Chefs reveal the best and worst things to order at a Thai restaurant

Sophia Mitrokostas
·6 min read
pad thai
It can be difficult to choose what to order off of a Thai menu. Brian Yarvin/Shutterstock
  • Insider talked to chefs to find out the best and worst foods to order at Thai restaurants.

  • Dishes like pad thai and glass-noodle salad are delicious Thai staples.

  • They don't recommend common appetizers like dumplings or fried Thai rolls.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Authentic Thai cuisine is packed with flavor, but successfully navigating a restaurant menu can take some practice.

Insider asked professional chefs for their take on the best and worst Thai dishes to order at restaurants and for delivery.

Read on for the six foods they recommend, and the five they don't.

Mee krob is a hidden gem on Thai-food menus.

mee krob thai food
Mee krob used to be a very common dish in Thai restaurants. khlungcenter/Shuttershock

Chef Vanda Asapahu of Ayara Thai restaurant told Insider that she recommends trying mee krob, a plate of crispy deep-fried noodles coated with a sweet and tangy sauce.

"This dish was actually as ubiquitous as pad thai in America in the 1980s, but it's harder to find now," Asapahu said. "That's a shame because it's really tasty."

However, mee krob is an option best enjoyed straight from the kitchen.

"It doesn't travel well and will get soggy if not served right away," Asapahu added.

Glass-noodle salad is a satisfying and vegetable-rich meal.

glass noodle salad
If you order glass-noodle salad as takeout, ask for the sauce on the side. wolfmaster13/Shuttershock

Glass-noodle salad is a cold dish of thin rice noodles mixed with ingredients like bean sprouts, carrots, minced pork, shrimp, fish sauce, and lime juice.

"This salad has a great texture and yummy dressing," Asapahu said. "I'd definitely recommend it."

Asapahu added that if you order this meal for delivery or takeout, you should ask for the dressing on the side so the noodles don't soak it up in transit.

Pad thai is a classic and tasty dish.

pad thai
Pad thai is usually served with peanuts, eggs, and a protein of choice. Brian Yarvin/Shutterstock

Chef Tariq Nasir told Insider that one of his go-to Thai-food orders is pad thai, which is typically made by stir-frying rice noodles with peanuts, egg, bean sprouts, and meat or tofu.

"It's a classic, and it appeals to a wide range of tastes," Nasir said. "It's also usually gluten-free, and you have the option of adding any type of meat."

This adaptable dish can be made vegan or vegetarian by substituting meat for crispy tofu or omitting the egg.

Thai basil eggplant is perfect for those seeking spice.

thai basil eggplant
Thai basil eggplant is packed with vegetables. FenlioQ/Shuttershock

Nasir recommended trying Thai basil eggplant for a hearty dose of vegetables and spice.

The dish is often made in a wok and involves quickly stir-frying purple eggplant with fish or duck sauce, soy sauce, basil leaves, peppers, garlic, and sugar.

"I love the symphony of flavors in this dish, ranging from the hoisin sauce to the basil," Nasir said. "It's not for people who don't like spicy food, but it's the perfect dish for more adventurous eaters."

Some restaurants can alter the heat, so if you're not used to spice, ask your server about this option before swearing off the dish.

Esan sausages are full of authentic Thai flavor.

esan sausages
Esan sausages are salty, sweet, and spicy. Orca_Hamoo/Shuttershock

Chef Chat Suansilphong, co-owner of Fish Cheeks restaurant and culinary director of Gai Chicken and Rice, told Insider that he always recommends people try Esan sausages.

Also known as sai krok Isan, these fermented nuggets hail from the northeastern part of Thailand.

"These sausages have a unique and delicious sourness to them," Suansilphong said. "They're a well-balanced combination of saltiness, sweetness, spiciness, and umami flavor."

Esan sausages are usually made with pork and rice and served as a snack with cabbage, chilis, or ginger.

Tom yum is a light and flavorful soup.

tom yum soup
Tom yum usually includes seafood. Waranon/Shuttershock

Tom yum is a sweet and spicy soup usually made with broth, shrimp, fish sauce, coconut milk, lime, and herbs like basil or lemongrass.

"This dish has a tantalizing combination of spice and sourness, with great flavor of basil and roasted rice powder," Suansilphong said.

There are many variations of tom yum, with some popular versions including squid, chicken, beef entrails, or mushrooms.

On the other hand, crispy fish can be bland.

crispy fish thai
Crispy fish usually comes with the head and tail intact. Ong.thanaong/Shuttershock

Thai-style crispy fish is made by battering and frying a whole white fish, such as snapper or tilapia.

"I like the occasional fried food, but this dish at restaurants is always so heavy with oil and lacking any real flavor," Nasir said.

The dish is often served with seasoned rice, scallions, ginger, and a spicy or sweet sauce and usually comes with the head and tail intact.

Fried Thai rolls can lack flavor.

thai spring rolls
Fresh Thai spring rolls are a lighter alternative. Thanya Chansombat/Shuttershock

Fried Thai rolls are made by wrapping vegetables in rice paper and frying until golden, a cooking process that can sometimes cause the fillings to lose their flavor.

"These are often over-fried and oily," Nasir said. "I also think they usually lack real flavor unless you dip them in sweet-chili sauce."

If you're looking for a lighter alternative, you can try fresh Thai spring rolls, which aren't fried and are often served with a sweet or spicy peanut sauce for dipping.

Curry usually isn't the most exciting thing on a Thai menu.

thai curry
Curry is flexible, but not entirely unique to Thai cuisine. Yentafern/Shuttershock

Curry is a broad category of dishes that typically involve a spiced, fragrant sauce served over rice, lentils, or vegetables.

Suansilphong said that ordering curry from a Thai restaurant may mean missing out on an opportunity to sample more uniquely Thai flavors.

"There are many other authentic dishes that capture the unique flavors of Thailand," Suansilphong said. "I wish people would venture out of their comfort zones and order something other than curry."

That said, curries are quite flexible to your spice and flavor preferences.

Dumplings may be tasty, but they’re not uniquely Thai.

steamed dumpling
Dumplings are on many restaurant menus. DigiPub/Getty Images

Fried or steamed dumplings made with pork and vegetables are a staple on many Thai-restaurant menus, but they're hardly the right thing to order if you want to expand your horizons.

"Dumplings can be found in a number of cuisines, so I'd suggest being more adventurous and trying dishes that are unique to Thai cuisine," Suansilphong said.

Fresh Thai spring rolls are a popular and light appetizer to order instead.

Chow mein is often offered at restaurants, but it isn't Thai.

chow mein
This meal is usually on Thai menus to make money and please customers. Sean Nel/Shuttershock

Chow mein is a dish made with stir-fried noodles and a mixture of soy sauce, bok choy, cabbage, meat, tofu, and vegetables.

"Chow mein is actually Chinese," Asapahu said. "Thai restaurants usually have this on the menu to make money and please diners, so I'd recommend ordering something else if you want an authentic dish."

Other Chinese dishes frequently offered at Thai restaurants include lo mein and orange chicken.

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