Thai Restaurants Abroad


Fish cakes at a typical Thai restaurant

I have a lot of alone time here in New Zealand, which gives me the time for a lot of self-reflection. Lol jk. I spend a lot of time thinking about things like Kenny Rogers and whether the relationship he described in the song “Lady” lasted, and if it didn’t, can he still sing the song in front of his newest partner or does she not let him? I mean if your husband is singing about the love of his life and it was before he met you, that might be uncomfortable, this public performance inspired by some other lady, wouldn’t it? Or maybe all you would think is “$$$$$$$$$” and then happily go home to your pool and your cleaning lady, the real love of your life.

When I am not thinking about Kenny Rogers and other artists that New Zealand Uber drivers play while I’m in their cars, I read the Internet. That is how I learned that Ali Wong is coming out with a book, helpfully excerpted by New York Magazine. The excerpt is a very useful guide to Asian restaurants (that have yet to go back to their own countries): Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino. Of course, I noticed that somehow she left out Thai in her handy list. This must be because she is waiting for me to write that part. So here I am, with this handy info, to complete this guide to Asian restaurants that have yet to reverse brain-drain themselves. You’re welcome, Ali Wong!

Thai Cuisine Abroad

Good signs:

  • The name contains a romanized form of a Thai word (“aroy”, “dee det” “rot det”, etc). A passable restaurant includes a reference to an elephant, orchid, silk, or tropical fruit.
  • The cook is an old Thai woman in a white cap, or an old Thai man with one or two hairy moles.
  • The menu is laminated (ABROAD ONLY) and has an Isaan section.
  • The other patrons are mostly Asian.
  • The location is in a strip mall or on a street with other Asian restaurants.
  • Bare-bones decor.
  • You can hear the sound of a mortar and pestle in the kitchen.
  • There is shouting in the kitchen.
  • There might be a fire in the kitchen.
  • The restaurant is also selling bottled sauces, relishes, snacks and/or fresh tropical fruit for exorbitant amounts of money in front of the cash register.
  • Thai beers are on the menu (bonus if the beer is Chawala).
  • The servers speak Thai.

Bad signs:

  • The name is a pun on the word Thai (“Thai One On”, “Dinner Thai”, “All Thai’d Up”, etc)
  • Thai classical music is playing.
  • The table is set with forks and knives (RUN); red flag if the table setting includes chopsticks and it is not a soup noodle restaurant or specializing in chicken rice (SEE: Montien Hotel coffeeshop).
  • There is a wine list.
  • The menu includes anything with Wagyu or Kurobuta, or if there are references to caviar (RUN if there is a sushi section).
  • There is neon lighting inside, extra red flag if that lighting is paired with artsy graffiti on painted brick walls.
  • The soundtrack is EDM or anything involving the Chainsmokers.
  • The patrons are all eating their own dishes by themselves, and have mostly ordered the same thing.
  • The kitchen is silent and you cannot hear the food cooking.
  • The servers don’t ask you about your preferred level of spice.
  • You are not sure if the servers can even find Thailand on a map.
  • You aren’t afraid of spilling your leftovers on your lap and smelling like week-old garbage or toe cheese.



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13 responses to “Thai Restaurants Abroad

  1. Drew Mallin

    “Thai Restaurants Abroad” had me pondering on just when, where, why and by whom did Thai food fetch up abroad. I’m talking Europe and North America to be sure, and the late 20th century a realistic time frame to apply. There’s probably an entire book in the making on the subject.

    Food history and the cross fertilization of cuisines are great ways to understand the rumblings of national, pan-national and global history. My own empirical research on the matter is confined to dear old Blighty (UK) and the post-swinging sixties, the seventies to you and me. London has just 4 or five Thai restaurants. They are small, exotic and serve authentic Thai food. Political exiles from the periodic upheavals of Siamese/Thai politics of the mid-20th century made it either to Paris or London. London won over Paris as the first occidental capital to open a Thai restaurant. The Thai owners were well-educated, well-to-do and well and truly keeping their heads down in host capitals. Opening a Thai restaurant seemed like a good idea at the time but I doubt if this was done with profit in mind.

    Fast-forward 20 years to the eighties and nineties and the dynamics are a changing…The burgeoning Thai restaurant scene in London and just about every High Street in the rest of urban UK is a sight, sound and taste to behold. Gone are the hi-so owners in exile, in their place a diaspora of Northeastern Thais just a few steps ahead of their time working the paddy fields. But this is an unholy trinity of sorts with middle-aged Brits returning home with a new bride after 2 weeks of beer-fueled research on Thailand’s famed fauna and flora. What to do? Why open a Thai restaurant in a pub; no one will notice the difference.

    • True, but the more thai food in pubs, the more normalized dishes like “spicy beef salad” become, and I think this is a good thing.

      • Drew Mallin

        That’s a good point, but the many Thai restaurants in pubs I visited 2013/14 had already organized themselves into a toned-down offering of Thai favorites – the news spread among the pub community of what was perceived to be what’s what – which makes it more difficult for pukka Thai restaurants to set up and offer authentic cuisine, the commendable way the Thai political exiles in London in late 1960’s and 1970’s set about offering Thai food to the British public. I’ll say this for the pubs: Thai wives make better publicans than their farang husbands, treating us to smiles and social graces that are beyond the ken of the average farang landlord in central London.

  2. George

    ‘There might be a fire in the kitchen’ – if only you knew…….

  3. your above handy list is so true and I know that from personal experience in many countries. as we love Thai food we decided to retire in this country and now live happily ever after since many years as farangs in bangkok enjoying the real thing and many others, too. oh, before I forget – as a long time follower thanks for your insights and please keep on doing it. greetings from gabrielle

  4. Karen

    Thank you for still posting! This made me laugh and also jealous I didn’t write it myself. 🙂

  5. Alan Katz

    Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, probably the most famous and popular Thai restaurant in the United States, has a lengthy wine list specializing in Rieslings. At least there it’s not a bad sign!

    • Yes they are wine aficionados

    • Peter Point

      Oh yes it is…that list should chuck the Rieslings and substitute two pages of Gewurtztraminer…and for the real aficionados out there not just any Gewurtz…but the stuff coming out of Alsace…and not just any winery in Alsace but the local superstars Zind-Humbrecht and Domaine Weinbach…and not just any Gerwurtz from these stellar wineries but the rare Vendange Tardive and SGN examples. That’s all that counts. The rest of the list can have flights of Mateus Rose for the desperados out there. BTW mine’s a pint of Krug

    • Drew Mallin

      For sure those German Rieslings are a good sign at Lotus of Siam! The list I summoned up online appears to be a truncated one, so my interest is piqued even more to see their full list. I sense there are gems to be had. In case anyone out there didn’t get it, my other comments elsewhere about Gerwurztraminer from Alsace is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Actually, I spoke too soon: the restaurant’s wine list does carry a Gewurtz from Alsace, a single bin from the fabled house of Zind-Humbrecht, one of my all time favorite winemakers, There you go…

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