Eating like a local:- Eating and Exploring the culinary capitol of Northern Thailand
Regional food specialties
Regional food specialties
It's time for Thailand. We did Chiang Mai right after Koh Phangan and in between two separate stays in Bangkok. My visit came with major anticipation as many people will tell you this is the best place to eat in Thailand. Having done a few days already in Bangkok I thought it would be tough to match that but it did. Was it better? Who knows. Both are spectacular places to travel if you like to eat local food. Thailand is truly one of the best culinary countries on the globe. Chiang Mai is the biggest city in the North so of course it has lot's of Northern Thai flavors that aren't as common elsewhere.
Sights from Chiang Mai
Since we were there over the New Years period Chiang Mai was pretty packed. Still with a population of just 100,000 this place was much more relaxed than Bangkok. It turns out that New Years Eve in Chiang Mai is one of the best spots in the world to celebrate it. People light lanterns into the sky and by the time the clock strikes Midnight the sky is a sight to behold. It still had pretty much everything Bangkok had as far as street food and atmosphere. There seems to be unlimited night markets and each one of them is popular. Chiang Mai is a college town so the crowd is younger. Aside from the amazing food other stuff that attracts tourists are the abundance of temples as well as it's location which is the launching point for tons of incredible activities in the mountains of Thailand.
Sights from Chiang Mai
Maybe one of the reasons I felt more relaxed in Chiang Mai was due top the fact there's some really incredible temples on the outskirts of town that are absolutely breathtaking. The views overlooking the city were spectacular and it really made me want to spend an extended period of time there so that I could explore it and it's area more than you can in just four days. Still if you're planning on going and deciding on how much time? four days is nice for the average traveler. I'd say three minimum.
Sights from Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is no doubt about it one of the best cities I've ever ate through. It was nonstop as far as deliciousness. The Northern part of Thailand has a few different ingredients that are very common in local cuisine but not so much in other parts of the country. Still though Northern Thai food and also Isaan cuisine are very popular throughout the rest of the country. I'm not going to say the food here was better than Bangkok but lots of the spots I ate at in Bangkok had big time Chinese influence so the flavors in Chiang Mai seemed a little more Thai. But this is all my personal observation. Let's eat.
As you already know by now I always have 9 out of 10 food stops planned. I spend way too much time researching where to eat. But in the end it's all worth it bc rarely is there a bad meal. Pakorn's Kitchen would not be an exception. This place stood out to me in some part bc of the near perfect reviews but more so it was the pictures in those reviews that spoke to me. I hadn't had any type of stewed pork dish with basil up to this point and that's one their special dishes. It didn't disappoint.
Stewed Pork with Basil and Rice
The wife fell in love with tom yum soup while we were in Bangkok so she got a bowl of that. Once again this was a fantastic bowl of soup. Pretty much to be expected in SE Asia at this point. I just wish I had regular everyday access to a place like this so much. The true definition of a family run place as the male cooked while his wife took orders while the daughter ran around waiting for her fried rice lunch to come out. This was the start of four straight days of fantastic food. It was nonstop.
Shrimp Tom Yum Soup at Pakorn's Kitchen
I wanted to make sure we ate some Burmese food while in Chiang Mai. Why? Bc the city is the center of Thailand's Burmese migration population which is the country's largest migrant population. Chiang Mai even has a Burmese Quarter which is where Hearn Kham is located. This spot came heavily rec'd from Portland Chef Andy Ricker who spends lots of time in Chiang Mai. Make sure you see what he has to say about where to eat there these days. Hearn Kham cooks Shan style food. My biggest regret of the trip might be not ordering more from here or at the least returning for more. I somehow only looked at the salad options when some of the home cooked Burmese food is also supposed to be great. Nonetheless these salads were memorable. We got a Pennywort Salad and also the must get item when eating Burmese food - a tea leaf salad. Pennywort is a traditional and also medicinal plant favored in Asian countries. The Burmese make a great salad out of it. The tea leaf was true to form too. More on that amazing dish later. Hearn Kham is a must in my guide book.
