The Foodie Guide to Northern Thailand
We came here to eat. Fueled by countless sensational meals at Northern Thai restaurants like Pok Pok, Uncle Boon’s, Ayada & SriPraPhai, Jack and I had a calling to one day visit Chiang Mai. Now it was time drown in fish sauce & sticky rice.
Egg noodles swimming in a spicy, rich coconut curry, usually featuring tender, slow-cooked chunks of beef or the classic leg of chicken, and garnished with lime, pickled greens & puffed noodles, Khao Soi is the iconic dish of Chiang Mai. Jack and I did our best to compare “the best” against one another. Our delicious quest led us ultimately to two favorites.
Khao Soi Nimman - I worried that this place, much fancier & cleaner than most, would be too sanitized to be authentically good - I was wrong. Located in the modern, hip neighborhood of Nimman, it’s true that the place is young and flashy but sometimes “clean & refined” is a good thing.
Jack appreciated the higher-quality, marbled cuts of beef present in his curry. I was elated to try (& try again) their sophisticated mushroom Khao Soi. Fancy doesn’t mean expensive either, at only 80 THB per bowl, a lunch for two set us back a mere $5 USD.
Khao Soi Islam - A dish created by Thai muslims, it seemed pertinent to try one of the original spots near the muslim neighborhood east of the Old City. Khao Soi Islam is old-school. A cafeteria-style spot hidden in the market, this curry spot serves authentic vibes & dishes.
If you like slow-roasted, falling-apart shoulder cuts of beef like I do, this will be your go-to Khao Soi joint. But even better is the fish Khao Soi, a delightful change from the otherwise meaty dishes of CNX. Two bowls of curry cost 100 TBH making it one of our cheapest lunch spots in town.
IsAan Style Food (& Our Unending Love For Lert Ros)
If you skim through this post just to jot down restaurant names (or save that handy map at the bottom) I’m cool with that. Just please, oh please, eat at Lert Ros.
You’ll know what you want to order the moment you approach Lert Ros thanks to the Patriarchal grill master flipping whole fish over coals in front of the restaurant. But it’s the Isaan style dishes that will have you returning time and time again. Isaan food comes from the Northeast province of Thailand bordering Laos, and while you may have never heard of it, you’ve most certainly eaten it. Papaya salad, sticky rice & grilled chicken make their way onto nearly every Thai menu in America. We ate at Lert Ros three to four times per week and only regret not visiting more.
Undoubtably the best Som Tum (papaya salad) we ate in Thailand was here, a steal for 30 TBH (about $1 USD). Be sure to pair the dish with sticky rice and hell, order two you probably won’t want to share. We came to Lert Ros searching for Nam Tok Neua (commonly known as “Waterfall Beef Salad”) and they absolutely delivered. Fatty slices of grilled beef drenched in lime, fish sauce, chilis & mint - this salad is one of Earth’s finest creations and Lert Ros does it well.
The fish is as good as it looks. Be sure to ask for extra Nam Prik (spicy green sauce) and ignore the soy sauce, it’s only there for the less adventurous.
A sleeper hit, and what the chef’s son dubbed endearingly as “normal food” (admitting that even he tires of Isaan dishes at times) is the spicy, complex Tom Yum soup with succulent prawns. Pouring coconut milk over a flaming hot wok does wonders for this flavorful soup and it should be no surprise that the grilled fish king spoils diners with killer prawns.
Thai Drinking Food
Having read Andy Ricker’s cookbooks (yes, I’m one of those nerds who actually reads cookbooks cover to cover) I knew that we should be seeking out the Thai drinking food scene. It wasn’t until week three that we found it.
A 70 THB (about $2 USD) Grab taxi west of the Old City is the hip, youthful forest neighborhood of Su Thep. Made up mostly of locals and young artists, you’ll find more cafes here than makes sense for the residing population (imagine Seattle vibes). Aside ultra-modern cafes, old-school locals run very rustic food options, like “sitting cross legged with your shoes off under a thatched roof” rustic.
But it’s Lab Lung Noi you’re here for. No English and no waiters, this is a true Thai experience. Stick meat, Laab (minced meat & herb salad), Som Tum, grilled eggs and a serve-yourself cooler filled with Chang Beer. Lab Lung Noi serves raucous vibes.
On our first visit, one staff member was sweet enough to fill out our order card based on the food we pointed to on the menu. From that point on it was up to us to guess which box was our beloved grilled beef skewer and which led us to Som Tum nirvana. We were quite proud of our successful orders and even prouder when the staff were surprised to see us return after surviving their onslaught of chili peppers.
If you’ve made it so far to read this guide you’ve likely already watched Anthony Bourdain’s CNX episode. In other words, you know about the Cowboy Hat Lady.
Throughout the city of Chiang Mai are night markets. Parking lot style spaces of food stalls set up nightly to appease those looking for a cheap & deeply delicious meal. Made famous by the Cowboy Hat Lady serving up her juicy, fatty, pork leg rice, Chang Phueak just north of the Old City, is filled with tasty cheap eats.
While yes, you should have pork leg rice, and yes it’s delicious, we actually found ourselves returning for a lesser known dish (but just as busy cart) called Sukiyaki. A fusion of Thai stir-fry and Japanese hot pot, Sukiyaki is a silky soup (or plate) of glass noodles, stir fried cabbage and your choice of fish or meat. The dish has considerable umami and warm flavors, giving you a break from the funky, spicy fish sauce of the north.
Fruit & Desserts
One of the best things about Chiang Mai is the never-ending supply of fruit stands and smoothie stalls. Passion fruit, mango, pineapple, coconut, oranges, jackfruit - the list goes on. Smoothies cost on average one US dollar, and are freshly blended where ever you go. Mango sticky rice is a must-have. Creamy altulfo mangos sliced over coconut sticky rice then drenched with sweetened coconut milk - it’s a tropical fruit lover’s dream.
Then there’s roti (or rotee). Hailing from the South of Thailand and Malaysia, roti is of muslim origins, and thankfully present in Chiang Mai as well. Roti is a laminated dough, twisted, flattened, slapped against the counter then fried on the plancha. You can order it stuffed and topped with a variety of fruits, sauces and savory concoctions. But it’s the classic “roti sweet milk” you must try at least once. Lightly fried and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, is is truly divine and costing a mere 10 THB (30 cents).
Wait, But What About Pad Thai?
Okay, first of all Pad Thai is not northern food, nor is it (in my opinion) particularly exciting. BUT! Adventurous eating can sometimes induce stomach troubles, meaning you might crave a little less “Northern funk” for a meal or two. Luckily, there is a spot you can get a pretty decent & awfully cheap plate of noodles that even my snobby palate will oblige.
You won’t see any locals at Aroy Dee but you’ll be lucky to find an open table on a busy night, too. The shrimp Pad Thai is tasty (so long as you load up on dried chiles, peanuts & pickled peppers). We also liked the shrimp fried rice and Tom Yum soup which - you guessed it - features shrimp. The real draw of Aroy Dee is the juice bar out front, passionfruit plus mango is king.