Though you might not want to travel all the way to Northeast Thailand just to sample the cuisine, you'd really be missing out on what the country is all about if you didn't try some som tam and sticky rice while you were here. Luckily Isan food is everywhere! It's cheap, easy to find and usually very tasty, too.
1. Street FoodIsan food is one of Bankok's most popular street foods and it's usually easy to find a vendor making som tam. Look for a big clay mortar and piles of shredded green papaya. When you order som tam outside make sure you specify how spicy you want it as vendors in non-touristy areas are often used to making dishes pet pet (super spicy).
2. Somtam NuaThis cafeteria style restaurant in trendy Siam Square offers about a dozen different spicy salads, as well as other Isan dishes such as larb moo and fried chicken. Dishes are solid and the restaurant attracts a mostly local crowd. Somtam Nua is very popular and bustling so expect brisk and brusque service but a long line to get your table.
- Address: 392/14 Siam Square Soi 5, Tel. +66 2251-4880
- Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
3. Cafe de LaosIf you are looking for classic Isan fare in a more upscale environment then Cafe de Laos is a great choice. The old house off of busy Silom Road is a refreshing, peaceful change of pace and an elegant place to enjoy otherwise humble and unpretentious fare.
- Address: 16 Silom Soi 19, Tel. +66 2635 2338
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily (closed between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.)
4. Vientiane KitchenFor traditional Isan fare and nightly live music, check out this restaurant off of Sukhumvit Road. The mostly al fresco seating under a large, thatched roof dining room and the leafy grounds are very rustic, similar to what you'd find back in Isan. The food is traditional and the menu offers, in addition to the typical Isan favorites, some more obscure dishes that cater to more adventurous palates (duck beaks, anyone?). Though Vientiane Kitchen attracts a fair number of tourists, it's still a fun place to visit.
- Address: 8 Sukhumvit Soi 36, Tel. +66 2258 6171
5. Balee LaosThis is of Bangkok's popular Lao/Isan joints and is conveniently located off of Sukhumvit Road at the end of Soi 16. The casual restaurant has a leafy, green garden area with outdoor seating and an air conditioned dining room inside. The menu has a wide variety of classic Isan dishes and the atmosphere is comfortable but special enough to be considered a "nice" restaurant. The food sometimes gets criticized for not being spicy and flavorful enough but if you're not a veteran chili eater, you'll probably find it plenty hot and vibrant!
- Address: 186/8 Sukhumvit Soi 16, Tel. +66 2663 1051
- Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily
6. Jay Kee's Fried ChickenWhile the focus of this restaurant is, not surprisingly, on fried chicken, it's an Isan joint at heart, with lots of Isan dishes including larbs, nam tons, Isan sausage and sticky rice. Oh, and the fried chicken (served with a heaping portion of fried garlic) is, on a good day, divine. It's served with two kinds of sauces, one sweet and one smokey but both hot and spicy! The dining room is very humble but quite crowded most days and evenings. If you're coming with a big group, make sure to call in advance to reserve a table.
- Address: 137/1–3 Soi Polo, Wireless Rd., Tel. +66 2251 2772
- Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily