Eat, Drink, Repeat
The Siam@Siam Guide to Pad Thai in Bangkok
Delve into the strange story behind Thailand’s national dish, and discover the noods you need in your life.
Publish Date: 19 March 2020 / Story by: Megan Leon
Name a more iconic Thai dish than pad Thai. We’ll wait. From Bangkok to Melbourne, London to New York, these wok-flamed rice noodles fly the flag for Thai cuisine. But the dish’s rise to global acclaim is a curious one.
Kway teow pad Thai, to give the dish's full name, literally means "stir-fried rice noodles Thai-style." Into the wok go tamarind juice, fish sauce and palm sugar, before the whole thing is loaded with dried shrimp, tofu, preserved radish, peanuts, bean sprouts, egg and chilli powder. Mmm, hungry yet?
To this day, a good pad Thai sits towards the very top of the bucket list for many visitors to Thailand. There’s also renewed interest from locals thanks to a spate of buzzing openings adding their own spin on the orange-tinted noodles, whether through hip dwellings, natural wine pairings, organic ingredients or top-of-the-line proteins.
In examining pad Thai’s enduring popularity, one should first explore its surprising beginnings. Rewind only till 1939 when military officer Plaek “Phibun” Phibunsonghram ousted Thailand’s monarchy and became Prime Minister. Wielding full authoritarian power, Phibun issued a series of cultural mandates geared at limiting outside influence and promoting a certain “Thai-ness.”
With his political agenda turning to food, Phibun ordered the creation of a new dish that could promote Thai national identity, while also guarding against any potential rice shortage. And so pad Thai was born.
Phibun claimed his helper created the dish for him as a child, though it has long been said Chinese traders had been making something similar since the 1700s. His official slogan for pad Thai was “noodle is your lunch,” and by adding peanuts, proteins and bean sprouts it was sold as a healthy, nutritious and filling meal for the people.
The Present and Future
So why the deep obsession with these noodles of dubious origin, and why the recent boom in pad Thai-focused restaurants in Bangkok? Chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn, of Bangkok’s Michelin-starred Thai fine-dining restaurant Le Du, recently opened Mayrai, a sultry bar that pairs pad Thai with natural wines in the Old Town. Here, you might have your pad Thai with melt-in-your-mouth Thai “wagyu,” slow-cooked pork collar or giant river prawns.
“I chose to open Mayrai because everyone knows pad Thai,” Ton said. “It is a new dish for our ancient cuisine and I believe it’s good for everyone as long as you make it well, meaning it should be sweet, sour, spicy and salty and, most importantly, it should have smokiness that can only come from the wok.”
Another relatively new name on the block is Baan Phadthai on Charoenkrung Road, where chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn (also of Saawaan, another highly-regarded Thai restaurant) adds her own imprint on the classic by using only organic produce (don't expect that at your usual street cart), including a "top-secret" ingredient that she says ramps up the interplay between sweet and savoury.
“Pad Thai is something that everyone can easily eat,” Aom said. “While you can find pad Thai anywhere around the world, we try to make it a bit differently, in a more modern way that pleases both locals and visitors.”
Someone else who knows a little about innovative Thai cuisine is Monthep Kamolsilp, Executive Chef at TAAN, whose dishes often combine new and old techniques. When asked for his thoughts on the enduring popularity of pad Thai, Thep ventured: “It’s not spicy, for one thing. It’s very much a Chinese-style dish, with ingredients like pickled radish you don’t find in Thai cuisine. I think dry noodles have an appeal that’s different from, say, a bowl of rice too.”
With one of TAAN’s early menus, chef Thep tackled pad Thai in his own idiosyncratic fashion through a dish of banana leaf-wrapped, charcoal-grilled chicken served with lotus stems and tamarind dressing. Taking equal inspiration from pad Thai and somtam (Thai papaya salad), he replaced the regular rice noodles with grilled lotus stem.
“The preparation of pad Thai in some ways is actually very similar to somtam,” Thep said. “Both have a sweetness and nuttiness, with a flavour informed by tamarind. By adding the crunch of lotus stem, I’ve brought pad Thai a little more in line with Thai salads. As cooking techniques develop and ingredients become more available, it’s only natural that a dish like pad Thai would change too.”
When in Bangkok, you can find these chewy, sticky noodles all over the city, but that just makes it harder to find a great pad Thai. Here’s where to start your quest.
Pad Thai Thipsamai
Probably the most famous pad Thai joint in Bangkok tends to divide local opinion. Still, that doesn’t stop the lines that wrap around the block every single day. Around since the World War II era, Thipsamai is best known for their “Superb Pad Thai” where the noodles are fried in shrimp oil over charcoal and mangrove wood and loaded with shrimp, squid, crab and mango all wrapped in a paper-thin omelette. A tad sweet for some, but apparently not for the majority of return customers.
313-315 Maha Chai Rd., Rattanakosin, Bangkok
Open daily 5pm-2am
Pad Thai Sala Daeng
This easy-to-miss spot is located right behind the Silom Complex mall (itself right next to BTS Sala Daeng station). A beloved lunch spot for office workers, the shop makes its tamarind sauce in-house which requires hours of simmering. The only proteins available are tofu, shrimp and squid and their noodles are served slightly undercooked for that gloriously chewy texture. Come early to be assured a seat!