Burmese Salads (Pennywort - Tea Leaf) at Hearn Kham
Speaking of must stop spots here's another. Lert Ros is popular with pretty much everyone and that's bc it's wonderful. This is the type of dinner you want to eating out in Chiang Mai. Whether on your honeymoon or visiting with spouse and kids this is as good as it gets. They're cooking Isaan food.
Charcoal Grilled Fish at Lert Ros
As you enter this local-style eatery you pass your dinner - whole tilapia fish, grilled over flaming hot coals and served with the most amazing condiment I think I've ever had the pleasure of tasting. It's a green chile Isan-style dipping sauce and it makes that smokey flaky fish meat turn into something magical. Eat this with sticky rice and a spicy papaya salad. One of the best meals of the trip.
Grilled Fish and Papaya Salad with Sticky Rice at Lert Ros
Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak aka The Cowboy Hat Lady
The Nighttime Market at the city's North Gate is home to two of Chiang Mai's premiere street food stands. First up is the world famous Cowboy Hat Lady. You can see her slightly in the picture up above in her Cowboy hat waving to some tourists. They're all there for some luscious khao kha moo aka stewed pork leg. It comes served over rice with some hard boiled eggs. This place is most popular with Chinese tourists who were indeed there on my visit but also pretty much everyone else as anyone who does a food show in Chiang Mai tends to stop by, and why not? That pork is money.
Khao Kha Moo in Chiang Mai
As good (and energetic) as The Cowboy Hat Lady and her stand were I've been thinking about this spot even more. Also located at the North Gate this suki stand has a loyal following for their Thai style Suki. This is a dish I fell in love with on this trip. It's served two ways in Thailand and one is with broth the other is without. I like it dry which is basically a stir fry of glass noodles with vegetables and your choice of meat. I prefer it with seafood. Suki Koka makes theirs with a large amount of Napa cabbage and plenty of smoke flavor induced from the wok used to make it. Be sure to use the side of suki sauce and all of it at that. As Mark Wiens say's it's "a tomatoey base, but unlike other suki sauces I’ve had before, their version included sesame oil, which I immediately noticed with my first bite, and that’s what made the difference." Shout-out to him for the rec. Must stop spot.
Thai Style Suki (dry) at Suki Koka
Koay Chup Restaurant
Want to indulge in one of the best breakfasts on the planet? Go find this place. Koay Chup Restaurant might not even be it's name but that's how you'll find it on google maps. As the name suggests this spot serves Koay Chup and it looked great. But I read about the Khao tom rice soup and had to go have that. I love rice for breakfast and I love soup for breakfast too. Together? YES! According to what I read the owner makes her own moo yat sai which is a delicious pork sausage unlike any other in Thailand. They mention it on the menu. Order it in the soup by asking for Khaotom moo yat sai. This was a must stop spot and my persistence in finding the place paid off big time. It's one of those places that there's very little about online but there is a few expat TripAdvisor reviews. Though the address is wrong so take note you must walk a couple blocks past the posted address.
Khaotom Moo Yat Sai
Here's the first of a few of Chiang Mai's amazing chicken shops. Thai folks grill chicken as good as anyone including the Jamaicans. It's called 'Kai Yang Nong Krob' and Cherng Doi turn out a fantastic version. They cook deboned chicken directly on the grill and give it a nice smoky flavor with skin that’s perfectly crisp. I don't know what's in the marinade but it's full of flavor. A tamarind dipping sauce served on the side makes the chicken even more amazing. The menu is full of delicious looking items and one I can personally rec is the crispy papaya salad. My gosh was that good. Order some sticky rice too bc the meal isn't complete without it. The true definition of finger licking chicken.
