There are tons of places we want to show love to in Chiang Mai. These spots made us feel at home in a foreign land and helped us experience the complex flavors of Northern Thailand. They might not be the absolute best restaurants in all of Thailand, but they are really great, and they mean something to us. Whether it was a spicy bowl of soup or a friendly smile, these are the restaurants and the dishes we kept returning to:
Kanom Jeen at Warorot
Why aren’t these noodles more popular in the States? The stark white, fermented rice noodles and a bowl of curry, with chunks of steamed pig's blood, embody the essence of northern Thailand. Naomi Duguid recommended this spot to us. She described it as the best kept secret in Chiang Mai and couldn’t believe that everyone wasn’t talking about it. We couldn’t agree with her more.
At nighttime, the center of Warorot Market closes, but vendors remain on the streets. Behind the sidewalk lined with clothing stalls, on Wichayanon Road (the first street west of the river), you will find a couple of tables with lit candle sticks, bowls of fermented mustard greens, bean sprouts, kep muu and herbs. Two ladies stand by four large pots dishing out kanom jeen and curries.
I don’t know if eating a particular dish has ever made me as emotional as this did. A likely contributing factor to my state was that we were leaving Thailand in a couple days, and I was going to miss this place we had made into our home. But, more than that, I was experiencing exactly why Jason and I had set out to do our work. These ladies were cooking food that means something to them and the place that they live; and they make their food as perfectly as they know how to.
We got 3 bowls of kanom jeen, one with pork, one with fish, and one with chicken & green curry. Each bowl is 15 baht; hard-boiled eggs and kep muu are available at the table and are a little bit extra.
Wichayanon Road, behind the clothing stalls, on the east side of the street. Evenings only. Closed on holidays.
You’ve heard about how much we love northern-style laap. If you can’t make it over to Ton Payon, try Sornchon for something more centrally located. Their laap is great, and they also offer an array of very tasty northern Thai specialties. One dish that's not on the menu, that EatingAsia recommends asking for, is the green mango salad or tam mameung. We loved this sweet, juicy alternative to the ubiquitous som tam.
Sornchon: 23 Kotcasarn Road, across the street and a bit south of Tha Phae Gate.
We ate lunch here on our first day in Chiang Mai. Of course, we got khao soi, and it’s still one of the better bowls of the famous soup that I’ve had. It was sweet from the coconut milk, savory from the shallots and spices, with fresh lime cutting through the richness. Here was also where I fell in love with tam kanoon, young jackfruit salad.
At night, the daytime dining room closes, and they open up the fancier restaurant next door. Prices are higher at night, but it’s also a more aesthetically pleasing dining room and comfortable setting. Make a reservation for the evening, because walking-in can see very long waits.
Huen Phen: 112 Ratchamanka, Old City.
Gai Yang Wichianburi
Jason & I found ourselves eating gai yang all the time. The charcoal roasted chicken with khao naow and som tam are perfect hot weather foods. I think we were also comforted by the chicken’s familiarity - who doesn’t love roast chicken? SP chicken is an establishment with one of the coolest rotisserie grills ever and a very fine som tam. A man and his son serve an extremely juicy chicken roasted in large clay urns, at JJ Market on Sunday mornings. Everybody seems to have a different roasting method. Whatever the method, eat gai yang whenever you can.
Our favorite spot was on Nimmanhaemin Soi 11. Easily identifiable by a huge billow of smoke rushing out into the street, this place has mastered chicken cookery. I also highly recommend trying their cucumber salad. It’s exactly like som tam but with cucumbers. Super refreshing. Quite possibly our favorite spot and meal in Chiang Mai.
Gai Yang Wichianburi: Nimmanhaemin Soi 11, just west of Sirimangkalajan. They are closed on Mondays and tend to close for a few days around holidays.
Very rarely, but sometimes, you want something other than Thai food. Eat Burmese food. Burmese Restaurant & Library, as we’ve said before, turned us onto something we really felt connected to. We went here every week for dinner. I highly recommend the Burmese salads: Tamarind Leaf, Pennywort and the Fermented Tea Leaf Salad are our favorites, accompanied by Shan rice.
