While finding good Western food takes a bit of effort in Ubon, cheap and delicious Chinese-Thai, Isaan and Vietnamese-inspired fare is abundant throughout the city. You’ll also find an atmospheric night market to go with plenty of good bars and coffee shops.
Perhaps Ubon’s best-known specialty is kuay chab yuan, a Vietnamese-inspired soup made with a comforting pork broth along with melt-in-the-mouth pork ribs, hard-boiled eggs, fresh rice noodles that are thicker and heartier than your usual dried sen noodles, and hunks of muu yor, the peppered Vietnamese-style pork sausage that Ubon is famous for. This version is entirely different -- and a lot more Westerner-friendly -- than the Chinese-style offal-stocked kuay chab that’s popular in much of Asia. You’ll also find it made with chicken, but we’ll opt for the original porky version any day.
The finest example of kuay chab yuan that we know of comes from Mae Tae, an old but spunky woman who dishes out oversized 40-baht bowls to a few streetside tables that overflow with eager patrons every morning from around 07:00 to 11:00 -- or whenever she sells out. To find her, head west on Phalochai Road from the northwest corner of Thung Si Muang Park, then take a left on Chongkonnithan Road and you’ll see her tiny sign-less stand around 50 metres down on the left, just past an old-style coffee joint that’s also worth a stop. Be prepared for a queue, and to dine side-by-side with strangers. Head around the corner to Tong Nung on Phalochai to see stacks of muu yor encased in banana leaves along with many other types of Ubon specialty sausages.
Another excellent option for Ubon’s beloved Vietnamese-style soup is 99 Kuay Chab, which has more spacious confines on the east side of town at the corner of Phichitrangsan and Thepyothi roads (look for the big “99” sign on the corner). Kuay chab yuan is also served at Indochina, a more upscale restaurant offering a range of Vietnamese cuisine in an elegant wooden house.
Also on Phichitrangsan’s fantastic dining strip you’ll find Somtum Jinda, a popular air-con eatery serving authentic Isaan dishes. It’s a great place to try another Ubon specialty, laap ped, fiery minced duck “salad” laced with roasted chillies, toasted rice, lime juice, fresh garlic and mint. They also do laap with chicken, pork or beef along with several types of som tam (papaya salad), tam tuea (string bean salad), nam tok (grilled pork-neck salad), and tom saep (spicy pork soup). The extensive menu has photos and the actual names of each dish transliterated into Roman script -- snap a photo for further study and you could be set to order all sorts of Isaan dishes anywhere!
Speaking of som tam, forget the slightly sweet and playfully spicy version that you’ll find in touristy Thai restaurants. In Isaan, the strips of green papaya are pounded with a generous handful of fresh red chillies, super-pungent pla raa (known locally as pla daek, fermented fish sauce) and pickled freshwater crabs that are added for a distinctive salty flavour and are usually not eaten. One of the best places to give this Isaan-style som tam puu pla raa a shot is no-frills joint Raan Porntip, where they also do a mean gai yang (grilled chicken), which combines with the som tam and khao niao (sticky rice) for a humbly unforgettable meal.
If you’re in the mood for Chinese-Thai food, head across Sappasit Road to Aan Tee Am Nuay Chok, a sprawling open-fronted restaurant just west of Phadaeng Road. The streetside kitchen cooks up Chinese-Thai staples like khao na ped (roasted duck with rice), pak buung fai daeng (stir-fried morning glory) and pad taohu (soft tofu stir-fried with ground pork) along with some upcountry options like frog or wild boar sizzled with red curry paste. All dishes are pictured in an English menu. The lively spot also sells cold beer and bottles of whiskey served with buckets of ice and club soda or cola.
For a quieter indoor dining experience, long-running Sakhon Restaurant does a decent version of laap ped along with a wide range of Thai and Isaan options offered by an English-speaking owner. If you simply need a quick bite closer to the river on Ratchabut Road, grab an 80-baht stir-fried rice plate -- perhaps one of the many vegetarian options -- in Khawhom’s modern air-con cafe just south of the Ratchathani Hotel. A couple of doors down, SP House also serves quality Thai food along with ice cream and baked goods in its own air-con dining room.
For something more romantic, try Jum-Pa-Home, where you can enjoy a more refined taste of Northeast and Central Thai cuisine on a lovely garden deck, or in the air-con dining room.
Ubon also boasts one of the most interesting vegetarian eateries that we’ve come across anywhere in Thailand. Utthayan Bun Niyom is staffed by volunteers from the Santi Asoke Buddhist group, which promotes simplicity, harmlessness and meditation. You don’t have to take an oath to enjoy a huge display of mostly vegan curries, soups, salads and desserts that go for just 10 baht, including rice, if ordering one selection, and up to 20 baht for a plate piled high with three different options. Grab a seat at one of the many tables under a high thatch roof to try the vegetarian som tam before browsing the on-site natural products shop.
