Just back from a chow-focused week in Bangkok, and wow! What a city for food lovers! There is no doubt in my mind that, for Chowhounds, Bangkok is as essential a destination as Paris. Just incredible. I did a lot of research on this board before my trip. I also got many suggestions from R.W. Apple's two excellent stories on Bangkok dining (available in Travel section of NY Times website). Thanks to the hounds who informed my trip!
An important phrase for spice lovers is "gin pet dai" - "i can eat spicy." We found that we often had to repeat this phrase about 4-5 times in order to be understood and believed. Beware, because they will automatically tone down the food for Westerners unless you tell them otherwise.
And now, on to the chow ....
(Restaurants & markets are ordered roughly by geographic location; numbers are not meant to signify preferences or rankings).
1. Chote Chitre, 146 Phraeng Phuton, 2221-4082 (hard to find, but close to main tourist sites such as Grand Palace and National Museum. If walking south on Tanao Road, pass Bunsiri and 3-4 more side streets. If you see a blue sign with a white leaf (some Thai bank) on the left hand side of the street turn right into the second street that you walk past). We ate lunch here on our first day in Bangkok - wonderful. We liked it so much that we intended to go back but never had the time, unfortunately. Food here is truly made lovingly, each dish to order. Also, unusual herbs are used, so in general the balance of flavors is more sophisticated than you will find elsewhere. We ate banana flower salad and tom yum soup many times all over thailand. All good, but the versions here stood out. The banana flower salad is incredible, much less sweet and peanuty than at other places. The tom yum is fiery, with a touch of coconut milk and giant river prawns that you eat head and all. We also tried the famous mee krab but I found it too sweet (if you like mee krab though, you will probably like the version here. mee krab is a salad composed mainly of crispy fried noodles in a sweet sauce, somewhat like an indian chaat, but less tart).
2. Thip Samui, 313 Maha Chai Road (near golden mount/democracy monument), 2221-6280, from 6 pm on: This place is famous for producing definitive pad thai priced at 25 baht per order. We got the plain version and found it somewhat underwhelming in flavor, though the texture of noodles was excellent. Others were ordering the version that comes wrapped in a fried egg, which may have been better. We found generally that pad thai was a blandish, comfort food type of dish all over Thailand, and we needed to dress it up with a lot of fish sauce and chili at the table.
3. Raan Jay Fai, 327 Maha Chai Road, 2223-9384, from 6 pm on: Just a few doors down from Thip Samui, Raan Jay Fai has a superlative pad khee mao, with amazing wide rice noodles and a lot of wonderfully fresh seafood. Recommended.
4. Hemlock, 56 Phra Athit Road. We went here because it is generally well reviewed, somewhat hip, and it was also right around the corner from our guesthouse. It was our most expensive meal in bangkok, but still only cost about $11! Amazing! This place has a nicer, more refined atmosphere than many places we visited, nice if you want a quiet soothing spot. We enjoyed a miang kam starter (betel leaves that you fill with dried shrimp, onion, chili, peanut, etc., and a sweetish sauce - little flavor explosions!) and a salad of bananaflower, wingbean, morning glory, bamboo shoot, and chicken. A standout dish was steamed mullet with chili-lime sauce. The texture of the fish was amazing - so thick and firm, yet luscious, with a wonderful sweet, pure flavor. The dish came with nice bitter greens as well. Overall, food at this restaurant was lighter than many of the other places we ate.
5. Roti Mataba, 136 Phra Athit. We had several breakfasts at this well-known roti spot and were partial to the version filled with egg, which you sprinkle with course sugar and drizzle with condensed milk. Curry versions also good.
6. Open air market at a pier close to Wat Pho. (don't remember exactly which pier, but the market is large - you can't miss it!). We sampled quite a few things here but standouts were a disk of fried dried shrimp seasoned with chili, lemongrass, and kaffir lime, and stinky, homemade, grilled pork sausage served with chili and garlic. This market is also good for mangosteens and other exotic fruits, and we had a very nice grilled sticky rice and banana. But the commercial-looking sausages that look and taste like little round frankfurters are to be avoided.
7. Polo Fried Chicken, 137/1-2 Soi Sanamkee, off Wittayu/Wireless Rd., 1252-2252. The Soi is hard to find - you need a good map. The chicken is just as good as everyone says. Justifiably famous! However, I did not care for the som tam, which I found too sweet, lacking in heat. Do yourself a favor and order extra chicken instead. Due to the fame of this restaurant, every place on the street now serves fried chicken, but Polo Fried Chicken has glass doors, bright lights, and air conditioning.
8. Open air night market on Wittayu/Wireless Rd., around the corner from Lumphini boxing stadium. Only had room for a sticky rice with mango, but there were a lot of good-looking things on offer.
9. Sara Janes, Wittayu/Wireless Road opposite US Embassy, consular section, inside and to the back of Sindhorn building. Our favorite Issan sausage of the whole trip - highly recommended. Also excellent som tam and bamboo shoot larb. Just a very good place in general for Issan standards. We went at dinner and it was empty, but the food very fresh.
10. Food court at MBK mall. A good place to try a lot of street-food type dishes, because everything is clean and clearly signed. We had pork knuckles over rice, and som tam with salty (raw) crab, which was excellent. But the standout here was our dessert of sticky rice with durian - highly recommended. This general area is also good for trying fruit shakes at various stands - we had a pineapple-watermelon combo, which was just an outstanding combination of flavors. I also saw a khanom jiin place in the tangle of alleys that make up siam square - which turned out to be the only khanom jiin spot we were able to find in all of bangkok - unfortunately, we passed it up so never got to experience the authentic version of this dish.
11. Khrua Rommai, 16 Sukhumvit Soi 36 (Skytrain Thong Lo): This place is a must visit!!! Thank you to the Hound who recommended it! It was probably my favorite dining experience of the whole trip. Another restaurant in which all the food is carefully cooked to order, and many unusual fresh herbs are used. The spicing and balance of flavors here were just superb. And the setting in a leafy courtyard was charming, if somewhat ramshackle. Any Issan standards will be good here. We had nam prik (which appeared to include roasted green chiles of some type - unusual) served with sticky rice and pork rinds, pork laab, and a dish recommended by the waitress called "prawns in hot sauce" which turned out to be 6 giant river prawns in a salad of lemongrass, herbs, and chili - fantastic. Everything here really was extraordinary. The kind of high quality home-style cooking that Chowhounds cherish.
12. Aw Taw Kaw Market (across the street from Chatuchuk Weekend Market). A "gourmet" market and a must for any chowhound! We ate two meals here, sampling around, some things were better than others, but the whole experience was fascinating. We particularly liked grilled catfish on a stick, served with toasted chili and a sweet sauce. Pork noodle soup also very good, as was grilled ham served with two dipping sauces (one green, one red). We also liked little coconut custards in a crispy shell (especially the ones with scallions on top). We were not enthused by a crab curry offered by the lady selling seafood whose stall has a picture of herself with a condiment company (too sweet, not spicy at all) or by a kind of sweet, peanutty sausage served wrapped in lettuce leaves. There are also many interesting drinks and fruits sold here, as well as spices, meats, and fish. We liked the lotus root, tamarind, and passionfruit juices that we tried very much. Foodfirst wrote an extensive post about this market some years ago, and R.W. Apple has written about it as well. But we found it most helpful to just dive in and taste what seemed interesting to us.