Burmese Kitchen & Library. Across the street from Nimmanhaemin Soi 13. Open 7 days/week for lunch & dinner.
Hearn Khem is another spot for Shan Burmese food that is super solid. Shan food really tells a lot about the Burmese influence on northern Thai food.
Hearn Khem: 16/10 Ku Tao Soi 3. *Pictured: Sam Kang Sar - Tamarind Leaf Salad & Nam Pit Ko Sai - Shan Chili Dip
And, of course, Ciin Haw market, my favorite place in the world. Eat mohinga (the first photo in this piece). There is one woman who serves this classic Burmese fish soup every Friday morning. No matter how much we tried to resist, we ate it every time we attended that market. Definitely worth squeezing in at the small plastic table to enjoy a Burmese soul food breakfast. Pan dua, a fried lentil cracker, is an essential accompaniment that she sells by the piece or by the bag. After 9am, there is a chance she will have sold out of soup and crackers… More to come soon about Ciin Haw.
Ciin Haw Friday Morning Market: Friday early mornings, across the street from Baan Haw Mosque and behind the Night Bazaar. Just off of Chang Klan Road and Charoen Prathet Soi 1.
Thai Fried Chicken
You can find fried chicken at all of the markets. Our favorite spot was on a small soi by our apartment. They open at about 8:30am, and we’d find ourselves eating it probably a little too often for breakfast. It is super crunchy and laced with kefir lime, garlic and chili powder. I’ve never been so blown away by fried chicken before.
Chomdoi Road, across the street from Nadia’s Mom Restaurant, to-go only. This soi is filled with great finds: 8 Days a Week for coffee; the two ladies next door to the fried chicken spot for northern Thai; kanom jeen stand-lady in the early evenings, to-go only. Sorry I can't be more descriptive, as I'm not sure of the exact addresses or names.
This woman’s shophouse was on our street, so we would bow and say “Sawatdee-ka / krab!” everyday as we passed. She is just the cutest. She stands at the front of her shop all day, into the early evening, leaning over her wok, and making some bomb pad thai. She doesn’t speak much English, but her husband speaks a bit, if you need help. We would order: pad thai muu, pet - pad thai with pork, spicy. The smoky chili powder mingled with the char from the wok creates a flavor beyond what I thought pad thai could be. She then wraps the noodles in a thin omelette rather than mixing scrambled eggs in. Aroy!
Cholaprathan Road Soi 4, next door to Chill House. Open daily for lunch and early dinner.
Literally translating to rice soup, but often translated on menus as rice gruel, khao tom is an essential Thai breakfast. Those familiar with Chinese congee will find khao tom to be much more light bodied and soupy. We personally enjoyed it with some feathery pork meatballs floating in it, a dash of chili powder and a healthy amount of fish sauce. A plate of sautéed veggies on the side completes this winner's breakfast. To start a scorching hot summer day in Chiang Mai, this meal will fill you up without making you yearn for a nap. After making khao tom a regular part of my diet, my idea of what “breakfast food” is has drastically changed. I now constantly find myself craving soups in the morning.
Get khao tom at the food court next to Thalat Thanin, or at any Thai restaurant that is open in the morning. Rumor has it that next to Wat Suan Doc, on Suthep Rd., there is a legendary khao tom restaurant. Unfortunately, when we went they were closed. If you find yourself visiting Wat Suan Doc in the morning will you please try it and tell us how it is?
Khao Kha Muu
We thought about not adding the famous Cowboy Hat Lady, as everyone seems to know of her if they're going to eat in Chiang Mai, thanks to Bourdain & Andy Ricker. But, we went here multiple times, found ourselves craving it and never found anyone to match her quality on this dish. The stewed pork shank, fluffy white rice & perfectly-oozing egg, topped with raw garlic, chilies & scallions, was beyond satisfying on each visit.
Cowboy Hat Lady: across the street from the North Gate of the Old City, on Manee Nopparat. Nightly, from about 5pm on, vendors set up in the parking lots. Look for the red sign, the cowboy hat and lots of people crowding around her.