One of Bangkok's best treats is all the fresh meat you can find on its streets.

One of Bangkok’s best treats is all the fresh meat you can find on its streets.

There is a lot to love about Thailand, and a lot for visitors to be wary of too. Many get the two confused. Despite, for example, the fame of The Grand Palace Is Closed scam, a perennial favorite in Bangkok, visitors flock to the shoddy gem emporiums and cut-rate, guaranteed to last until the first dry-cleaning tailor shops that are the important part of your 25 baht, 3 Temple Tour that some kind local clued you into since your day at the palace came up trumps. Those same touri wouldn’t be caught dead eating food from a street cart, usually out of fear that doing so will wind up with them being dead.

Granted, the streets of Bangkok are not exactly what you would call hygienic. And even the more popular food carts often look even less so. Add in that the gods only know what in the hell that stuff they are cooking is, and a lot of visitors decide to give dining in the streets a pass. To their great loss. For me, when you say Thailand, one of the first pictures that enters my mind is that of aromatic meats sizzling on a grill, lovingly watched over by some local vendor in the dark of the night. And then my stomach starts growling, my mouth begins to water. And I haven’t even thought of the guys in the gogo bars yet.

Personally, I’m of the eat first ask what it is later school of street food cart dining. After your mouth is filled with wondrous tastes, that you just chowed down on pig neck doesn’t sound as bad as it should. And in some cases, it’s better to just not ask at all. Exactly what was stuffed inside that sausage casing is not something you really need to know. Even back home you’d never let your lips touch a hot dog if you really thought about what it was made of. What is safe to assume, however, is that if it looks like meat and is being barbequed over an open flame on the streets of Bangkok, it’s either pork or chicken. Thais have an obsession with pig and chicken. And yes, that does mean you’ll occasionally run across treats like grilled chicken feet, but that doesn’t mean that everything else that vendor sells too is parts of a pig or chicken that you’d discard instead of thinking about cooking back home. Even if you are from the south. Well, actually it probably does. But if you try it first, before you know what it is, you’ll probably agree that crispy grilled chicken anus is actually damn tasty. If a bit chewy.

There are a lot of exotic treats to dine on in Thailand, but much of what is available on the streets will be familiar to you too.

There are a lot of exotic treats to dine on in Thailand, but much of what is available on the streets will be familiar to you too.

Most street food carts specialize in a single dish. And there are some pretty extraordinary culinary treats served up on Bangkok’s street daily. For newbies, however, I generally prefer starting them off with barbeque; it at least looks like something they are familiar with. And at 10 – 20 baht per serving if they don’t like it, it’s no big loss. Spitting out what they just put in their mouth doesn’t happen often though. When it does, it usually means they picked the wrong cart or the wrong piece of meat. So here’s two tips: First, eat where the locals do. It’s not like anywhere you find a cart serving grilled meats that you won’t see another one just a few steps away. Some, especially in tourist areas, are geared to sell to the unsuspecting and use the cheapest meats they can buy. Locals can tell from just looking if a pork ball is heavy on pork or heavy on filling. So get in line behind those who know. Second, there is nothing wrong with you deciding which skewer of meat you want. In fact locals seldom allow the vendor to make that selection for them. And if the skewer you want looks like it has been off the grill for a while, just pick it up and place it back on the barbeque to reheat. No one will bat an eye.

Barbeque is also a good first timer’s choice for those worried about how sanitary the cooking facilities may be. There are no plates or cutlery to worry about being cleaned, and fire pretty well kills off harmful bacteria. And after an evening of eating grilled meats, their stomach won’t allow them to be quite as picky over hygienic standards when you move them up to full plates of food later. Generally the meat cooked at street food carts is fresh. At least it was that morning. Most vendors hit their neighborhood fresh market in the morning and only buy the amount of ingredients that they anticipate using in a given day. Street vendors don’t like to carry a lot of over-head; most cannot afford to so. Most carts work the morning, lunch, dinner, or late-night crowds too; few set up shop for the entire day. So usually whatever is being cooked was still fresh just before it hit the grill. As in killed that morning. Which you can’t say about the meat at your local Piggly Wiggly back home.

I’m a jump in with both feet, total immersion kinda guy and think the best intro to street cart dining is to find the most disgusting looking dish possible and start chowing down. ‘Cuz it’s all up hill from then on in. But you may find that idea a bit hard to swallow. Literally. So for now, let’s start with what clucks or oinks. Or did earlier that day until an axe rudely interrupted their conversation. We’ll wait for those things that stare back at you for your advanced street cart dining lessons.

Soi Twilight's gogo bars are not the only place in town you'll find a tasty line of balls on display.

Soi Twilight’s gogo bars are not the only place in town you’ll find a tasty line of balls on display.

Little chunks of chicken on bamboo skewers are an ubiquitous offering at Bangkok street food carts. It’s a good choice to start with ‘cuz its almost identifiable. And you’ll think it tastes like chicken. Thanks to its lovely, smoky duskiness from the charcoal, and the slightly sweet garlicky barbeque sauce, I think it tastes like a little slice of heaven in your mouth.

