Nearly every Thai food lover I know professes a deep affinity for Thailand’s street food. Never mind that it is frequently infuriating, with its occasional long waits, its heat and smoke, its intermittent inconsistencies. It’s the grime, the capricious grumps who serve as owners, the odd feral cat or two that turn street food from a sweaty, hurried interval spent pouring rice down your facehole into a quick “immersion in the Thai culture”, set in romantic, picturesque squalor.
I’m not saying the pursuit of street food is an exercise in culinary Orientalism — unless you think the locals are guilty of doing this too. Because, as much as some people think the fetishization of street food equals a food-centric depiction of the so-called “Noble Savage”, the truth is still very simple: much of Thailand’s best food is still on the street, and those plastic stools and dingy shophouses are still dominated by Thais. Thais love good Thai food. Visiting Thai food lovers want to eat what Thais eat. It is as easy as that.
Nothing quite captures the freewheeling, exuberant quality of Thai street food quite like khao gaeng (or khao gub gaeng, or khao raad gaeng, all of which mean “curry on rice”). These streetside “buffets” are actually excuses for people to act like frigging maniacs aka Lindsay Lohan in a jewelry store — a free-for-all where the ultimate reward is a pleasantly full tummy. A tableful of curries awaits; you pick up a plate of rice and choose anywhere from one to three curries … or more if your vendor is willing.
My friend Winner, who — despite his curious allegiance to the 49ers — knows Banglamphu street food better than anyone I know, is a huge fan of khao gaeng. His favorite: Raan Khao Gaeng Mae Awn, moored in the shadow of Saphan Lek and kitty-corner to the Mega Plaza. Its sign looks like this:
Despite winning plaudits from various lady-cenric morning shows, this stall still retains its street cred — a credibly crabby lady doling out rice and curries, a handful of tables with plastic stools and a layer of grease, and the requisite crowd keen to jab you in the ear with their elbows as they pass by. Why Winner likes it: the superiority of their thom jeud (clear soup, because no Thai eats rice without some kind of soup), the popularity of its moo kem (deep-fried pork belly) and the sheer diversity of their daily offerings.
It’s a curry (and stir-fry, and deep-fried tidbits) bar, quite possibly the best kind. But no need to skulk off to Banglamphu to get some good curry action; there is an array of rice toppings (of varying sizes) at nearly every major intersection and street corner in the city. The one I frequent is next to Benjasiri Park, behind Emporium, while next to Emporium on Sukhumvit, a mammoth curry rice stand doles out food on Sundays. Find your own favorite.