Roast Chicken with Crispy Papaya Salad and Sticky Rice at Cherng Doi
Burmese Restaurant & Library
Here's one of the more popular Burmese restaurants in town. I knew about it but our dining here came on a whim when we were close. We had just done a temple and it was a hot and sticky day so some tea leaf salad was in-store. What is tea leaf salad? For those who don't know it's a special dish that's basically the poster boy/girl for Burmese food. In Myanmar they don't just drink tea but they eat it too. This is done after it's fermented. It's sold in similar ways to chips. You just buy a pack and you're on your way to a tea leaf salad. Other ingredients used are dressing, fried split peas, tomatoes, toasted peanuts, fish sauce, and more. I read there's better spots in town for one but that doesn't mean Burmese Restaurant & Library isn't any good. You know I've never had a bad Burmese salad.
Burmese Salads at Burmese Restaurant & Library
Tidmor Potsticker Specialist
Up in the Nimmanhaemin area there's lot's of cute little trendy spots specializing in things as far as food and crafts. I'm never one to pass up on some potstickers. So I stopped into this small little family run joint and got myself an order. The tom yum version was tempting but I went with the classic. These were handmade and cooked to order so of course they were really good.
Potstickers at Tidmor
Saturday Night Market
Chiang Mai has two of Thailand's largest night markets. One is the Saturday Night Market which takes place on Saturday nights, obviously. So they say this one is a bit more chill and way less crowded. Ha! Ok maybe bc we were there the weekend of New Years it played a part in the madness. It was too crowded to get anything done as far as shopping. Luckily they have lots of food sections mixed within mile long stretch of vendors. These little sections are about the only place you can move without people all over you. We stopped in one and had some delicious seafood and a really wonderful bowl of noodles and that was about all we could handle. It wasn't worth the chaos.
Sights from Chiang Mai's Saturday Night Market
Midnight Sticky Rice
Next stop up is one of the best late nite dining options in the city. Midnight Sticky Rice opens at 11p daily and stays open until about 5a. I guess Bourdain featured this place in one of his episodes. You couldn't tell. Those at our table were the only tourists there. We arrived around 11:05 and literally beat the line. Keep in mind there's two lines and one is for takeout. This is thee spot for a post booze feast. They cook Lanna style Thai food (Northern Thai). Popular dishes from here Nam Prik Noom (Green chili dip), fried chicken and pork, intestines, saiua (Northern Thai sausage) and more. There are no utensils except for sticky rice. We tried literally everything as were lucky enough to be joined by some American's who teach abroad in China. This place is an institution and hugely popular with locals for a reason. It was memorable meal. The type that makes you fly back for more.
Lanna Spread at Midnight Sticky Rice
Huen Muan Jai
Here's a spot that popped up when looking for restaurants serving the local regional food. Northern Thai. One of the worlds great cuisines. Hien Muan Jai is the type of spot that both locals and tourists seek out. Not just American's and Australian's but Thai tourists too. The Chef is semi famous as he was featured in the local version of Iron Chef on Thai TV. Big space that was pretty much full during our brunch time visit. After a 15/20 minute wait they put us in a room that I couldn't help but wonder if it was reserved for the English speaking tourists. Service was slow, eventually our food came.
Catfish Laab at Huen Muan Jai
We ended up unsuccessfully chasing a catfish salad similar to one no longer on the menu at Sticky Rice in Chicago. We loved the crispiness of that dish but the laab's we got in Chiang Mai were more soft which isn't the texture I wanted. Nonetheless their laab was full of funk. I enjoyed the flavors. But the reason I wanted to come here was for a Northern Thai sampler platter. You cant go to Chiang Mai and not try one of these. It's a little bit of everything as far as the stars of the cuisine go. It should include the extra herb-y Northern Thai Sausage,a spicy pork/tomato dip known as Nam Prik Ong, the fire green chile deep called Nam Prik Noong, and Hang Lay Pork Curry which is an all time great in the world of curries. Throw in some pork rinds and cucumbers for dipping and you got a Northern Thai feast. All restaurants pushing Northern Thai will have this dish on their menu. So good.
