What Makes Thai Street Food so Good?

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There are strange forces at work in Bangkok. For some reason, no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to eat a great Thai meal in a restaurant that is air-conditioned. Yes, this "no food like street food" argument might be an old chestnut for Bangkok folks. But it is not a tired topic for this relative newcomer; it's a cosmic mystery.

Last night I went to a Bangkok restaurant I'd heard about from a knowledgeable follower of food. It fit the profile of the kind of restaurant I struggle to find here: owned and operated by dedicated chefs with serious pedigrees, not hotel-affiliated (so its food needn't be geared toward tourists who'd rather be eating schnitzel or hamburgers), and small enough that chefs would be cooking most of what you'd eat.

When the waitress arrived at my table, she told me, unprovoked, that I could not order my food "a little" spicy. They were serving authentic Thai cuisine, and that was that. Score them another point--a kitchen with a cause.

Perhaps it was the frosty beer glass or the lilting mood music that threw me off. But the dishes that came from the kitchen, like outfits that don't quite match, all had small but distasteful flaws. While the food didn't suffer the one-dimensional fate of most Thai designed for foreigners--insipidly sweet, insulting food--it lacked the seamlessness of seasoning found almost anywhere that has a few plastic stools.

Street food is the commercial eating experience stripped bare--allowing you to only judge one thing: How does it taste?

Why is this? Well, I don't really know or I wouldn't ask. But I can think of a few reasons. For one, most practitioners of street cuisine are specialists--they do a few dishes and do them very well. If those dishes are not good, one can just walk four steps to the right or left for lunch instead. Third is that the street really is Thailand's dining room. Bangkokians know better than to go in search of great local food in pretty spaces. Street food is the commercial eating experience stripped bare--allowing you to only judge one thing: How does it taste?

Unfortunately, in Bangkok, these realms of good taste--the edible and the aesthetic--rarely overlap. But I'll go back to that restaurant one more time, and a dozen just like it, until I find more places where they do. Eventually, I'm going to have to take my mother to dinner.

(And for those of you can't wait and are looking for a great deal of comfort, and very authentic Thai, I would recommend the charming Le Lys.)

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.
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