What Makes Thai Street Food so Good?

Thai food out of a cart far exceeds anything in a restaurant. It's spicier, more aromatic, and adventurous in a way only street food can be. It's just too bad there's no air conditioning.

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Photo by jaaron/FlickrCC

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.)