Northern Thai Sampler Platter at Huen Muan Jai
Another tourist hot spot here. But just like many of the others the locals get in on it too. The reason us tourists know about SP Chicken is bc Chef Andy Ricker has been singing it's praises for years. In fact the most popular dish at his restaurant in Portland, Pok Pok, is based on the chicken from here. As soon as you walk up to the restaurant you'll see the famous self made rotisserie where the bird is roasted. It's unlike any other rotisserie I've seen with the coal going into a thin and tall holding area in the middle with the chickens spinning around next to it. It's a piece of culinary genius.
Chicken Rotisserie at SP Chicken
This is yet another one of Chiang Mai's marvelous Issan restaurants. The star of the show is the young bird that's heavily seasoned and stuffed with local Thai herbs. But they also have a big selection of papaya salads and the sticky rice which completes the meal. My only complaint about the product here was bc of the lines the bird doesn't get to roast to the point in which I like. But when paired with sticky rice and that dipping sauce this is yet another one of the the city's premiere bites.
Lunch at SP Chicken
Here's a market near the Night Bazaar I walked into while waiting to meet my wife for dinner. It was NYE and there was loud music and lots of people starting to crowd around so I took a walk and tried a couple things. First was some grilled quail from the stand seen above. I could eat quail legs all day. Then I spied the dumplings pictured below and had to have some of those. The family making these was so friendly and so happy I liked them. But they should be happy with themselves. These were delicious little pork dumplings. Best eaten in a sheet of lettuce with fish sauce and crushed peanuts.
Dumplings at the Led'Tawan Market
We wanted seafood for dinner and there's quite a few restaurants with tanks near both the Night Bazaar and the Anusarn Market. I read this one is the spot you want and the crowd seemed to agree. But it was NYE so lots of people were out. The menu here is long with options but the local river prawns are what you want to be ordering as far as I'm concerned. We ended up getting two orders of each the charcoal grilled prawns and also the chili prawns which we saw pass by to another table and had to have. Seafood isn't dirt cheap in Thailand but you'll still be paying about half of that which you would at home. If you love prawns then definitely get some from somewhere while in Thailand.
Charcoal Grilled Prawns at Mho-O-Cha Restaurant
Chili Fried Prawns at Mho-O-Cha Restaurant
Khao Soi Khun Yai
By now you're probably asking "Did he get any Khao Soi?" and the answer is yes but most definitely not enough. We didn't end up eating any until the last day. Shame on me. I didn't realize that most spots were closed Sunday so I kind of botched that by waiting. Still we did get to one of the places that commonly gets mentioned when who serves the best bowl in Chiang Mai is brought up. Khao Soi Khun Yai is located between the temples and it’s tucked down a driveway if you dont see it at first. Khao Soi is the is the signature dish of Chiang Mai. Its background is both Burmese and Indian, but over the years it's turned distinctly Thai. Creamy coconut milk is mixed with yellow and red curry spices and served over egg noodles. Beef and Chicken are the most common meats used. What makes it as pretty as it is delicious is the deep-fried crispy egg noodles served on top. On the side is some cilantro and pickled greens, raw onion, and lime. As crave-worthy a dish as you'll come across.
Khao Soi at Shao Soi Khun Yai
One of the receptionists at our hotel had highly rec'd Kanjana Restaurant as a place worth eating at. She spoke of some dishes that my wife wanted to try including Khao Soi which we couldn't get enough of even after having three bowls each earlier in the day. Kanjana is one of Chiang Mai's top rated spots on TripAdvisor. This is a bit of a red flag but sometimes tourists just find the good stuff and word spreads fast. This is home cooked food by an all female kitchen all of whom were certainly above the age of 60. I don't think many people would find the food here to be made for just tourists.
The best vegetable dish I ate this trip was the Morning Glory from here. This simple dish made with water spinach is available all over the country and very popular with the people. It's just one of the many things I've been wishing I could eat since we came back. It's truly addictive bc we were stuffed out of our minds and couldn't stop eating it. Just a simple yet memorable prep with oyster sauce.
