We arrive in Bangkok in the dark.
At the airport, we find a guy holding a sign that reads: "Mrs. Zach Patton." Eh, close enough. The car ferries us to our hotel. It's close to midnight. After a full 24 hours of travel, we are dirty, hungry and want to get to sleep quickly. After dropping our bags, we walk a few blocks down the nearly-deserted street to a corner store. We emerge with water and peanuts.
On our way out of the store, we notice three men standing around a small cart with a smoking grill. They're nibbling and dipping and nibbling some more. We walk up and buy two skewers of tangy, spicy chicken. There are vats of sauces. The oldest of the men points to the sauce he thinks we should try. It's oniony and spiked with chiles, both sweet and spicy. We dip and bite. Nothing has ever tasted better.
That chicken, from the simplest of street food carts, is our first real taste of Thailand. But it's only the beginning of a long list of delicious dishes we ate while exploring the country.
We'd been extremely excited about our trip, which we took over the past two weeks of December. We were eager to experience bustling Bangkok, outdoorsy Chiang Mai in the north, and Thailand's famous beaches in the south. More than anything, we'd been excited about the food.
And it was amazing. On the whole, the food was outstanding. (The worst thing we can say is that we had one meal that was relatively bland. Other than that we loved just about every dish we ate.) Noodles, soups, spicy salads, fresh fruit -- everything we tasted was great.
But we thought we'd try to break it down for you, Bittens, to give you a sense of some of the best things we ate during our trip.
Here's a glimpse at our favorite dishes from our trip to Thailand.
Papaya Salads (Som Tum). We ate spicy papaya salads at least a dozen times during our stay. We'd never thought that much about them when we've seen them on the menu at Thai restaurants here in the U.S., but we fell in love with them while traveling. They're simple -- grated papaya, garlic, chiles, tomato, peanuts and fish sauce, with sugar, lime and garlic -- and each one we had was slightly different. It's difficult to pick a favorite. We had one in Chiang Mai that was so deliriously spicy it made our heads swim. (We mean that as a compliment.)
But if we have to single out one favorite som tum, we'll go with the one we had at a restaurant called Kantiong on Koh Lanta, the first island we visited. Their papaya salad was served with charred peanuts and warm fresh shrimp. And like a lot of the food we had in the southern part of the country, it was slightly sweeter than its northern counterparts. It was spicy and fresh and perfect.
Pandanus Leaf and Rice Milk. In Bangkok, we had the immense pleasure of spending a day with Chawadee Nualkhair. She's the author of Bangkok's Top 50 Street Food Stalls, and the blog Bangkok Glutton.
Chow took us to eat at some restaurants we never would have found on our own, where we ate things we didn't see in any other restaurants. We tried a wacky shrimp-and-coconut-and-pineapple cold noodle salad, the best massaman curry we've ever had, and she even took us to an all-toast restaurant (which is exactly what it sounds like and exactly as delicious. We had toast covered in caramel custard, and toast covered in, um, sweet corn. It was weird but great.).
One of the highlights of our time with Chow was a dessert of mashed pandanus leaf with rice milk. It was salty and sweet. Delicious.
Pad Thai. Yes, we're including pad thai, stalwart of American Thai restaurant menus, on this list. Though we rarely order it at home, we ate a bunch of it in Thailand. And you know what? It wasn't that remarkably different in Thailand. But it was still delicious.
Our favorite version was at Pad Thai Thip Samai in Bangkok. Many consider the restaurant to have the best pad thai in the city. We loved the dish, but were especially charmed by how the noodles are presented in a beautiful "wrapping" of egg -- the only time we saw this on our trip.
Sticky Tamarind Pork Ribs. One of the more modern meals we had was our first night in Bangkok, at Soul Food Mahanakorn, a highly regarded restaurant in a former shophouse, run by an American chef and restarauteur named Jarrett Wrisley. The focus is on regional Thai cuisine. The menu is chock-full of delicious -- a sour, smoky eggplant with duck eggs; flank steak shocked with fish sauce, garlic, lime, crunchy rice powder and a pile of herbs -- but we dream about the Sticky Tamarind Pork Ribs. Simply amazing.
Spicy Pork Salad (Laab Moo). At the urging of our friend Jill, we went to SP Chicken as soon as we arrived in Chiang Mai. The image at the top of this post is from that meal: delicious roast chicken and papaya salad. We were also taken with this spicy ground pork salad, very similar to laab (or larb) that you find on American Thai menus, but with more of a spicy/sour hit.
Midnight Chicken (with cabbage!). In Chiang Mai, we had read about Midnight Chicken, a restaurant that opens just before midnight to serve fried chicken. We weren't about to miss it, so we did what any self-respecting food lovers would do: we went to dinner, took a nap, and then when to Midnight Chicken.
It was worth the late-night excursion. When you arrive, you just get in line, waiting your turn for a table. Once seated, we fumbled our way through the ordering. Minutes later, platters of sizzling fried chicken and vegetables arrived at our table.
Here's the revelation from this meal (other than the revelation that fried chicken eaten at midnight tastes reeeeally good): Fried chicken is absolutely delicious with stewed cabbage. The savory, slightly bitter cabbage was a wonderful accompaniment. Was it the best fried chicken we've ever had? No, probably not. But the experience made the meal.
Fried Chicken off the street. We ate street food with abandon during our trip. One day, while wandering around a market in Bangkok, we came upon a woman who was frying the most delicious looking fried chicken. She'd drop it in a bag, and then you can pour a spicy-sweet sauce on top of it. We had variations of this all over Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but this one was especially good.
Khao Soi. Jill, who sent us to SP Chicken, also urged us to visit Soi Lam Duan Fam Ham in Chiang Mai to try their khao soi. It's the traditional dish of Northern Thailand -- egg noodles swimming in a rich yellow curry sauce, along with chicken or pork or beef, topped with crunchy egg noodles.
While we were in Chiang Mai, we rented motorbikes for a day (!) and tooled around the city. We took the opportunity to seek out Lam Duan Fam Ham. Here's a photo of Clay in front of the restaurant!
(You may notice that the restaurant sign spells it as LamDuon Fahrm Kao Soi. This is because there's no agreed-upon way to translate Thai to English, making for some very frustrating map-reading. One given place might be spelled four completely different ways -- even on its own signs!)
Anyway, we tried khao soi several times during our time in Chiang Mai. And this was definitely the best -- savory and hearty but also clear-your-sinuses spicy.
Banana Shakes. While we were at the beach -- on the islands of Koh Lanta and then Koh Jum, we drank banana shakes like it was our job. We don't even want to know what's in them (we're pretending like it was just bananas and ice) -- they were delicious.
Panang Duck. After we left the beach, we ended up with a spare night in Bangkok at the end of our trip, and decided to visit Le Lys for dinner. The couple who owns the restaurant is French and Thai, and the menu reflects that. We ordered a whole fish packed with lemongrass and herbs, wrapped in a banana leaf (which we loved). We also swooned over a pomelo-and-chicken salad -- the tart, grapefruit-y pomelo was shaved with cold minced chicken, and mixed with just enough spice to give it a little heat.
But our absolute favorite dish at this meal was a Panang Duck, thin slices of duck breast in a rich curry so good, so rich and so luciously creamy that we could have licked the bowl.
That's it -- the best things we ate while in Thailand! Don't worry -- we'll have plenty more posts from our trip. We could go back and start eating right now!