Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) is the kind of Thai street food stall that’s hidden in plain sight – I’ve walked past it countless times without even realising it was there. Yet this modest stall, just two blocks from the infamous Khaosan Road backpacker enclave and at the heart of Bangkok’s old-town Phra Nakhon district, is also yet more proof that this area, despite the idea that its popularity with foreign visitors means it is devoid of any ‘real’ Thai neighbourhoods or food culture, is actually a hotbed of some of the city’s best eating.
Soi Kraisi looks much like the numerous other small streets in the run up to Khaosan Road itself. And wedged between the narrow road and the exterior fences of the neighbouring local-authority-run car park, the stall itself also looks much like the street restaurants right across Bangkok. But here at Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู), a team of four or five – among them a wok-happy woman who hilariously swigs from a can of beer as she flips her omelettes, a thin-framed old man wearing glasses and a baseball cap (who looks like he’s a good couple of decades past retirement), and a younger, more friendly and outgoing lady who waits the tables and shouts out orders to the other two – serve up something really rather special.
Tom yum kung is, much like pad thai, one of Thailand’s most famous exports, a dish for which it has become known around the world. The 1997 Asian financial crash was even nicknamed the Tom Yum Kung Crisis, thanks to its origins in Bangkok with the collapse of the Thai baht. But, like pad thai this is also one of those dishes that serious Thai foodies – me included – frequently label as overrated, and something of a misnomer when it comes to being a dish that’s supposedly meant to represent the identity of Thai cuisine.
Sure, people around Thailand eat tom yum soup on a regular basis (just as they do pad thai, albeit I would argue on a smaller scale), but nowhere as much as they eat more ‘authentic’ day-to-day street dishes like somtum papaya salad or pad krapao holy basil stir-fry. You can’t escape the idea that pad thai, and to a slightly lesser extent tom yum, are truly national dishes only in the romanticised minds of overseas restaurant owners and publishers of tourist brochures.
As if to prove the point, the waitress tells me that visitors frequently confuse her stalls with one of the dizzying array of more tourist-geared restaurants around the Khaosan area that have predictably decided to capitalise by also calling themselves Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู). Diners at a restaurant half a mile away will mistakenly check in at the real Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) on social media, she says.
Tom yum kung pla meuk (ต้มยำกุ้งปลาหมึก) – tom yum hot and sour soup with prawns and squid
But for all my misgivings about the way dishes like tom yum are portrayed on the world stage, here is a restaurant serving a version that’s every bit worthy of being the national dish. “We make it with prawn fat and coconut shoots, but we don’t use nam prik pao [chilli jam paste] like other places”, the waitress boasts as she places our bowl of tom yum with prawns and squid on the table, and we ogle its deliciously creamy, fatty consistency. We’ve opted for a mix of prawn and squid in our tom yum, but there are also pre-cooked clams on hand if you fancy a full-on seafood medley.
The whole prawns, too, are big juicy, fatty, shell-on river prawns, of the kind that are grilled and served whole as an Ayutthaya speciality, as well as at an increasing number of places in Bangkok. It goes without saying that evaporated milk – the cheat’s ingredient, popular at street stalls and restaurants right across Bangkok to turn tom yum nam sai (the clear variety) into tom yum nam khon (the creamy one) – doesn’t make an appearance here.
It’s that prawn fat – the stuff that particularly comes from the prawn’s head – that makes the tom yum kung here so stupendous. Where a more run-of-the-mill bowl of tom yum might have a few prawns floating around in an otherwise pretty thin broth, at Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) an overload of prawn fat thickens the consistency of the whole soup.
It means that, as you think you’ve nearly finished and you swirl your spoon around in the bowl in the hope of finding one or two more whole prawns lurking in the deep, you are rewarded with beautiful fatty, meaty globules of prawn juice. The tom yum soup itself is intense and fragrant, pleasingly spicy and sour as is to be expected, without being excessively so – it didn’t make me cough or splutter on inhaling the scent in the way that the mackerel tom yum soup at Soei restaurant does.
