Oh, Bangkok. City of angels, yes, but really, it's the city of street food. Every block offers up a new sizzling, smoking irresistible stretch of tantalizing fare cooked before your eyes. "When you see something you like, get it," a well-traveled friend told me before my first trip to the heaving metropolis. "You never know if you'll see it again."
On the first two trips my husband and I made to Thailand's capital, we took their advice and made it our mission to try as much of the impossibly delicious street food as we could manage. Cheap, exotic, and seriously some of the best food we've eaten anywhere, Bangkok's street food made me a reverse food snob — who wants to eat in a restaurant when the stuff cooking up on the street is this good? Give me a plastic stool, oppressive heat, exhaust fumes, ceaseless traffic careening by inches away, no menu, a bill of equal to just a few dollars, max, and I'm one happy traveler.
I'm not alone. Entire blogs — books, even — are devoted to the glory of Thai street cuisine. Instagram overflows with shots of dishes so appetizing you'd jump on that miserable flight in a heartbeat. For months ahead of my most recent trip I rubbed my hands with glee at the prospect of the street food.
Then, to my utter surprise, I found myself not just enjoying, but relishing — gasp — fancy restaurant food. At a hotel! With traditional Thai dance!
Funny how hard we tourists work to avoid other tourists. "Oh, we're travelers, not tourists," we hasten to say as we hurtle ourselves toward the nearest noodle stall packed with locals at so much the whisper of a tourist dinner. And with good reason, of course. Many of these for-the-tourist buffets and dinners round the world are nothing short of wretched, slop of the worst sort thrown together to fill the stomachs of the hordes. But guess what? They don't have to be.
While staying at the Mandarin Oriental (otherwise known as paradise on Earth) over Thanksgiving, my husband and I decided to celebrate our Thanksgiving dinner in style on the river terrace at the hotel's Sala Rim Naam restaurant. While the elaborately costumed (and I admit, lovely) Thai dancers weaved their way through the tables, we took one look at the 30th anniversary tasting menu — fried, herbed crabmeat, spicy grilled prawn, snow fish (what is that?) and rice milk among the dishes — and made the easy decision to take that route. And while the dancers entertained the indoor diners (and we cracked up laughing at the party boats reverberating out on the Chao Phraya) we learned with every course that we've been seriously mistaken in our street food snobbery. A food lover does not have to confine herself to the streets for the best food in this city.
All the magic that makes Thai food so spellbinding was here in spades. Perfectly balanced flavors, just enough fire to really engage you in what you're eating, and with the delicately beautiful presentation of a fine-dining chef, to boot. I could kick myself for my mistaken attitude that only cheap food was good food.
As penance for our oversight we returned the next day after a morning of yoga and sublime massage for the lunch buffet — yes, the buffet. Oh, but what a buffet it was. Imagine if you could try dozens of the best Thai dishes in one sitting. All labeled so you can be sure not to miss anything on your must-have list. Steamed dumplings, prawn patties, check. All manner of curries? Yep. Noodles, soups, and spicy salads? Oh, and those Siamese pancakes with coconut? All there. All prepared with meticulous care. And, most importantly, all true to the spirit of Thai food — not dumbed down for the tourist. In one meal we feasted on as many dishes as we would have in a week of wandering the teeming streets.
Yes, we went for street food that night — fresh seafood while perched on plastic chairs in Chinatown followed by mango sticky rice in a Styrofoam container — and we wouldn't have it any other way. But now I enjoyed it fully aware that this is just one way to taste the best of Bangkok. And on my next trip I may head straight for the street — or I might just indulge in a proper restaurant complete with menu and white tablecloth. And either way is just fine.