FoodThai street food gems: Exploring Michelin's best-kept secrets

Thai street food gems: Exploring Michelin's best-kept secrets

Street food in Thailand is recommended in the Michelin Guide
Street food in Thailand is recommended in the Michelin Guide
Images source: © Private archive

2:59 PM EDT, May 25, 2024

EScratched walls, plastic tableware, and street sounds. The street food ambiance is unique, but it's part of Thailand's culinary tradition, so it has its unique place in the prestigious Michelin Guide. So, I checked out what the "Michelin" food stalls serve, the cheapest among the most prestigious.

In the current Michelin Guide, 95 restaurants in Thailand serve so-called street food, and 60 have received the Bib Gourmand award. This distinction tells us that the place (often a tiny stall) is recognized for the best quality-to-price ratio of the dishes served. Inspectors spend as much time finding these places as they do for those honored with stars. So, I decided to check out what they offer and whether the red plaque works like a magnet.

Thai street food from the Michelin Guide

Like the "star" ones, owners with the Bib Gourmand award also receive the famous red plaques, which they can proudly display on their premises' walls. Moreover, the distinguished places in the guide are adorned with the image of the Michelin Man licking his lips. And not without reason, because above all, the food is delicious. And you can eat to your heart's content, as the prices are unbelievably low.

Street food, by definition, is cheaper and usually revolves around local folklore (though not always). It is served quickly, for takeout or on-site in plastic dishes, and the places themselves or the stalls do not have a typical kitchen background. Thailand is famous for its street food and cooking, which is uncomplicated, simple, easily accessible, and inexpensive. The same food is eaten by random tourists, purposefully visiting foodies, and Thais dropping by for lunch.

Walking the paths of Michelin Guide gems in Thailand, I came across three different and highly characteristic places. In Chiang Mai alone, there are 27 recommended places with the Bib Gourmand distinction, and 13 serve street food. Among these thirteen, I chose the three cheapest, guided by the single dollar symbol in the guide.

Sweet meat dumplings

I first visited Lung Khajohn Wat Ket, a small venue famous for its traditional snacks, which has been operating for decades. The food is served for takeout, and I was presented with two options: steamed dumplings with a sweet-salty filling (resembling Italian ravioli) and tapioca balls with sweet pork. I asked for both. The portions were small but just right to satisfy a slight hunger.

Street Food in Chiang Mai from Michelin Guide
Street Food in Chiang Mai from Michelin Guide© own mat.

Cars and scooters constantly pulled up to the place. The traffic must be heavy because many prepared packages were already waiting on the tables. The interior of Lung Khajohn Wat Ket is like all the others: there is the typical mess of such places, the walls need repainting, and a small fan gives its all to provide a bit of coolness to those working there. But there was something else: the smell, lots of beautiful smells, and great kindness.

The food tasted so unique that it is hard to compare it to anything. The dumplings were delicate and slightly chewy, while the stuffing — though noticeably meaty — had a sweet taste. It was not bland, though. I poured coconut cream, also sweet-salty, over it, which came with the set, and crunched it with a lettuce leaf from the set. The tapioca balls required a bit more jaw work, but the interior was surprising — it was even sweeter but still meaty. The price? One could say it was pocket change — for two packages (photo below), I paid 40 baht. That's about $1.30.

On the right: steamed dumplings with a salty-sweet filling; on the left: tapioca balls with sweet pork
On the right: steamed dumplings with a salty-sweet filling; on the left: tapioca balls with sweet pork© own material

Ribs in all flavors

After a few minutes of walking, I found myself at another street food place that was honored in the Michelin Guide. Guay Jub Chang Moi Tat Mai accepts customers on the spot. The venue is small, and tables and chairs mainly occupy the space. A kitchen counter stands in front with a shelf holding a large piece of crispy pork and a pot of soup, and at the back, there is a "shrine" — a house for spirits (photo below). Thais believe that the spirits of a place, the souls of previous owners, need their corner. Otherwise, one can expect all plagues. Guay Jub Chang Moi Tat Mai seems to be doing quite well — five red plaques are on the wall, indicating the presence of the guide continuously since 2020. Do they work like a magnet? I shared the tables with 10 guests. Considering the middle of the day — that's quite a lot.

A visible ghost house in the back of the premises
A visible ghost house in the back of the premises© own materials

This place is known for its intensely peppered broth with crispy pork and rice noodles. Since I planned to go for soup next, I asked for a different dish—braised ribs with rice. Along with it, I got a bowl of peppery soup. Someone might ask what's unique about braised ribs and boiled rice; that's no big deal. And I must admit, although the ribs were as tender as can be, they were served already peeled and cut.

Ribs with rice
Ribs with rice© own materials

But it's not the ribs we need to discuss here; it's the sauce containing all the Thai flavors I know. Soy sauce, Thai basil, something nutty, sweet, and salty (maybe fish sauce?). I ate very slowly; it was a shame to finish. The broth was highly peppery, and my forehead was sweating so intensely that a lovely lady approached me with a Thai iced tea. The dish cost 80 baht (including the broth and tea), about $2.60. Not much, but such a price can be considered above average in this area.

Guay Jub Chang Moi Tat Mai restaurant recognized by the Michelin Guide
Guay Jub Chang Moi Tat Mai restaurant recognized by the Michelin Guide© mat. własne
Street food in Thailand - local Guay Jub Chang Moi Tat Mai
Street food in Thailand - local Guay Jub Chang Moi Tat Mai© own materials

The best beef in town

Finally, I wandered into Rote Yiam Beef Noodle. And here I found the winner (of course, subjectively). This place has served some of the best beef in town for over 30 years. The meat is usually immersed in beef broth containing a bouquet of Chinese herbs. If someone does not like soup, they can opt for meat in yellow curry with rice. However, I came here for the soup.

Rote Yiam Beef Noodle - a venue recognized by the Michelin Guide
Rote Yiam Beef Noodle - a venue recognized by the Michelin Guide© own materials

I chose a large portion with wide noodles, chopped beef, and beef tongues. The food was served quickly, and I ate it even faster. The taste of the broth was reminiscent of Vietnamese pho but even more vital and meaty, with noticeable refreshing herb notes. The meat, especially the tongues, melted in my mouth, and the crunchiness was provided by fresh bean sprouts. I expected that "the best beef in town" would be pricey. The soup cost 100 baht, just under $3.30. Similar dishes are served here at every turn, and they are even half the price. But could you get such outstanding tongues anywhere else?

Beef Tongue Soup
Beef Tongue Soup© own materials

The interior of Rote Yiam Beef Noodle is a hybrid of a Thai street food place and an antique shop. The most straightforward tables stand on the floor, and under the ceiling, behind the glass of hanging shelves, you can see aged radios resembling wooden boxes. A similar mix greets visitors from the entrance — next to the professional steel counter with a built-in large pot hangs a wooden shelf. Behind the glass, amid dusty photos and souvenirs, the red plaque shines (one of five). Does it magically attract crowds to the place? Besides me, only the employees were there, but judging by the large amount of cooked soup and prepared ingredients, I dare say I was just a warm-up.

Interiors of the street food venue Rote Yiam Beef Noodle from the Michelin Guide
Interiors of the street food venue Rote Yiam Beef Noodle from the Michelin Guide© author's materials
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