Khao Soi at Kanjana Restaurant
They had a bunch of different meat options for their Khao Soi and she went with shrimp. As good as this was it wasn't nearly as good as our stop earlier in the day. Still it was good enough to where if it was being served here in Chicago or anywhere else outside of Chiang Mai it would have a legion of fans. An order of green curry with chicken was about as fragrant of a dish we ate this trip. This would end up being so much better than I thought it would be and I should've known bc it was a locals tip.
Green Curry Chicken at Kanjana Restaurant
Major letdown as for the second day in a row I was shutout on some Thai Style Biryani with Goat from a spot along Chiang Mai's Halal street. I'm still disappointed bc I was really looking forward to trying the food of Chiang Mai's Muslim community. The smells coming from the restaurant were intoxicating but they closed early on NYE and were out of biryani by 2p the next day. Still I did get to chow down on an amazing street food snack. Banana roti stands are found all over Thailand and they always seems to have customers. Roti has Muslim origins so it was no surprise to find a specialty stand in this area. Made with thin grilled roti bread and sweetened condensed milk, white sugar, and banana I had a few of these this trip and this was both the sweetest and crispest.
Banana Roti from Alee's Roti
Ton Yam Lai Market
I didn't actually go inside of this market but it sure was popular. While walking down the street it's located I spied this lady selling sausage seen above. It looked too good to pass up and I was right. This was one of the best street side snacks I've ever had. The popular Northern Thai sausage is sold by weight and then sliced into bite size pieces. Little bags of Nam Prik Noong are served on the side and used for dipping. That paired with some local strawberries was a great 1-2 street food punch.
Local Strawberries from Ton Yam Lai Market
While walking back from the Halal area I passed this place. With no knowledge of it whatsoever I decided to try it on a whim. The grilled chicken cooking on the open pit fire along the sidewalk was what got me in. Sometimes a place being empty can be a bit scary but not the case here. This may have been the best grilled chicken dish I ate in Chiang Mai. It was perfect. I assume they rub some honey on the skin as it's in the name and chicken itself had a little bit of a sparkle to it. I wasn't expecting Chiang Mai to be this magical grilled chicken destination but you must get some when there. Just make sure to get some sticky rice on the side and always get down on the dipping sauce.
Honey Grilled Chicken at La-Own Restaurant
Krua Phech Doi Ngam
Final stop in Chiang Mai was another place that I believe Chef Andy Ricker put on the radar of the American people. Krua Phech Doi Ngam isn't located in the center of town but it's only a 10 minute drive from there so it's still very easy to get to. If you make the easy effort of ordering an Uber you'll be rewarded with some fantastic Northern Thai cuisine. On the evening we dined in it felt almost exclusively like local families were dining in. It was a full house on a weekday so plan accordingly.
Yam Samun Phrai
Krua Phech Doi Ngam has an array of specialty dishes popular in Northern Thai cuisine. One of them is called Yam Samun Phrai and it's an extra herbal salad with thin strips of white turmeric that just pop in your mouth. I've never had anything like this dish which has won awards for best salad in the country. Chef Andy Ricker credits this dish with giving him his enthusiasm for Northern Thai food.
Like I mentioned earlier we kept chasing a catfish laab like that which we used to get back home. We never did find one but this version was still really good. Much better than the previous one we had which wasn't bad but this one was much fresher. There's a section of specialty dishes on the menu and I was here for one of them. Gang Gin Hoom is made with braised beef short ribs in a fiery red chile sauce. This was unlike anything I ever tasted. At first there was an off-putting taste that may have been something like beef bile or blood but with each sip taken it became more and more addictive. These were the type of flavors that advocates of Chiang Mai preach about when praising it's food. Nothing else left to say except Chiang Mai has last meal worthy food. Next stop Bangkok.
Gang Gin Hoom
Note: To find the locations of all the spots featured in this post, as well as places I didn't make it to, please click HERE for my google maps guide to Chiang Mai.