In Short: No trip to Bangkok, Thailand would be complete without trying the famous Thipsamai Pad Thai. Get there early in the evening, otherwise wait times for a table could exceed an hour. You must try the orange juice, it’s the best orange juice you will ever drink!
We were on holiday in Bangkok and debating on what to eat on our last night there. We had already come to the conclusion you could not do Bangkok’s food scene justice in just a few days. But, we couldn’t leave without paying homage to Thailand’s national noodle dish, and try the best Pad Thai in Bangkok. When we asked where that might be, the general feedback is that it is a subjective question as people’s taste would vary, but majority of people recommended a little restaurant named Thipsamai.
Rice and noodles were first introduced to the Thai people during the Ayutthaya Kingdom period by the Chinese traders visiting the country, and ever since their consumption has continued throughout Thailand’s history. But during World War II, there was a rice shortage in the country and to help solve that issue, Thai people were asked by the government under Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhramthe, to cut back. People looked to creative ways to cook their noodles, and low and behold, Sen Chan (named after the Chanthaburi Province where the recipe originated) or Pad Thai (as we know it today), was created.
In its purest form, Pad Thai is a simple stir-fried rice noodle dish with tofu and bean sprouts, flavoured with basic ingredients that are easily available in every Thai household, that includes sugar, tamarind, dried shrimp, and fish sauce. This dish is known as the ‘common man’s food’, and since it is so easy and economical to make, it quickly became the dish popularly associated with Thai cuisine. Over time the dish has evolved with the addition of protein, like chicken or pork, and at Thipsamai, giant prawns and crab meat.
Intrigued, we decided to try Thipsamai for ourselves. The restaurant is located in Maha Chai Road in Central Bangkok. Pad Thai Thipsamai, or Pad Thai Pratu Pi as it is known to locals, translates to “Ghost Gate Pad Thai” which is where the original stall was set up. Founded in 1939 by Khun Samai and her husband, the restaurant has a story that is closely intertwined with the country’s history. Today, the restaurant is run by Khun Samai’s son, Dr. Sikarachat, who upon his mother’s passing, took over the family business. After completing his studies, Dr. Sikarachat introduced operational improvements that allowed it to expand and grow into the famous restaurant that it is today.
The restaurant itself operates from 5:00pm to 2:00am daily, but people start queueing as early as 30 minutes prior to opening time. We arrived at around 6:15pm and the first thing that greeted us was the 50 metre long queue outside the shop! The good news is that there are little push-cart vendors peppered along the street where the queue forms, which will allow you to get a quick bite or dessert while waiting in line for the main attraction. There is also a 7-Eleven store across the road, which I observed some people sneaking out to grab a quick beer or cold drink while their dining companions wait in the queue. All this helps to make the wait and anticipation, a little more bearable.
While waiting for a seat allocation, you can also watch the chef performing the art of encasing the Pad Thai noodles in the egg wrap for their signature Superb Pad Thai outside the restaurant over charcoal stoves. It’s a performance not to be missed, as it is all done in under 3 seconds!
We were allocated a seat in the air conditioned section of the restaurant and presented with a menu. Thipsamai specialises in one dish, Pad Thai, done in 8 different ways for everyone’s different tastes. Their Pad Thai noodles are nothing like the overly sweet, greasy, gooey noodle dish that we have come to associate with Thai restaurants abroad. It all begins with the delicious chewy Chan noodles sourced from the Chanthaburi Province, that are seasoned and stir-fried to perfection, that forms the base of every option on the menu. For some options, you can change your noodle type to glass noodles, and there is a vegetarian option too.
Coco and Viner Sacha decided to try Thipsamai’s Padthai with shrimp oil, fresh deep-sea prawns, and egg. The Chan noodles are seasoned with all the traditional Pad Thai flavours of tamarind, fish sauce, and sugar and then topped with shrimp oil and fresh, deep-sea prawns and egg. The flavours of the noodles are the perfect balance of saltiness from the fish sauce, acidity from the tamarind, and just a touch of sweetness, flavoured by the umami-ness of the fragrant shrimp oil. The prawns were also huge and fresh, adding an extra punch of flavour to the overall dish. Needless to say, Sacha finished the noodles to the very last strand!
As for me, I decided to up the quotient and try Thipsamai’s Pad Thai Song – Krueng, which is the same signature Pad Thai with the glass noodles option and in addition to the prawns, there is crab meat from the Suratthani province, dried squid slices, and sliced mango. When the dish was presented, you could hardly see the noodles for the accompaniments piled in circular, separate segments. Dig inside the top layer to reveal the noodles below, and mix it up for that even flavour of each element with each mouthful. The prawns were fresh and plump, and the seafood flavours is definitely more intense and prominent than the Superb Pad Thai, with the addition of sweet delicate crab meat and shreds of dried squid. With the slightly pickled flavours of the sliced green mangos, you might say that this is more than just a simple roadside dish, one that is elevated to a level that is fitting for Royal Thai cuisine.
Besides Pad Thai, every Thipsamai patron had bottles of their in-house orange juice to go with their meal. The orange juice is made daily with locally sourced oranges, mixed with lime juice. The end result is a pulpy juice that is equal parts sweet and tangy. Served ice cold, it is the perfect beverage to accompany our meal.
If you are like me and can’t get enough of the Thipsamai experience, you can purchase their sauces in satchel or bottles and attempt to re-create it back home. You may not get the same charcoal flavours, or the delicate egg wrap technique around the noodle, but at least you have the shrimp oil base sauce which is delicious for making any fried noodle or fried rice dish.
To get here on your next trip to Bangkok, note that the restaurant is not easily accessible by public transport as it is a good 30 minutes’ walk from the nearest train station. You can get there by bus, or boat as it is near the river, but the best thing to do is take a train to Saphan Taksin or Hua Lamphong station, and then take a taxi or tuk tuk to Thipsamai.
If you ask me was it worth the trek and wait? Yes! Without a doubt and I am glad that we made an effort to try out Bangkok’s famous Pad Thai, as thanks to Thipsamai, I now have a whole new benchmark on how this traditional should really taste lik,e and can understand why it is Thailand’s national dish.