Where can you find the best Thai food? Balanced on an unsteady table next to a box of chopsticks, or under the chilled bliss of central air-conditioning with fan-shaped napkins by its side? Emma Rosenberg takes the Food challenge. Photo by Nick McGarth.

There’s a saying that when dining in Bangkok it’s best to stay close to the pavements and avoid anything resembling Thai ambience – the cheaper the food, the better the taste, the more limited the menu, the fresher the food. But is it true? AsiaLIFE tried out three beloved Thai dishes – pad thai noodles, chicken green curry and tom yum soup – first at a high-end Thai restaurant and then at a low-end joint to see if we could taste the difference.

PAD THAI
Baan Khanitha, a teak-wood restaurant boasting authentic Thai cuisine with the tagline “definitely your best choice”, is an odd locale for pad thai, which is often wrapped like a parcel in wax paper and dripping with day-old oil. Served on ceramic turquoise dishes by English-speaking waiters in traditional Thai clothes, Baan Khanitha’s Pad Thai Kung Sod (B210++) is fresh and colourful, with green onion and bean sprouts hailing from an organic farm in Khao Yai and a generous helping of shrimp. In an attempt to take the street-food dish up a notch, large dried shrimp encased in fried batter are strewn throughout, adding a distracting layer of texture.

The eponymous pad thai at the family-owned Pad Thai corner restaurant is a haphazard mush of noodles, egg, and tofu tossed in an outdoor wok, with an indulgent handful of palm sugar making this verge on dessert territory (B50). The flavours are not as pure and unalloyed as at Baan Khanitha, but the dish as a whole has a clearer sense of purpose.

Fine Dining 0 The Street 1
Baan Khanitha, 36/1 Soi Sukhumvit 23, Tel: 02 258 4181; 69 South Sathorn Rd., Sathorn, 02 675 4200-1, www.baan-khanitha.com. Open 11am to 11pm.
Pad Thai, Corner of Soi 2, Phahonyotin 7, Tel: 02 270 1553. Open 10am to 14pm, closed Sundays.

GEENG KIEOW WAAN GAI
If an authentic Thai restaurant requires cascading waterfalls and miniature Thai pagodas, then Naj, housed in an aristocratic family’s former estate, is the real deal. With a live classical Thai dancer twirling in the corner and a constant stream of burning incense, the focus is far from food. Green curry, chicken, beef, pork, or vegetarian, is only one of the numerous options on a menu spanning every region of Thailand, each dish subject to a chilli rating system, from mild to very hot. The gaeng kieow waan gai (chicken green curry, B180++) comes in a plain green bowl, a surprising front of modesty for a restaurant that serves pomelo salad out of a carved pomelo basket. Despite the droves of foreigners with feeble palates, the curry is appropriately spicy – a pleasant companion to the jasmine white or brown rice served out of a wicker sueng.

At Ocha Rod, a popular kap khao (with rice) stand inside the Talad Ruamsab lunch tent, there’s an absence of Thai silk pillows – cafeteria-style seating accommodates the 12 o’clock mass exodus of office workers. Food is steaming hot, ready-to-serve, and rationed in prudent moderation. The green curry, ladled out of an industrial sized spoon, is thin and mild, the spice condiments a necessary addition. The dark meat on the bone and squares of congealed chicken blood dominate the plate, a delicacy for some but not for all.

Fine Dining 1 The Street 1
Naj Exquisite Thai Cuisine, 42 Convent Road (Opposite BNH Hospital), Tel: 02 632 2811 3, www.najcuisine.com. Open 11.30am to 2.30pm and 5.30pm to 11.30pm.
Ocha Rod (Delicious Taste), Block 11G Talad Ruamsab, Soi Sukhumvit 21. (Next to Midtown Asoke). Tel: 08 1297 1041. Open Monday to Friday, 7am to 3pm.

TOM YUM
Tom yum has found its way onto everything, from potato chips to pizza. The addictive flavour is sweet and sour – a healthy marriage between polar opposites. At Patara, a dimly lit restaurant inside the stark walls of a house, the tom yum kung is spicy enough to offset the arctic air-conditioning. But the communal joy of the hot pot is lost – the individual bowls (each B195++) arrive as a preamble to the entrée. The small serving is a medley of fresh ingredients, with tender shrimp, whole shallots, and unexpected slivers of coconut meat. Chilli oil floats to the top, giving the soup the look of a gas spill, but the effect is delicate, erring on the side of sour.

Ton Muang Lop, a street food stall tucked beside the Ratchatewi BTS, serves tom yum to share (B110 for small, B150 for large). The cramped outdoor kitchen is a mass production, employing a team of servers and creating a cloud of cooking smoke. The in-the-gutter ambience does not arouse an appetite – the air too hot to notice any urban fauna scurrying under your feet. The soup is creamy, though thinner in taste than Patara’s, with mounds of oyster mushrooms and a smiling shrimp to be headed and deveined at your leisure.

Fine Dining 2 The Street 1
Patara Fine Thai Cuisine, 375 Soi Thonglor 19 (Sukhumvit Soi 55), Tel: 02 185 2960, www.patarathailand.com.
Open 11.30am to 2.30pm and 6pm to 11pm.
Ton Muang Lop (Monkey Kitchen), Exit 3 of Ratchatewi BTS on Phaya Thai Rd., Tel: 08 516 05414. Open 6pm to 1am, except the 2nd and 3rd Monday of every month.