Street Food – cheap meal or Michelin star gourmet delight?

The exquisite aroma of grilled chicken and fish attracts customers to this street vendor’s open bar-b-que cart in Pattaya.

Street food is an integral part of Thai food culture. It sure to be one of the tempting attractions for tourists in Thailand and one of the best ways to experience authentic Thai food. Locals and foreigners alike love street food since it’s convenient, cheap and delicious. There is no shortage of choice for fresh, made-to-order Thai food straight from the street food carts or small street-side eateries.

Street food comes in many forms, it could be a humble cart on the side of the road, several stalls in a local market or a traditional shophouse that has tables spilling out onto the pavement. You will find a high concentration of street food vendors in busy areas and markets. Practically, every soi (street) is dotted with street food carts selling anything from mouth burning somtum (papaya salad) to sweet delicious banana pancakes and ice cream.

Many of these dishes are a fundamental part of the Thai food culture and some foods are indicative of their origins, from Isaan to the South. From dawn until late at night, vendors can be found at every corner preparing everything from hot off the grill options to ice cream from their custom-made carts on the street-side. They usually specialize in particular types of dishes and the vendors can be seen busily stir-frying in large woks, pounding green papaya, grilling meat skewers or boiling noodles.

Supinya Junsuta, a 75-year-old only chef wears her “signature goggles” and does all of the cooking by herself in the open-air kitchen.

The carts themselves are often a part of the charm, regularly as inventive and colorful as the food being made. Shop houses fall into the category of “street food” since many have kitchens or seating areas extending onto the sidewalk, but they usually provide greater consistency and better hygiene than the street stalls.

In recent years, street food has begun to graduate from being street-side food carts to joining the ranks of the Michelin Guide. Michelin ranks restaurants with stars or a spot on the Bib Gourmand list which is less prestigious than a star. Bid Gourmand includes a more diverse mix of dining options at affordable prices. The Bib Gourmand distinction, symbolized by the famed ‘Bibendum’ or ‘Michelin Man’ licking his lips, is awarded to eateries that offer quality cuisine carefully prepared and reasonably priced with very good value-for-money at a maximum of THB 1,000 (a three-course meal: starter, main course, and dessert – exclusive of beverage).

Tourists and residents prefer to sit outdoors on the street to bask in the warm weather and enjoy a delicious meal at an affordable price.

Since the arrival of the Michelin Guide in Thailand, the only street food eatery awarded with a Michelin Star is Jay Fai; a roadside eatery that specializes in popular Thai food like khai jeaw poo (crab omelet), tom yum (hot and sour soup), and pad kee mao (stir-fried drunken noodles). It was first awarded a one-Michelin star rating in 2018 and has retained the enviable status since then. Jay Fai was one of the seventeen restaurants chosen for the first-ever Michelin Guide of Bangkok. In announcing the selections, Michelin said “Bangkok has learnt how to successfully offer many kinds of international cooking styles without giving up its own food heritage”

Located in Phra Nakhon, Bangkok, Jay Fai was founded in the 1980s by Supinya Junsuta, a 75 years old only chef at the restaurant. She wears her “signature goggles” and does all of the cooking by herself in the open-air kitchen. Jay Fai, like many other street eateries serves a variety of Thai dishes in simple surroundings. It is one of only two street-food eateries in the world that currently holds a Michelin star. Expect to stay in the queue for couple of hours to get a seat in the famed little eatery and pay as much as Baht 1,200 for chef Supinya’s famous khai jeaw poo.

No matter where you are in Thailand, you will always come across a lovely Isaan lady preparing the mouth-watering Somtum by the roadside.

Though many local street food vendors aren’t concerned about getting a Michelin star, some have revamped their shop houses eyeing for an award themselves. The bar has been raised in terms of food quality, innovation, hygiene and service standards. Michelin has not disappointed; rewarding with a Bib Gourmand mention to several street food vendors and stalls who have met with the stringent criteria.

In the 2022 Michelin Bib Gourmand selection, 133 restaurants and street food establishments are featured including 39 street food establishments in Bangkok. Notably, there are total of 108 under the “Street Food” category outnumbering the “Restaurant” category; in Bangkok (39 street food establishments and 32 restaurants and in Ayuthaya (6 street food establishments and 4 restaurants). Of course, there are 108 Bid Gourmand selections and hundreds of other wannabe stars scattered around Thailand and its worth doing some research and visiting these trending street food eateries for a delicious meal at an affordable price.

Undoubtedly, Thai street food has evolved and earned an international reputation since entering the Michelin Guide and Michelin has unearthed some hidden culinary gems in Bangkok and other Michelin listed destinations; Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Phang-Nga while Pattaya is yet to enter the coveted list.

Ranjith Chandrasiri is a veteran hotelier, food and wine connoisseur, multilinguist with a wealth of knowledge and international hotel management experience in luxury hotels and iconic brands including InterContinental Hotels Group in Europe, Australia, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. He is the Chairman of Sirius Hospitality Consulting in Thailand, former Group General Manager of Jetwing Hotels Group, Sri Lanka and Royal Cliff Hotels Group, Thailand, Founder/President of Royal Cliff Wine Club and deVine Wine Club, Bailli Honoraire (Honorary President) of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, Pattaya, Thailand.