We all think we know something about Thai food before we visit Thailand for the first time. Not many cities exist in the modern world lack a favorite hole in the wall Thai kitchen with “the real Thai flavors and taste.” Menus in the West, particularly those in the U.S., read like an all star selection of Thai dishes that you’ll never see Thai people eat. Penang, pad thai, and a poorly executed version of sticky rice lead people’s perceptions of the flavors of Thai cuisine.
All that we thought we knew about Thai food vanishes when we finally visit and eventually stumble across Isan food. Well, we should be clear; we’re talking solely about Isan food edible to those who did not grow up in Northeast Thailand. Once the clean, yet sharp and spicy flavors of the freshest Thai basil hit your tongue from eating street-stall larb, your perception of Thai cooking will broaden wider than you imagined possible.
The problem is finding the right place to sample native dishes for the first time. Isan food is best from a dirty, nasty building that may double as a garage, or in on the street served on plates washed in rat water. Well not really, but that’s where the best values are found. We wouldn’t recommend sampling too many of these if it’s your first visit to Bangkok or you don’t have a local to show you around. You’ll need someplace that’s authentic but also clean enough so that the next day or two isn’t spent shelling out Bt2 coins to the bathroom attendants at MBK.
Lookeast has been a long time fan of Hai restaurant’s somtum and grilled chicken on Soi Convent near the Sala Daeng BTS station on Silom Road. Flavors pass the locals test, it’s open seven days a week, and Hai has managed to serve some of the consistently best som tum and gai yang (grilled chicken) you can find. And with this all for under $10 for four people, it’s hard to find fault in recommending.
But then we heard about Somtum Der, a new somtam-centric Isan place in close proximity to our established favorite. We walked by and saw the hip, but not too posh, location and immediately worried. Typically, the nicer the restaurant you eat Thai food, the less “Thai” it begins to taste. Still, there are some fantastic high-end Thai places we’ll cover in an article. So we reluctantly traded an afternoon lunch at Hai for Somtum Der to see if the new addition to the block would replace our local favorite for the place to recommend newbies for a first forkful of a Bangkok meal?
It was another rainy Bangkok day, so we skipped the outdoor patio and headed indoors to the air-conditioned room. We took a quick glance at the menu and decided to match things up with Hai in terms of my favorite “safe-bets” of people-pleasing Isan dishes.
First out was the chicken. This wasn’t the clean grilled chicken of Hai, but rather gai tohdt (fried chicken). Somtum Der’s fried chicken isn’t overly deep fried, but with a nice crispy crunch that gives way to moist chicken. Topped with the sweet and slightly spicy orange sauce and you’ve got a classic flavor combo loved in pretty much any culinary tradition involving chickens since the dawn of frying.
And even though I’m a Texan by birth, I must tip my hat in favor of Somtum Der’s wonderful varieties of Thai fried chicken. Fried and grilled chicken are not apples for apples, so I’ll give this round a tossup as it’s never fair to compare fried anything to un-fried. Next out to the table was a larb pla duk or catfish larb. Larb is becoming more widely known among Westerners, but like Vietnamese pho (pronounced “phu”) will have its pronunciation butchered by those claiming to know the real way to say it. Hai’s was the first place I sampled this variation of the dish and that version became my benchmark. Somtum Der’s is fresher, cleaner, and has less stray bones. A clear winner.
Finally, the signature dish is the namesake for both restaurants. We went with the basic somtum Thai, so we could gauge the clean flavors of the dish without fancy ingredients, though Somtum Der does have around 15 versions to taste. It was good, but I find it hard to mess up somtum, and everyone will favor something slightly different than another. Maybe you prefer salted egg or extra crabs or more tiny prawns. I’m calling a win for Hai on somtum Thai, but a win for Somtum Der on the varieties of somtum.
So it looks like Somtum Der is the new favorite. It is cleaner, has mostly better food, and is just as conveniently located. But it’s not really a direct comparison. There are still other dishes available at one but not the other. If anything, one can be stop the day after the other as the flavors of both are worth exploring. Somtum Der also loses slightly in the price and value category as a meal for two at Hai comes in a good Bt100 cheaper and you get larger portions. But, we think many would gladly give the extra Bt100 to eat food at Somtum Der that’s fresher than Hai’s and enjoy it in clean, air-conditioned comfort.
We recommend it to anyone new to Thailand or anyone living here that needs a great meeting spot for lunch. Whatever you choose will be an authentic, though slightly small plates of food will be sure to obliterate how authentic you think your home food is. Sure there’s probably better places tucked into side alleys along Bangkok’s more obscure streets, but Somtum Der is pretty close, and sometimes convenience becomes a factor for my stomach.
5/5 Saladaeng Road Silom, Bangrak Tel: 02-632-4499
Monday to Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.