Digging into the surprisingly global food scene on Samui’s northerly neighbor.
Koh Phangan’s status as a staging point on the so-called Banana Pancake Trail hasn’t always been good for its culinary cred: the Thai island is far more famous for its wild full-moon parties than for its hitherto unsung restaurant scene. But as the destination’s appeal has widened beyond backpackers to include affluent holidaymakers, families, wellness seekers, and digital entrepreneurs, so too has its gastronomic offerings evolved beyond the old standards of fried rice and watery Thai curries. These days, Koh Phangan is home to talented chef/restaurateurs from countries as diverse as Israel and Iran and Italy; indeed, a case could be made for the island having Thailand’s liveliest climate for international dining outside Bangkok, with the added bonus of wallet-friendly prices and all-around unpretentiousness.
A perfect encapsulation of all that’s appealing about Koh Phangan’s food scene today can be found at L’Alcove, where charming French hosts Mélanie Lam and Karine Khan preside over a beachside crowd-pleaser that oozes joie de vivre. The menu keeps things relatively simple. There’s little in the way of daring flavor combinations or flashy cooking techniques; instead, the focus is on Gallic bistro classics. These include carpaccio of Charolais beef, tuna tartare, smoked duck breast salad, simply prepared seafood, and large serving boards laden with homemade bread, oozy French cheeses, and charcuterie. L’Alcove also boasts an outstanding location right on the sand at Hin Kong Beach. With jazz performers sound-tracking the sunset every evening, it’s a great spot to sip a perfectly mixed cocktail or a glass or three from the venue’s 60-plus-bottle wine list — a selection that takes in Medoc, Côtes de Provence, Loire, Bourgogne, Sancerre, and more.
Just up the road in Srithanu village — the hub of Koh Phangan’s growing wellness community — is Sati Pot, which has a strong claim to being Thailand’s finest Persian restaurant. The food justifies the hype. Lamb shank is slow-cooked in saffron and yogurt sauce and served with aromatic rice mixed with crushed pistachio and almonds, caramelized onion, paprika, and raisins. Another highlight is Bandari shrimp, a dish that originated on Iran’s southern coast. Plump crustaceans are sautéed with ginger and garlic and nudged toward the stratosphere by a tangy green herb sauce.
Lovers of Italian fare are particularly well served on the island, with several solid options to choose from. Right next door to L’Alcove is Romanzo Tropicale, where classic wood-fired pizza is the order of the day. But you’ll want to head to the fishing village of Chaloklum to try out two of the best Italian venues. At Kika Splace, Genovese chef-owner Cristiana Andreani performs alchemy in her tiny kitchen. With limited tools at her disposal, dishes such as black-ink spaghetti with calamari and bottarga (cured fish roe) take a while to materialize but are worth waiting for; a wine list strong on Italian labels makes the wait even sweeter. Equally enticing is Rimini, a rustic roadside bungalow where proprietor Alessandro Paterno — originally from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region — presides over a daily changing whiteboard menu of fish and seafood creations.
For Koh Phangan’s best Indian cuisine, head to Chana Masala in Srithanu, which does a roaring trade in vegetarian and vegan curries: order the ginger- and garlic-packed paneer Amritsari. Another stellar pick is the smoky baingan bharta (tandoor-roasted eggplant mash cooked with onions, tomatoes, and spices).
Back in the “big city” — Thong Sala, the island’s main port — Sirtaki Taverna brings a taste of the Ionian to the tropics. As at L’Alcove, the emphasis here is on prime ingredients perfectly cooked, a simple creed that is executed via offerings such as xtapodi scharas (grilled octopus), midia saganaki (mussels with feta, fresh oregano, tomato, and olive oil), and giant souvlaki platters.
This article originally appeared in the June/August 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Full Flavors of Koh Phangan”).