Spicy Thai seafood soup: 100 Baht. Shrimp bombs with spicy sauce: 50 Baht. Ice cold soda water 15 Baht.
Total dinner bill for one: $5.30.
Welcome to Soi 38, a wonderful and weird gathering place featuring open seating, mismatched food stalls and food vendors that fire up their push carts every evening near Bangkok’s Thong Lo BTS station.
Soi is “street” in Thai and this popular dining spot is mecca for cultural food crazies and anyone seeking a slice of authentic Thai life. Pad Thai, and Pad See-Eew? $1-2. Duck soup, chicken skewers, endless varieties of noodle soup with barbecued pork – all in the $1 – $3 range. Sticky rice and mango? $1. Tender roast duck on vegetables with pungent dipping sauce? $3 (for the large size…why resist?) Smoothies of all kinds, fresh fruit, sautéed vegetables…it’s all here.
By day, Soi 38 is a quiet street nestled up to a commercial/residential neighborhood. Around 5, vendors swing into action, converting half a city block to a mobile restaurant with folding stainless steel tables, plastic stools and some of the city’s best street food.
Casual and cheap are the operative words for dining on Soi 38. Pick your food from various vendors, find a seat in any open area attached to any restaurant and get ready to chow down. Like human GPS units, the street vendors find their customers and deliver the goods.
The clientele ranges from tourists to motorbike drivers, high-Thais in slick BMWs to sketchy dudes padding their guts before another night feasting on Bangkok’s endless access to excess.
Speaking of excess, I went to Soi 38 on two nights during a recent visit. Some opening arias warrant a reprise.
On the first night, my dinner showed up from three different vendors, each of whom I paid separately upon delivery.
Tucking into the shrimp bombs, I briefly considered a side order of Pad Thai – it’s among the city’s best, in my opinion – but was glad I passed, since I failed to make it through the enormous bowl of seafood soup. Filled with shrimp, calamari, the ubiquitous Thai fish balls and some indescribable (and in my opinion, inedible) cardboard-like glommy fish thing that was chewier than the 10-year-old saltwater taffy my mom used to hoard in her buffet, this steaming bowl of very spicy rice-noodle soup was more than I could handle. I got weird looks when I left half it behind.
There was nary a shrimp bomb left, though. Delicious, deep-fried clumpy bits of dough, generously packed with diced shrimp and dredged in the ever-present spicy sweet Thai sauce. Great for the gullet; not so hot for the heart. Ah, well, it’s Thursday night in Bangkok. What’s a solo traveler to do?
Wait staff here assume a guy like me would want an ice-cold Singha beer (king size only) to accompany this repast, but my preference is for an equally frigid Singha soda water. This staple of every 7-11, restaurant and bar in Thailand has quenched many an intense thirst for me throughout Southeast Asia, and it’s the perfect antidote to the special spiciness of Thai food.
The food is great, but it’s equally enthralling to watch the parade of humanity meandering about. You can instantly suss out the experienced crowd …they point, order and head for a table, leaving the crew to figure out where to bring the food. Newbies falter and lurk street side, uncertain of the proper dining etiquette. Typical of SE Asian hospitality, though, even in a crazy place like this with a short window of sales opportunity, the staff smile and take the time to make sure everyone knows the rules.
Eating street food in Thailand is a national pastime, and Soi 38 a reminder of how much better the food is here than in Cambodia (sorry to my Cambodian friends, but it’s the honest truth.) Nearly everything on Soi 38 I have eaten (and it’s been a bunch of visits over the years) has been fresh, tasty, hot and cheap.
On my second visit to Soi 38 in three days I was the only foreigner in the seating area. Tonight’s feast featured the roast duck on vegetables, which was a generous portion of tender duck with just the right amount of fat perched on a mountain of sautéed morning glory. I added an order of “shrimp balls” ($1) (not among my favorites, but they were sold out of the fried tofu, which is fantastic) and washed it all down with another ice cold soda water. Total bill: 145 baht, or $4.75.
Turnover is brisk and meals are eaten quickly. On both trips I ordered, was served and cleaned the plate within half an hour. This is open-air dining, so it can be hot and a bit sticky. Everyone seems on the move, and so was I.
But I’ll be back.
Go soon. And order the duck.