Pla kung (พล่ากุ้ง) – grilled prawn and lemongrass salad
The pla kung, and not the eponymous tom yum, was the dish that drew me to Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) in the first place. Pla kung – a zesty, citrusy salad that’s made up primarily of just-cooked grilled prawns, plenty of lime juice and chilli, and heaps of finely chopped lemongrass and mint – is among my favourite Thai dishes. As it turned out, at Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) it was ultimately overshadowed by the tom yum, which is indeed fully deserving of its prize place in the restaurant’s name, but what’s served up here is nonetheless an excellent rendition – albeit, in my view, not quite at the same level as the life-changing one at Soei.
Sawtooth coriander makes a prominent appearance here, and I’m not sure if that’s an entirely good thing, since it seems to slightly dull the flavours of what should be an utterly zingy, infuriatingly sour salad. There’s no denying, though, that the giant river prawns used in the pla kung are every bit as incredible as in the other dishes, with ridiculously irresistible fatty gunk oozing out from the prawns’ heads at the slightest application of pressure from the fork, in such a way as to be borderline erotic.
Watch this prawn’s fatty juices spurt out from its head:
Kung pla meuk tod kratiem (กุ้งปลาหมึกทอดกระเทียม) – stir-fried garlic prawns and squid
Also on my list of must-tries at Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) was a dish of fried garlic prawns. At the waitress’ suggestion, we threw squid into the medley, too – but somehow I was still expecting something rather different from what actually came out of the ‘kitchen’ right next to me. I had got it into my head that we were talking about deep-fried garlic prawns and squid, when of course this is actually a stir-fry dish.
Nevertheless, what emerged from the wok was even better than I had imagined. This was a prawn-and-squid version of the stir-fried garlic and black pepper pork that I frequently order as an extra side dish at stir-fry restaurants – but it had two extraordinary things going for it that set it apart from the pack.
Firstly, the inclusion of huge whole cloves of garlic that had been thrown into the pan alongside the prawns and squid pieces and that, having sweetened substantially during their shallow-frying, were just begging to be eaten whole – they were delicious, even if my breath inevitably reeked afterwards. And secondly, these huge river prawns somehow, incredibly, mysteriously – even after being fried, which you would imagine would do something to dry them out – were still full of fatty, juicy prawn-head gunk, which gave way and burst out in a practically orgasmic manner just as it had from the prawns in both the tom yum soup and the pla kung salad. It’s the kind of thing that just makes me happy.
Kai jeow pla meuk (ไข่เจียวปลาหมึก) – squid-stuffed omelette
When we saw the beer-swigging chef frying up an impressive omelette (I initially assumed the two cans of beer wedged into display of fresh prawns on ice were for sale to customers – but no, it turns out they were the chef’s own personal supply), we couldn’t resist ordering one for ourselves.
The trick to getting a Thai-style omelette to fluff and crisp up so beautifully, with large pockets of air inside, is to have the oil absolutely flaming hot before dropping in the whisked eggs – all I can say is that this lady must have had her oil in the high triple figures, as this was quite possibly the fluffiest, most full-on-looking omelette we’ve seen anywhere.
Omelettes stuffed with minced pork (kai jeow moo sub) are a failsafe go-to dish at stir-fry shops and standalone omelette stalls all over Thailand, but Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) is of course first and foremost a seafood stall. And while I’m just as much of a fan of the slightly less commonplace minced-prawn-stuffed omelette, this time we decided to go with one loaded with squid – a combination I had not tried before.
It didn’t disappoint, coming in equal parts crispy and fluffy, and its enormous serving leaving it looking effortlessly impressive. It was stuffed with generously sized chunks of squid, which added the perfect amount of texture where minced pork and prawns usually soften in the frying process and become one with the egg. Served with the usual saucer of simple Sriracha chilli sauce, this makes the perfect side to all the other soupy, salad and stir-fried goodness.