47 Sala Daeng Soi 2, Silom, Bangkok
Open Mon to Fri 9:30am-2pm
Nearest BTS: Sala Daeng
Pad Thai Ekkamai
This pad Thai joint opened in 2011 and caters to the young, late-night club crowds and local celebrities who have money to burn. The space is forgettable but not the kitchen’s show-stopping Pad Thai Ekkamai, served with squid, mussels and two giant river prawns. Come on an empty stomach!
303/4 Sukhumvit Soi 63, Ekkamai, Bangkok
Open 24 hours
Nearest BTS: Ekkamai
Pad Thai Kikuya
Pad Thai Kikuya might be off the beaten path, but its unique style is worth the visit. Little more than a small pushcart, Kikuya cooks its noodles over a charcoal stove for a truly smoky flavour. In an interesting twist, they completely skip the tamarind and peanuts in favour of Thai chives and banana flower. They also use duck egg for a richer taste.
Soi Wanit 1, in front of Kikuya clothing boutique, Sam Peng, Bangkok
Open Tue-Sun 6:30-10pm
Nearest MRT: Wat Mangkon
This colourful Charoenkrung restaurant is part of a stable of restaurants that also includes buzzy openings like Issaya Siamese Club, Namsaah and Pizza Massilia. From a charmingly retro shop-house near the river, the kitchen whips out a mean chicken Pad Thai whose “top-secret” recipe consists of 18 ingredients. The menu also spans Northeastern Thai staples like somtam (papaya salad) and laab moo tod (spicy minced pork balls).
21-23 Charoenkrung Soi 44, Bangrak, Bangkok
Open daily 11am-10pm
Nearest BTS: Saphan Taksin
Mayrai is the newest pad Thai hot spot. Nestled in Bangkok’s Old Town, at the foot of Wat Pho, this moody nook spotlights a pad Thai made with recipe inspired by chef-owner Chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn’s (of Le Du and Baan fame) grandmother. Sharing the menu with khao soy, a curry noodle dish of Northern Thai origins, the pad Thai here comes paired with a solid selection of natural wines. Try the Mayrai Pad Thai, whose glass noodles pack a punch and come served in a Korean-style, heavy-duty bowl. For something more elevated (and five times the price), there’s the pad Thai with local "wagyu" beef.
22 Maha Rat Rd., Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Bangkok
Open daily midday to midnight
Nearest MRT: Sam Yot
Leung Pha Pad Thai
Sitting in the shadows of Thipsaimai, Leung Pha Pad Thai has been around for 40 years serving mostly locals with its charcoal-fired goodness. What really sets this place apart is the use of shrimp fat which lends the noodles their pinkish colour. We worth a visit, even at the expense of its more illustrious neighbour.
Maha Chai Rd., Samran Rat, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok
Open daily 10am-2am
Pad Thai Mae Am
Sometimes all you want is a place that keeps things classic. Walls covered in old photos, no-fuss metals tables and stools set the scene for a pad Thai that’s as old-school as they come. The noodles are tossed in tamarind paste and other seasonings before getting an a la minute refry. At a mere B40, you can have no regrets for doubling your order. Pad Thai Mae Am sits within easy walking distance of Khlong Toei MRT station.
2253/5 Rama 4 Rd., Khlong Toei, Bangkok
Open daily 11am-10pm
Nearest MRT: Khlong Toei
Pad Thai Fai Ta Lu
This Old Town spot comes courtesy of Andy Yang, a Thai-American chef who shot to fame when his Rhong-Tiam restaurant in New York won a Michelin star back in 2009. Far removed from his fine-dining inclinations (Andy also runs the chef’s table restaurant Table 38), this no-frills diner is a celebration of simplicity. What sets the pad Thai here apart from others is the use of quality proteins like Berkshire pork, which is deep-fried until crisp or grilled and served atop your ooey-gooey noods. Prices remain satisfyingly down-to-earth.
115/5 Dinso Rd., Rattanakosin, Bangkok.
Open daily 10am-9pm
Padthai Mae Thong Bai
This Siam Square spot is the modern spin-off of Thong Bai Pochana in Pathum Thani province, a restaurant specialising in pad Thai since 1959. Have your noodles topped with hefty river prawns or crispy pork. Best in town? Maybe not. But a real neighbourhood crowd-pleaser. We actually suggest looking beyond pad Thai to their drool-worthy crab dishes like khao kaprao khod gaam (stir-fried giant crab claw with holy basil or the chunky hot jor ooo (deep-fried crab balls).
432 Siam Square Soi 9, Rama 1 Rd., Siam, Bangkok
Open daily 11am-8pm
Nearest BTS: Siam
Party House One
Take a break from sweating it on the streets with a bite and beverage at Party House One, Siam@Siam Bangkok's eclectic ground-floor eatery. Our version of this iconic dish comes in a slightly unorthodox fashion with all the noodles covered by a golden yellow net of egg. Savoury, sweet, smoky, it ticks all those boxes and more. Level up even further with a liberal squeeze of lime.
Siam@Siam Design Hotel Bangkok, 865 Rama 1 Rd. (Opposite National Stadium)
Open daily 6am-midnight
Nearest BTS: National Stadium