Making a Meal of It

Is standing in line waiting for food EVER really worth it?

It's ridiculous that it's become a badge of honour to queue for hours to taste the World’s Most Amazing whatever

04 July 2019 - 00:00
Bangkok's street food it is justifiably famous — it's not uncommon to see official Michelin Guide stickers on food carts.
Bangkok's street food it is justifiably famous — it's not uncommon to see official Michelin Guide stickers on food carts.
Image: Jono Hall

In the final weeks before Thailand's monsoon season, it’s as though the whole country is holding its breath. A massive, stifling, hot, wet, sticky breath. The air doesn’t move and you can’t take two steps in the capital city, Bangkok, without instantly turning into a flustered, sweaty beetroot masquerading as a person.

The heat hits you like a wildly-excited dog that just wants to lick your face. A lot. And it makes the prospect of ever having to sit inside any restaurant that doesn’t have air-conditioning about as appealing as acupuncture with forks.

Fortunately you don't have to. The streets are crammed with little carts and improvised open-air eating nooks where you can get steaming bowls of Tom Kha Gai or spicy Chinese-influenced noodles in curried broth. You eat your meal sitting on the side of the road, at a plastic table if you’re lucky, trying to remember a time when you weren’t more puddle than human.

I last visited Bangkok around the same time that the recent Netflix series Street Food came out. And once I got home, anyone who heard that I’d just been there immediately asked me if I’d eaten at Jay Fai's now world-famous street-side restaurant, which was featured in the first episode of the show.

At which point I had to sort of look at my shoes, scuff my toe in the dirt and say, “Well, no.” Because I’m supposed to be the food guy, right? That’s the sort of thing I’m meant to do.

The reason I didn't is because although street food seems more easily accessible than, say, the food at a fancy restaurant with tablecloths, this simply isn't the case. 

The truth is that waiting in line at Bangkok's popular food carts is the equivalent of a road-side death-match: there are hoards of similarly clammy, red-faced tourists who also want to place an order and have no problem pushing you under a tuk-tuk if it means making their wait slightly shorter.

Although street food seems more easily accessible than, say, the food at a fancy restaurant with tablecloths, this simply isn't the case

This is especially true if the food cart has been featured on Netflix.

This makes the city's 'rock star' street food the opposite of accessible. You queue. You queue for a long time. And if you turn your head for a second and miss your slot, that’s it. Thanks for coming, bye.

The people I was staying with had put themselves through the experience of dining at the famous Jai Fai's. After queuing for about five hours, they ended up eating at about 1am. I’d rather be stuck in an un-airconditioned lift for five hours — which I have been — it’s basically the same experience.

The idea of queuing for food is something that strikes me with horror. I know this is probably showing my privilege in some incredibly unwoke way, but mostly I think it’s because I went to boarding school for 10 years. Waiting in line with a tray that smelt of industrial detergent for grey things out of a vat, three times a day, every day, will cure you most comprehensively of ever wanting to do that again.

So I don't understand why it's become a badge of honour to wait in a long line to taste the World’s Most Amazing whatever. People act as if doing so actually bolsters your ‘foodie credentials’. Some say that standing in line is all  ‘part of the experience’. That's ridiculous. That’s like saying that getting punched in the face is ‘part of the experience’ of visiting Nelspruit.

Some dishes are worth waiting for, but that wait should be 15 minutes max.
Some dishes are worth waiting for, but that wait should be 15 minutes max.
Image: Jono Hall

Americans in particular love a line. Anything that's recommended as being vaguely good or novel — remember cronuts? — immediately now comes with a queue of people that goes out the door and around the block. Please. How good can a croissant with a hole in it really be?

The official cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York is actually great, but it's still not worth waiting more than 15 minutes for. I mean, even if it was served to me by the ghost of David Bowie dressed as a racoon, I’d have to think about it. And even then I'd probably head next door to get a dollar slice of pizza.

This is why I didn't go to Jay Fai's.

Next time you're in Bangkok, I recommend that you ignore every single recommendation you’ll inevitably get. Just take a stroll and find your own place to eat. Because in a country with such a vibrant street food culture, dishes of incredible quality and humble brilliance can be found on almost every corner. And you won't have to wait long for your meal ... until someone decides to feature the food cart you've discovered on TV.


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