Dishes at Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) go for a flat-rate 140 baht each, plus 10 baht per plate of steamed rice. Our greedy meal for two people – pla kung, tom yum, garlic stir-fried prawns and squid, and a squid-stuffed omelette – came to 580 baht, plus drinks (the usual selection of water, Coke, Sprite and so on; nothing revolutionary on that side of things), which are sold by a different vendor and paid for separately.
This is by no means Bangkok’s cheapest street food lunch, but both the quality of ingredients and the expertise with which they are prepared mean that each dish is worth every single satang. At the same time, generous portions mean that a single bowl of tom yum here, accompanied by rice, is absolutely enough to satisfy a couple of diners sharing – in fact, I saw staff from nearby hotels and restaurants popping in for a late lunch of exactly that. That suddenly makes for a more affordable total of 80 baht per person for a top-notch Thai street food lunch.
Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) is located on Soi Kraisi, just two streets away from Khaosan Road. It’s about half-way down the street, right outside the entrance to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) car park, on the left-hand side if approaching from Chakrabongse Road (from the Samsen Road direction), or on the right-hand side if approaching from Sip Sam Hang and Bowon Niwet roads close to the roundabout beside Swensens that leads onto Soi Rambuttri and onto Khaosan itself.
If you’re staying in the old-town Banglamphu/Phra Nakhon area, Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) is almost certainly within walking distance of your hotel or guest house. For those coming from elsewhere, Phra Nakhon’s relative lack of public transport connections means a taxi or Uber is probably your best bet (for ease, you’re probably best off asking the driver to head to Khaosan Road, and then locating the restaurant on foot), though that means contending with Bangkok’s usual horrendous traffic. Alternatively, take the Chaophraya Express orange-flagged river boat from Sathorn pier (where you can connect with the BTS Skytrain at Saphan Taksin) to Phra Athit pier, from where it’s a pleasant 10-minute walk.
Limited but sufficient English is spoken.
Soi Kraisi, Banglamphu (two streets along from Khaosan Road)
ซอยไกรสีห์ บางลำพู (แถวๆ ถนนข้าวสาร)
DISCLOSURE: I ate at Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu (ต้มยำกุ้งบางลำพู) at my own expense. All opinions are of course my own.
Where else to eat in Banglamphu
In the unlikely event that you’re not full after a meal at Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu, other recommended street food options in the Banglamphu old-town area include:
- Areesaa Rote Dee (on the next street) – for chicken and beef biryani, and beef satay
- Roti Mataba (close to Phra Athit pier) – for pretty unbeatable massuman curry
- Somsong Pochana (close to Phra Athit pier) – for noodle soup and rice noodles
- Nuttaporn – for fabulous home-churned coconut-based, dairy-free ice cream
Where to stay in Banglamphu
Looking for a hotel or guest house in the Banglamphu and Phra Nakhorn neighbourhoods that’s within easy reach of Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu and other foodie hotspots? These accommodation options come personally highly recommended by me – I’ve checked them all out in person:
- Sam Sen Sam Place – peaceful boutique rooms in a family-run 100-year-old house: Review | Booking.com | Agoda
- The Bhuthorn – intimate, three-room boutique hotel in a lovingly restored property: Booking.com | Agoda
- Casa Nithra – high-end, romantic boutique hotel with impressive on-site restaurant: Booking.com | Agoda
- Baan Dinso – affordable boutique hotel with gorgeous Demoracy Monument views: Review | Agoda
- Tara Place – simple but comfortable rooms on happening Samsen Road: Booking.com | Agoda
- Chillax Resort – boutique hotel with in-room hot tubs and rooftop pool: Booking.com | Agoda
- NapPark Hostel – cheap, clean dorm rooms close to Khaosan, with sociable vibe: Booking.com | Agoda