofu, leek and bean sprout. It is always cooked in a wok over a charcoal fire, imparting the tamarind-and-fish-sauce flavored noodles with a distinctly smoky aroma that can’t be found anywhere else.
Khao Mok at Khao Soi Islam
Located in an area heavily populated by Muslims just a bit from the famous Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, this Halal canteen offers a menu that caters to the local community, with the khao mok or Thai biryani with goat (or beef) lauded as the standout item. The rice is flavorful and cooked perfectly, while the chunks of meat that top it are melt-in-your-mouth tender. Seek them out also for their beef massaman curry and the chicken satay, as well as the great khao soi.
Som Tam at Som Tam Jae So
Northeastern Thai food, influenced by Laotian cuisine, is ubiquitous in Bangkok. Largely vegetable-based, natural and very healthy, it is found in its most authentic form at Som Tam Jae So, where the chef-owner makes an excellent som tam called tam pa, which translates to “jungle pounded salad”. Green papaya slices, tomatoes, cilantro, crab, and freshwater snail are dressed with a pungent fish sauce and various aromatics and spices before being pounded with a mortar and pestle until the flavors meld together beautifully. Also try the grilled chicken wings and the Isaan meat salad known as laab neua for a light lunch packed with out of this world flavors.
If you happen to have an adventurous soul and aren’t picky about how your food is served, you may have some of the best meals of your life at these roadside stalls, at prices equivalent to the loose change in your pocket.