If you put 50 Bangkokians in one room and asked them who whips up the city’s best pad thai, or where the best neighborhood for street food is located, or basically asked them anything related to food with the word “best” somewhere in there, you’d likely get 50 different answers.
In this, one of the world’s premier culinary capitals (there’s no debating that), everybody has their personal favorites and everybody is spoiled for choice regardless of where you live or what your budget is. Unless you go out of your way to pursue comfort foods from home at touristy restaurants in touristy areas, it’s truly difficult to find bad food. I’ve eaten out at least twice a day every day for the past 6 months, and can count the number of disappointing meals I’ve had on one hand.
With that in mind, settling on who serves the city’s best som tam, is a particularly unenviable, somewhat impossible task. If Bangkok had a food flag, the emblem would be a plate of som tam next to a small bamboo basket with sticky rice: it’s the unofficial city-wide dish of choice. Everybody eats it regularly or even daily, and again, everybody has their favorite go-to vendor or restaurant. Mine is served at Jae On.
Som Tam Nua, located on Siam Square Soi 5, has racked up the accolades for its som tam for some time now, and is often one of the first places that comes up in “Best Som Tam” discussions; CNNGo Bangkok, whom I write for on occasion, named it a winner its “Best Eats 2010” competition. Locals, especially students from nearby Chulalongkorn University, keep it packed at all hours, always a good sign. I’ve eaten there a few times, and the som tam is definitely tasty; so are the larb salads.
I won’t be going back anytime soon, though. Why?
Because it’s so difficult, and to me somewhat random, to single anybody out in Bangkok for having the best som tam (or pad thai, or…), I think Som Tam Nua’s long list of positive write-ups and reviews have become a self-perpetuating hype machine; in other words, I think it’s become somewhat of a “by-default pick”. Somebody has to have the title, so, well… Som Tam Nua. Okay, let’s move on.
Of course, I’m not discrediting anybody’s personal opinion, nor implying this is the actual decision-making process for anybody covering Som Tam Nua. Again, this place is insanely popular and has been for a long time, and that doesn’t happen in Bangkok unless they’re doing something right. I’m also no expert on what constitutes a perfect balance of acidity or spice, or what makes one papaya’s ripeness better than another’s, etc. I know a som tam is really good or just okay when I taste it.
I just don’t get what makes Som Tam Nua so special, aside from its convenient location for Siam Square shoppers and Chula students. Oh, the som tam is perfectly fine, even delicious, but I can find just-as-delicious som tams elsewhere… and not have to wait nearly an hour to get it. Because of its undying popularity, the queue for a table at this two-floor restaurant usually ranges anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes; on top of that, once you’re sat it takes awhile for all the food to come out. For example, nt recent wait for a one-person table on an early Sunday afternoon was about 25 minutes for the table, then another 30 for the som tam to arrive. Servers always tend to be somewhat inattentive.
Put 50 Bangkokians in the same room who’ve dined at Som Tam Nua, ask them if it lives up to the hype, and you’ll get a range of responses and rationale. For me, the interminably long wait, so-so service, and som tams on par with other delicious som tams available from hundreds of other street vendors and restaurants make it one of the most overrated restaurants in Bangkok.
Som Tam Nua, 392/14 Soi 5, Siam Square, +66 2 251 4880
Photos credit and copyright Brian Spencer