When we first pulled into Chiang Mai, I was worried I wouldn't connect with it. We'd just come from Bangkok and Bangkok was like nowhere I'd ever been. So huge and crowded and saturated with restaurants and street stalls, grocery stores and large outdoor food markets. Chaing Mai is smaller and humbler with a more obvious tourist presence. I thought we fucked up. But then we got to know it. It's not hard to get out of the touristy areas and into the old streets and night markets bustling with locals.
Right before we got there, a friend sent over an article in Lucky Peach about Thailand’s regional cuisine. I’ll admit I didn’t know how variable and regional Thai food is before reading it. It became our mission to try all of it - rich northern Thai curries, Central noodle dishes, Isaan grilled meats and spicy salads, Southern crab curries. Chiang Mai has it all - the food scene is complex and incredible and it's easy to find dishes from every region. Here's some highlights:
Fruit shakes: just a couple pieces of tropical fruit blended with ice and water (you can ask for no sugar), but somehow the sum of those three things is way greater than its parts. Chiang Mai spoiled us with them. There's fruit shake stands on nearly every block and they only cost 25-30 baht (less than $1 USD). We averaged 3 per day. They're a temporary escape from the humidity, however brief, and every time we got even close to finishing one we craved another.
The shake I remember most is at the Chang Phuek night market at the North Gate – mango + passion fruit. The mango made it smooth and a little creamy, the passion fruit bright and tart. But it’s hard to choose a favorite – by the end I was obsessed with banana shakes. The bananas here are different, short and squat and red inside and actually taste like bananas. Ilana’s current fav: watermelon or watermelon-passionfruit. Refreshing AF in the heat.
Address: There's particularly great, cheap shakes from a woman on the corner across from Wat Dap Phai, in the Old City, near a motorbike hire and a 7-11.
Khao Ka Moo
The cities in Thailand come alive at night. At the Chang Phuek night market, hidden among all the other food stands and fruit stands and cheap clothing, is a lady in a cowboy hat, humbly cooking off a massive vat of pork knuckle stew. It’s called khao ka moo and it’s like the best tasting barbecue I’ve ever had, served with rice and a soft boiled egg with a perfectly cooked orange yolk. I don’t know how she makes her eggs but I’m desperate to learn. The meat is tender, succulent, and lightly aromatic. At the table is a large jar of pickled mustard greens and a plate of chiles and raw garlic. Thai garlic is small and has tender, edible skins. Especially good with a can of Chang beer from the dude next door for 40 baht.
Address: Chang Phuek Market, Thanon Manee Nop Parat, Amphoe Mueang, Chiang Mai 5pm-2am
Khao Soi Khun Yai
We walked a mile out of the way to find this place closed on a Sunday afternoon (Sundays are tough in Chiang Mai). But then we came back two days later and found a quaint and bustling restaurant space with an older woman cooking large pots of khao soi. The soup is available all over Chiang Mai but this one is particularly good. The place is special. It’s random and pretty much unmarked behind a white gate. It’s a small patio with a tiny kitchen and 8 tables or so. And the soup - you can choose chicken or pork - is a rich coconut and red curry broth with soft egg noodles inside and crispy fried egg noodles on top. Garnished with raw shallots, lime, and pickled greens and (like everywhere in Thailand) jars of chili vinegar, fish sauce, and sugar. A few days later, at a cooking class, we learned how to make it - a curry paste of pounded thai bird chiles, aromatics, and shrimp paste, and fresh coconut milk made by squeezing coconut meat into water.
Address: Sri Poom 8 Alley, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
This is the first of two chicken restaurants in Thailand that changed our lives in Chiang Mai. We fell so head over heels in love with kai yaang that we changed all our travel plans to go to the Isaan region and eat it at the source. The first time we went to SP, they were sold out of chicken. But we ordered wings and a few salads and sticky rice and came back early the next day.
It's one of those places that feels like you stumbled upon it, even though you're following directions. It's a bit off the main drag, on a long empty road that barely ever has traffic. Outside the restaurant there's a man basting baby chickens with palm syrup and shallot oil from a copper pot. You sit down at a booth with wooden benches and order from a Thai menu with pencil and paper. And then the food starts coming at you, first the tall bottle of beer and then usually the chicken, pulled hot from the spit and cut into manageable chunks. The bird is stuffed with lemongrass and garlic and it’s still on the plate, softened with chicken juice. Two sauces for dipping: sweet chili and a sour, spicy one with lime juice, fish sauce, and chiles. Sticky rice, papaya and bamboo salads, and a plate of garlicky morning glory. It's no frills and relatively cheap and everything's done well. A whole chicken sets you back around $5 USD.
Address: Samlan Rd Soi 1, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
I didn't think there'd ever be a place that rivaled my love for SP Chicken. But then we came to Cherng Doi and I felt forever changed. The chicken at Cherng Doi is same same but different - they use thigh meat instead of whole birds. But it's equally moist, tender, and fragrant, and served with a sweet/sour tamarind sauce with toasted rice powder.
The restaurant somehow feels a little fancier than SP Chicken, even though you’re still ordering on paper and sitting outside in the sweltering heat. It's largely the same - plastic plates of fresh, spicy, herby salads, sticky rice, and beer on ice. The salads are especially good here and the menu is longer. We fell hard for the sweet corn and cucumbers. They also have chicken or pork laab - cold ground meat with fish sauce, lime juice, and herbs.
Neither of us are chicken or even meat people but there's just something about Isaan food - something about sweating your ass off at a wood table, piles of crumpled one-ply napkins, sticky rice that you can use as an edible spoon. It's a welcome break from rich Northern Thai curries. It's interactive, unabashed, a little messy.
Cherng Doi's only flaw is that you don't get to watch the chicken roasting.
Address: Su Thep, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai