The scene at Appia, one of Jarrett Wrisley’s Bangkok restaurants. (Photo: Jason Michael Lang)
Pennsylvania-born food writer turned restaurateur, Jarrett Wrisley, has immersed himself in the food culture of Bangkok, opening his first restaurant, Soul Food Mahanakorn, in 2010 and never looking back.
Opening restaurants is a bit of a disease, and I now carry it.
“I always wanted a restaurant,” says Wrisley. “And when I moved to Thailand, I was enamored with the markets, with the sheer array of ingredients, and with the vibrancy of the cuisine. The freshness. The unpredictable nature of flavors and how they fell into balance,” he reminisces.
“And my first (restaurant) was a success, so I caught the bug. Opening restaurants is a bit of a disease, and I now carry it.”
That “bug” inspired a slew of other Bangkok-based restaurants — including a playful spinoff version, Soul Food 555 (“555” translates to “ha-ha-ha”), featuring creative Thai sandwiches and comfort food.
Wrisley then partnered with Italian-born chef Paolo Vitaletti to open a classic Roman trattoria, Appia, fueled mostly with ingredients Wrisley and Vitaletti produce on their own farm outside of Rome, Italy, and then import into Bangkok.
Vitaletti also went to Naples to become certified in Neapolitan pizza-making before the pair opened Peppina (currently with four Bangkok locations), a pizzeria that follows the strict Naples guidelines of Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.
I'm very proud of what's happened in Bangkok over the past 10 years.
Wrisley chatted with Marriott TRAVELER about the diverse and dynamic food scene in Bangkok and gave us the scoop on where to get a taste of it all.
What’s the current food scene in Bangkok like?
It’s incredibly dynamic. I’m very proud of what’s happened in Bangkok over the past 10 years. There are great local Thai restaurants. We have an incredible brigade of people who trained under David Thompson (at Nahm) [and] Chef Ton at Le Du.
The local food is quite amazing. We have a great Indian food scene. We also have a really interesting Middle Eastern food scene because many people from the Middle East come to Bangkok for medical treatment, so we get Yemeni food, Iraqi, Afghan cuisine. Italian is also huge here, and the Japanese scene is strong.
The markets in Thailand are very well-known. Where would you send someone, and what should they try?
I would go to a local wet market near your hotel — I like the Suan Plu market, as it’s where I shopped each day when I was learning to cook Thai. On the Sukhumvit side, the On Nut market is also very clean, large and full of interesting products from across Thailand. And then, you can’t miss the grand dame of Thai markets, Or Tor Kor.
Here is where you’ll find the absolute best produce in Thailand — pristine produce, perfect fruit, dried seafood, rice and coconut cream and coconut sugar, everything really. There’s also a prepared food section in the back with a few good vendors. Point at and eat what looks good, and try the vendors [that] are especially busy.
I think the quality of street food in Bangkok is in a steady decline. It's better in rural Thailand and second cities.
What are some of your must-try restaurants?
You have to go to Nahm if you can afford it and are into fine dining. I think it’s the best restaurant in the country; what David Thompson and his head chef, Prin, do at that restaurant is nothing short of incredible. Every meal is eye-opening.
Khua Kling Pak Sod is great for spicy southern Thai.
Gaggan consistently wins awards for its modern take on Indian food. It’s the titan of the Indian food scene [in Bangkok].
Sühring is a modern German place. The food is delicious. Jidoriya Kenzou for delicious yakitori. I also really dig Mitsumori of Tokyo for incredibly precise, handmade soba, tofu, good grilled meats and shabu. Le Du — Chef Ton is one of Thailand’s most exciting new chefs.
Eighty Twenty — A newcomer on the edge of Chinatown riffing on both Western and Thai flavors and techniques in a cool, colonial space.
I also like my own restaurants: Appia for true Roman food and Peppina for Neapolitan pizza.
What about street food?
I like Talaat Nang Leong for lunch, in the old town. Also, Jay Fai on Thanon Mahachai for expensive but delicious noodles. But overall, I think the quality of street food in Bangkok is in a steady decline. It’s better in rural Thailand and second cities.
What’s exciting for you about the future of food in Bangkok?
The development of Thai food is always the most exciting. The product and produce from Thailand is so incredible. There are really interesting producers of food getting into free range pork, organic foods. The best thing that’s going to happen is great Thai chefs upping the ante and making really true and delicious Thai food.