The Thai capital’s backpacker ghetto Khaosan Road is home to a dearth of decent food in a city renowned for its foodie reputation, right? Wrong. You would indeed be well advised to steer clear of the greasy pad thai pushed out by the street carts on Khaosan itself, along with the watered-down and overly pricey plates masquerading as Thai food elsewhere on this luminous stretch of tourist trash (I’m being harsh, but only a little). But just a short skip away, literally on the adjoining streets, are a number of joints serving up top-notch food that is worth crossing the city for – in fact, I frequently do. One of these places is even reached from the backpacker street itself, and has an address that technically puts it right on Khaosan – so don’t write off the whole area just yet.
Areesaa Rote Dee
From the street seemingly little more than a humble stall, Areesaa Rote Dee’s deceptively large interior is hugely popular with nearby workers and local Muslims, who more than ever pack into the place just after sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. The star at Areesaa Rote Dee is the khao mok gai – I’ve yet to taste a better version of this chicken biryani dish anywhere in Thailand. A heap of moist yellow rice, each grain glistening with the goodness of chicken stock, sits beneath a tender cut of on-the-bone chicken slowly cooked in a marinade of deep, flavoursome spices inspired by the cuisine of southern Thailand and India.
A regular sized portion will set you back just 40 baht, while the array of other dishes include beef satay to die for, noodle soups and spring rolls. This unmissable joint is well known by locals but, as a tourist, you could easily walk past and not realise it existed behind the front of its simple street-side frontage. Just don’t be fooled by its proximity to Khaosan – this is some of the best food you will taste in Thailand.
Areesaa Rote Dee, 178 Tani Road, Bangkok (just a street along from Khaosan, and a few steps away from the big and garish Swensen’s ice cream parlour at the junction end of Soi Rambuttri)
02 282 6378
Open daily, 09.00am-04.00pm and 05.00-10.00pm
This tired and worn looking shophouse might not be the obvious spot for a winning meal; in fact, you might well be inclined to avoid it all together. But do so at your peril – Roti Mataba has a reputation made of gold, and deservedly so. Just look at the crowd as you approach. It’s almost always packed; on the few tables outside on the pavement, the narrow seats squeezed in alongside the counter on the ground floor and up the stairs in the air-conditioned restaurant area above. And tellingly, it’s often a largely Thai crowd that’s to be found here. Choose from the bilingual menu or point and pick from the glass cabinet of dishes prepared each day to this family’s traditional recipes since they set up shop here over sixty years ago.
Come for the roti pancakes if you will and, sure, indulge in a maturbak stuffed savoury pancake – but whatever you do, don’t miss the simply unbeatable massuman curry this place does so well. Thanks to using less coconut milk than most restaurants pour in, Roti Mataba’s recipe lets the deep spice flavours of the southern, Indian and Malay inspired curry paste shine through in all their glory. A good massuman should be intriguing and complex in taste, not hot and spicy at first taste as some confused cooks end up making it – and as many a confused western traveller comes to expect it. Here, at Roti Mataba, is a pristine example of how it should be done the proper way. Minus the potatoes that find their way in elsewhere (and often not to bad effect, it has to be said) and with nothing more than a tender piece of on-the-bone chicken, its meat ready to collapse off once your spoon even comes close, the occasional sliver of pineapple and a few chopped peanuts for crunch. Bliss.
Roti Mataba, 136 Phra Athit Road, Bangkok (Phra Athit stop on the Chao Phraya river express boat)
02 282 2119; www.roti-mataba.net
Open Tuesday-Friday, 09.30am-09.30pm; Saturday and Sunday, 09.30am-10.00pm; closed Mondays.
Tai Derm Hostel
The ambience at Tai Derm is the first thing to swing in its favour. Down an alley at one of the far ends of Khaosan Road, it is just a few short steps from the thick of the ‘action’ if that’s your thing, and yet for the lack of noise you could be on the other side of the city. Staff are friendly – again, unusual for somewhere so close to Khaosan’s bucket bars, jaded T-shirt vendors and ’10 baht for a photo’ novelty insect stalls. The clientèle, on the rare occasions that the restaurant gets busy (when they have a live band or such like), tends to be primarily Thai – this despite the fact that the guest house, Tai Derm’s main business and of which the restaurant is just an offshoot, is mostly booked out by western backpackers looking for a cheap place to rest their heads. The rooms themselves are pleasant and homely feeling, if small, in an old wooden building with creaky flooboards – though the undeniable downside is that there is just one shower and a couple of toilets (admittedly all spotless) to share among the nine bedrooms.
Back to the food – to put it simply, it is unexpectedly awesome and makes this place glimmer like a lost star even more. How such great restaurant-quality food ended up in the midst of Khaosan Road is a mystery, but it is worth the trek to this barbaric, neon-lit part of the capital for dinner alone. Order any of the dishes on the extensive menu and you’ll dearly struggle to be disappointed. But to be truly wowed, opt for the gaeng som pla chon, a rich and spicy, sour southern curry, with a whole deep-fried snakehead fish – and plenty of leafy green vegetables – swimming in its sauce. The creamy yet tangy deliciousness of the curry juxtaposes in delectable ways with the crispiness of the fish skin and the tenderness of the meat that lies beneath. You won’t go home hungry after this, or any of the other generously-sized portions at Tai Derm; in fact, you’ll just be left planning your return visit. Do as my friends and I, and so many other local regulars do here, and order a good selection of dishes, a bottle of whisky and mixers and a big bucket of ice – and settle in for a long evening’s feast.
Tai Derm Hostel, 138 Khaosan Road, Bangkok (access through the alley more noticeably signposted for Boston tailors)
02 629 2252; www.facebook.com/taiderm
Open every day until late