In addition to the tremendous lineup of standalone eateries, Ubon boasts a fairly small but easily accessible night market just south of Thung Si Muang Park and across the street from The Ratchathani Hotel on Khuan Thani Rd. Start with a Vietnamese-style khanom pang pate (baguette, or banh muy in Vietnamese) stuffed with egg and muu yor and toasted to a crisp. Then move onto pork and shrimp dumplings, duck noodle soup with egg-wheat noodles (ba-mii ped), som tam and gai yang, or a good-old plate of pad Thai. Finish it off with a hunk of homemade khanom morkaen, a sweet Thai-style egg custard sold by a rather mean-looking woman next to the baguette vendor, and you’ll be adjusting that belt for less than 100 baht. Plentiful tables are set up between the dozens of food carts for eating on site.
The Outside Inn is a guesthouse that also cooks up some phenomenal eats. The owners “work hard to serve the best Mexican food in Thailand”, and judging by the carnitas burrito that we wolfed down, they just might have achieved this. House-made guacamole, chile verde and tacos made with authentically Mexican corn tortillas join a few types of burgers, crusty grilled cheese sandwiches, veggie melts, several breakfast options and Thai dishes on a well-put-together menu. They also offer some good wines, Chang beer on draft and an inspiring cocktail selection utilising house-infused vodkas and liqueurs. A margarita made with 100% blue agave tequila is the perfect antidote to Ubon’s steamy weather, though we were more intrigued by the Bangkok Buffalo, a take on the Moscow Mule that blends ginger-infused vodka with orange bitters, ginger ale and lime. Prices run from 100 to 250 baht and are absolutely worth it.
If you crave Italian, make your way to the far northwest of town for lunch or dinner at Spagos Pizza (delivery available), which really is “a taste of Italy in Ubon” as they claim. The Italian owner offers quality pizza, salads and pasta accompanied by an excellent wine list. Another fine option is Pepper’s, an expat-run cafe that serves breakfast, pizza and baked goods in a spacious air-con setting. Closer to downtown on Phadaeng Rd and a short walk north of Thung Si Muang Park, Wrong Way Cafe cooks up satisfying burgers, pies and salads to go with lively conversation and billiards in a pub-style setting that draws many of the local expats.
Unlike many other nightlife spots in this university town, U-Bar attracts a late-20s crowd and is perhaps Ubon’s most happening club. Guaranteed to be thumping on Friday and Saturday nights, it usually begins with a live band and moves on to a DJ. If it's anyone in your party's birthday, take advantage of the buy-one-get-one-free Red Label deal, as it's not advertised anywhere in English.
Keep the party going after U-Bar goes to sleep by heading over to Mix Club, where the popular Western beats keep night owls spinning late on the dance floor. Also on Chayangkun, Swing Club is another option that aims for a more youthful crowd. If you're interested in watching a football game, Tid Soy on Suriyat Rd, directly behind Wat Chaeng, offers a suitable football-oriented atmosphere. Also offering some delicious food, prepare to play the standard guessing and pointing game with no English-speaking workers or English menu.
Maybe the best (and most convenient) options for a fun but not too crazy night out are the riverside bars setting up nightly just east of Ratchabut Road’s end. Grab a seat at an outdoor table and graze on Isaan-style drinking food while sipping off a beer tower and listening to Isaan country music or Western tunes pumped from the sound systems.
Mae Tae: Chongkonnithan Rd; open daily 07:00-11:00 or until sold out.
99 Kuay Chab: Cnr Phichitrangsan and Thepyothi Rds; T: (045) 260 424; open daily 13:00-22:00.
Indochina: Sappasit Rd, just east of Phadaeng Rd and west of Wat Chaeng; T: (045) 245 584.
Somtum Jinda: Just past Phonpaen Rd if heading east from 99 Kuay Chab; T: (045) 255 223; open daily 10:30 to 21:00.
Raan Porntip: Just east of Wat Chaeng on Sappasit Rd; T: (089) 720 8101; open daily 16:00-20:00.
Aan Tee Am Nuay Chok: Just west of Phadaeng Rd; T: (045) 241 809; open daily from around 17:00-late.
Sakhon Restaurant: Phadaeng Rd, a short walk north of Thung Si Muang Park; T: (045) 241 011.
Khawhom’s: Ratchabut Rd, just south of The Ratchathani Hotel; open daily 10:00-21:00.
Jum-Pa-Home: Cnr Phichitrangsan and Buraphanai Rds; T: (085) 989 6266; open daily 17:00-24:00.
Utthayan Bun Niyom: Cnr Thepyothi and Srinarong (aka Srinaruad) Rds, a 10-minute walk east of Thung Si Muang Park; T: (086) 871 1580; open Tues-Sun 06:00-14:00.
The Outside Inn: Just north of Wat Si Phradu on Suriyat Rd.
Spagos Pizza: Chaeng Sanit Rd; T: (045) 281 100.
Pepper’s: Uppalisan Rd, just south of the airport’s southwest tip; T: (087) 100 3260.
U-Bar: Thepyothi Rd, just south of Phichitrangsan.
Mix Club: Chayangkun Rd.