Top spot to try street food
Update: Sadly, the shophouses that most of the food vendors on Sukhumvit Soi 38 rented for four decades are set to be demolished in January 2016 to make way for a condominium. Most, if not all, of the vendors will be forced to close. We will update this post if a number of them relocate to the same place.
The vendors at Sukhumvit Soi 38 prove that no amount of high-rise hotels and hi-so people can diminish Bangkok’s love of street food. In an area best known for trendy nightclubs and refined restaurants, Soi 38 keeps it cheap, raw and bustling deep into the night. It’s also one of the easiest spots in Bangkok for non-Thai speakers to give street food a try.
Food bulges from a tightly packed cluster of carts that cover the whole southern end of this narrow side street. All senses are overwhelmed by the eye-watering “wok breath”, the clink of Chang bottles, shouts from vendors and the cars and motorbikes that squeeze past plastic stools thrown wherever they’ll fit.
The market attracts loads of expats and travellers to go with a Thai clientele that ranges from Mercedes-yielding club-hoppers to middle-class office workers and low-paid motorbike taxi drivers. Nearly all of the vendors speak some English and most offer menus in Thai, English and Japanese. Soi 38 might not compare to Yaowarat in quality or selection, but you won’t find a more accessible street-food enclave than this.
You can order from any stall and sit at any table. Vendors will even run your food across the street if you tell them where you’re camped. Don’t wait for someone to take your order; street vendors expect customers to assert themselves. While some “made-to-order” stalls offer everything from tom yum soup to kai jeaw (fried omelette) and pak-buung fai daeng (stir-fried morning glory), most focus on a few or even one single dish.
A line of street carts are pushed against a cement wall on the east side of the street, with tables set up between or in front of them. If sitting closest to the street, cars will pass within inches of your back, though they’re forced to go extremely slow so it’s not exactly dangerous. On the other side of the street, diners have the luxury of sitting in the open-air first floors of shophouses or in a tiny side-alley with tables crowded close together.
This alley is where you’ll find the famous Pad Thai Fire Look, a no-frills street kitchen where a well-known tamer-of-the-wok churns out dish after dish of delectable pad Thai along with kee mao and other quick-fried noodle sensations. Delicious Japanese-style ramen and crab-wonton-noodle soup can be found in the same alley.
Along the main street you’ll find pork satay, moo ping (grilled pork on a stick) and squid skewers being carefully rotated on smoky charcoal grills. Standard street fare like khao man kai (chicken rice), khao ka muu (stewed pork with rice), kwit-tieau (noodle soup), rad na (wide noodles with pork gravy) and boat noodles are all easy to track down on Soi 38.
Unexpected offerings include the foreigner-owned Daniel Thaiger burgers and northern Thai khao soi from a sit-down shop just across the road — how’s that for contrast? Also worth seeking out is kapaw pla nam daeng, an addictive mix of deep-fried fish bladder (or fish maw), pork and veggies cooked in a steel bowl with plenty of black pepper.
Dessert is easily forgotten amid this tangle of tastes, but don’t skip it! One vendor dishes out fantastic mango with sticky rice, but you also might go for deep-fried pathong ko (Thai-style fried dough) with pandan custard, tub-tim-grob (icy coconut “soup” with toppings) or the old standby: coconut ice cream. Wash it all down with a fresh-fruit smoothie or hefty hunk of durian.
To get here, catch the BTS skytrain to Thong Lo station and take the stairs at exit 4. The scents will draw you in before you’ve even reached the footpath.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
Our top 10 places to eat and drink around Sukhumvit