It’s very easy to get swept up in Southeast Asia’s sharable street-food style found in many Thai dishes, but reign yourself in and remember these tips the next time you sit down for a Thai meal.
Credit: Rachel Johnson

Thai food is so very exciting – there are all styles of unique foods prepared in Thai kitchens, and you can find yourself enjoying delectable fried starters, curried fish stews, textured rice noodle dishes, green papaya salads with tangy dressings, or even banana pancakes as a sweet ending.

Thai menus often highlight many different regional influences and endless options for you and your party to nosh on. How do you know exactly which dishes are authentically pleasing and worth your time, and which dishes are caloric pitfalls that aren’t genuine offerings for a true Thai meal?

While there’s no perfect answer, and all Thai restaurants simply could never be lumped together, use your best judgment and the following advice to really narrow down what’s worth your time and dime.

5 Dishes To Skip:

1) Spring Rolls

It’s not to say that there aren’t more authentic, to-die-for adaptations of this often Americanized deep-fried treat. But more often that not, spring rolls can be either prepared frozen varieties that the chef has never even touched or completely indifferent from the Americanized Chinese egg roll. We might take some heat for this, but if you’re really interested in an authentic spring roll without running the risk of eating mass-prepared frozen variations, then make our fresh version at home instead.

2) Fried Rice

Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

Thai fried rice can be a great dish and, if done right, can boast flavors that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean you’re completely free of the places that do simply serve up overbearingly oily downgraded versions of take-out options you could find at any fast-service Asian restaurant. Given that there are so many distinctly diverse and complex dishes one could find on a Thai dining table, opt for other dishes – and if you’re really dying for Southeast Asian fried rice, you can make this waistline friendly version in your own kitchen.

3) Drunken Anything

Drunken noodles might taste amazing, but I think it’s safe to say this isn’t the go-to dish for those in Bangkok, especially when you think of the many other noodle-based dishes that are shining stars on Thai menus. Step outside of your comfort zone and try a new noodle or rice dish and don’t reach for the drunken noodle variety at your Thai establishment. This is definitely something you can pull together at home rather than shamefully ordering at any fine-dining Thai restaurant.

4) Fried With Cheese

Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

Do not fool yourself into believing that the deep-fried cream cheese wonton that you plunge into sticky sweet Thai chili sauce is anything worth your time at a Thai restaurant. There are a slew of street-influenced sharable starters that will really transform your meal, and fried wontons are not part of that package.

5) Fried Ice Cream

Not only is this dish astoundingly overindulgent, but the concept of tempura-fried ice cream originates from Japan – not Thailand. You'd even be better off having the frozen mochi or boba tea iterations probably available at fast-service Thai restaurants, but if you're dining in a upscale Thai restaurant, there's just too many other authentic Thai desserts to nosh on for you to choose this. 

5 Dishes To Order: 

1) Summer Rolls / Fresh Rolls

Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

Summer rolls are jam-packed with fresh julienned blanched vegetables and a parade of fragrant herbs like mint, Thai basil, and cilantro. This appetizing appetizer is a stark contrast from other fried varieties of the heartier spring roll, but the crisp rice noodle wrap is a perfect vehicle for proteins like shrimp. 

2) Massaman Curry 

Credit: Photo: Greg Dupree

This particular variation of Thai curry typically touts peanuts and coconut milk, which add a distinct texture to the dish while accentuating sweeter flavor notes. It's creamy and ultra satisfying when you ladle this curry over rice or even potatoes. 

3) Pla Rad Prik (Fried Red Snapper)

Full-bodied roasted red snapper is often a go-to dish for many at a Southeast Asian restaurant, but the classic Thai fish offering is definitely Pla Rad Prik, which consists of a whole fried fish (yes, head and all). Different restaurants might go for mainstays like striped bass or grouper, but if you have a choice, go for the red snapper. This fish is bathed in a traditional sweet, sour and tangy spicy sauce and is stuffed with intricate delicacies.  

4) Tom Yum Soup

There are many stews and curried soups to choose from on a Thai menu, but tom yum soup stands out given that it's laden with flavors stemming from lime, chiles, a ginger-based galangal and lemongrass. If you add chicken or shrimp to the soup, it's a clean way of enjoying a full-bodied starter so you don't overkill on ordering the main entree. 

5) Pad Thai

Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

Yes, you might find yourself surprised to find that Pad Thai is one dish you simply must have – especially if you find yourself at a fine-dining Thai experience. Some restaurants unfortunately decide to withhold many Thai staple ingredients from the classic Pad Thai dish – pickled radish, bean sprouts, dried shrimp, peanuts, garlic and chives. If you encounter a true rendering of this delicious noodle dish (bonus points if the meal is prepared with vermicelli glass noodles), it's a must-have. Don't freak if the dish is authentically served within a crepe-like encasing made of fried egg, and dive into the Thai condiments that are always served with this mainstay favorite.