Possibly even more popular are pork balls, although there are two different versions offered on Bangkok’s streets. Both are delicious, and if you are traveling with urban lesbians who know little about balls and less about meat they’ll believe you when you tell them those are pig testicles. That just means more for you. Usually, if the vendor sells chicken skewers they’ll have pork balls on a skewer too. This version is called nam and it’s made from pork, garlic, chilies, salt, and sticky rice, all fermented and encased in pig skin. Slightly sour, nam is popular and widely available throughout the country, although there are many different types of nam and it is cooked in a number of different ways. For now, stick with the grilled skewered ball version, and try it at several different spots ‘cuz the secret often is in the vendor’s homemade barbeque sauce.

When those sumptuous little balls are hanging in pretty rows instead of pierced by bamboo skewers, you’re in for a real treat. Not to mention a salute to Joni Ernst’s farm days. Filled with a mixture of ground pork, spices, and glass noodles, these freshly made sausage balls are mouth-watering delicious. They’re made by pushing the filling into a sausage casing as deep as the first joint of the thumb and then tightly wrapped with a white string around the outside, which turns them into one-inch, bite-sized balls, formed together in a long line.

The entire strand of sausage balls is grilled over hot charcoal. For each individual order, the vendor cuts a length of sausage balls from the strand and then snips the balls apart. Which is where Joni Ernst’s favorite pastime comes into play. Yours is walking away with a bag full of sausages bites drizzled with a mildly spicy sweet chili sauce and a bamboo skewer to spear each delectable piece into your mouth as quickly as possible. Then repeat as necessary.

Thai fried chicken vendors will give the Colonel a well deserved bitch slap every time.

Thai fried chicken vendors will give the Colonel a well deserved bitch slap every time.

Street food cart dining can be an educamational experience too. A good lesson in how Thais perceive the world is the choice many make between a nice piece of freshly slaughtered and plucked chicken grilled over an open flame – that creates a lovely flavorful glaze over the meat, coating it in sweet saltiness – and a piece of two-month-old frozen chicken coated in a disgusting batter of odd, mysterious spices that even the manufacturer won’t cop to, that has been sitting under a heat lamp for an hour and costs ten times what that fresh piece of chicken does.

In my opinion, KFC is what the south inflicted on the rest of the country in revenge for losing the Civil War. To Thais, KFC is all about status. They’ll walk right past a freshly grilled chicken stand to line up for the pleasure of dropping their entire week’s food allowance to sup on The Colonel’s revenge. This is one time you should not follow that when in Rome do as the Romans do advice. ‘Cuz when a Thai is hungry and not just out to impress, he’ll go for the freshly barbequed chicken every time too.

If your pallet is a bit more refined, you can also find chicken skewers filled with perfectly roasted livers (tab gai), and chicken gizzards (guen) which are a bit more chewy but lots more flavorful. There’s nang gai (chicken skin) too which is zero meat and all skin, just in case your system is missing all that fat you are used to eating back home. Local street chefs will also take it a step further and serve you that which the chicken used to step up to the chopping block, but ordering chicken feet might still be a bit beyond your personal Ewwww level. And then the next thing ya know those bowls of crunchy grasshoppers might start looking good.

Forget about spotting a pair of golden arches, in Bangkok the real treat is found under a cloud of aromatic barbeque smoke.

Forget about spotting a pair of golden arches, in Bangkok the real treat is found under a cloud of aromatic barbeque smoke.

Ditto for kor moo yang, which is grilled pork neck. But this is one of those treats that you’ll love if you don’t know what it is you’re putting in your mouth. Often displayed as a piece of steak, usually the vendor will slice yours into tiny, thin pieces that can be dipped into the accompanying barbeque sauce. But it too can be extremely fatty. So feel free to dig through the pile and pick out those pieces that have the most meat on them.

Grilled pork (moo ping) is also a popular breakfast treat on Bangkok’s streets, and beats the hell out of a bowl of oatmeal. It’s worth getting out of bed early for. These bite-sized cuts of pork are marinated in a sauce of coconut milk, dark soy sauce, garlic, palm sugar, and oyster sauce, then grilled over fiery charcoals until the meat begins to caramelize. I don’t know why it is that you can only find this treat during the early morning hours, but stumble out of bed and look for the closest cloud of barbeque smoke . . . you’ll be glad you did.

Almost as tricky to find is what Thais have done to the Malaysian/Indonesian dish known as satay. In Thailand it goes moo, not because it’s beef instead of the traditional chicken, but because locally it’s known as moo satay. And it’s pork. Whatevers. It’s onolishess, and that’s all that matters.

Maybe it's the exhaust fumes, but nothing tastes as delicious as freshly barbequed meat served piping hot off the streets of Bangkok.

Maybe it’s the exhaust fumes, but nothing tastes as delicious as freshly barbequed meat served piping hot off the streets of Bangkok.

What makes pork satay even more special than other types of Thai barbequed meats is its curry marinade. It infuses an herbal aroma into the meat, as well as turning the pork the color of turmeric. Most satay sellers in Bangkok never put big chunks of meat on a skewer, but just tiny curls of the grilled pork instead. Which is perfect for dunking the pork in its rich peanut sauce before slipping the entire conglomeration into your mouth. And if that doesn’t put a big smile on your face, you probably should have headed for Burger King instead. Preferably one back home.