This is the first in a recurring series where I will direct focus to specific regional dishes, or dining trends, in destinations that have become most cherished during my travels. These will tend to be more short-form and meant to educate and entertain. The goal is to answer the question - why should one should care about seeking out these dishes and the people plating them on our behalf? Hopefully, they will provide useful direction of the food culture and, most importantly, where the hell one spends their mealtime once they drop bags in some of the most devour-worthy destinations.
I travel for many reasons, but a primary catalyst is to move out of my comfort zone and embrace that which is cultural uncomfortable. Regional food culture is an integral piece in gaining an appreciation for the history of a place. Saddling up to a bowl, a plate, or a street stall is the ultimate equalizer. It grounds us all over a shared dish and wonderment on how it came to be so damn tasty. Lastly, I just really enjoy stretching the bounds of what is delectable.
So, ground rules and expectations out of the way…what better place to begin than with a dish I would gladly travel nine thousand miles for tomorrow: the khao soi of Northern Thailand.
It begins with the broth. A fragrantly milky bath pushing forward the essence of coconut, spice and umami. Swimming just below the surface, occasionally breaking through, are cut egg noodles. One half of the noodles shriveled a sentencing to the fryer, and one half glistening into winding curves from a dip in the boiling pot. The noodles serve as suspended waves cutting through a sea of red curry coconut milk base. All of it lapping at the banks of, most typically, a shipwrecked and half-submerged island of seasoned chicken leg.
The broth is a uniquely fluid runny base. A consistency that seems to defy logic in its capability to adhere to the protein, noodles and accoutrements but seemingly nothing else. Speaking add-ins, or “fixins” as we would call them where I come from, they are not bit players but a critical part of an ensemble.
An acquaintance in Bangkok shared with me that khao soi is “like Thailand’s chicken noodle soup.” I believe it was meant as a compliment, paying homage more to the iconic place the dish holds in the culinary comfort canon versus pound-for-pound taste. However, it makes me uneasy to place these two things in such close competitive proximity. They are not the same and do not belong in the same orbit. Does a Toyota Camry deserves to be classified a sports car? No.
It is customary in southeast Asian cultures for diners to doctor a bowl of noodles to their taste. However, one should pay respect to the chef and the recipe by first sampling a spoon of the cherished broth in its unadulterated form. The idea here is both a sign of respect and to ensure the right amount of tinkering. No matter your true thoughts on the unchanged trial sip, if you make eye contact with the pot-master, give a nod of approval. A masterful base should result in a light touch with the lime and ground chili oil. However, the accompanying plate of pickled mustard greens and shallots all go in the pool.
To experience khao soi in the truest form requires a fully sensory dunk in the deep end, and also a trip to the mecca of the dish in Thailand: Chiang Mai. A few establishment requirements will ensure a memorable experience before digging into a bowl. It must be open-air, with a minimum of four tin condiment containers gracing a corner of the table. Said table should be low-grade plastic or stainless steel and uneven. Do not even think about putting a napkin or packet under a table leg. You may be, rightfully, asked to leave. Finally, a seat should be as difficult to locate as walking into a darkened movie theater on opening weekend, when the previews are already wrapping up.
A fantastic khao soi should leave your taste buds craving more, with a residue oil film and bare chicken bone in the bowl. Nothing else required but a few extra beads of perspiration and slightly loosened nasal faucet. It’s the good heat.
So, you’ve arrived in Chiang Mai either by land or by air. You are hungry…
…WHERE TO GO
5. Khao Soi Arak: Just inside the Old City’s walls, across the southwestern-most bridge, a left turn down a nondescript street reveals this minimalist shop churning out delicious bowls of khao soi. Dining here means is like an invite to a backyard cookout - requiring steps around the randomized potted plants, limboing under laundry lines and the purr of an old mystery refrigerator sitting in the corner. Is it the proprietor’s backyard? Who can say for certain? What is guaranteed is an option of chicken, pork or beef bowls that go slightly lighter on the coconut milk and heat than most others in town. However, the Tupperware containers of chili paste adorning the Winnie-the-Pooh vinyl clothed tables is some of the best in town - so scoop away! I enjoyed the chicken, but a local at an adjoining table swore the pork was this shops specialty. Next time! A very serviceable bowl nonetheless. Although, there is slightly better flavor and balance to be found.
Pro Tip: They serve a very well balanced Thai Iced Tea here. Get it.
4. Khao Soi Islam: This establishment on the east side of the city sits just outside the Old City walls. Here, they craft the best example of “traditional” Muslim style halal noodles. One will quickly denote a thinner broth and lack of heat. Chilis get less emphasis during the genesis of this style. Good news for heat-seekers is the availability of a robust dry chili paste table side that quickly reintroduces a kick as needed. Do not let the simplified appearance of this bowl versus others disappoint when placed before you. The outward subtlety belies a delivery of really good flavor. I enjoyed the beef version, but they also offer a fish khao soi - something no other menu I looked over mentioned and could be an intriguing option.
Pro Tip: Crispy, flaky samosas are on the menu. These warm pockets are butter bombs that try their best to steal the show from the noodle offerings. I recommend getting one (or two) along with your order.
3. Khao Soi Khun Yai: This outdoor patio tucked just off Sri Poom Road overlooks the moat of the northwest city walls. It marks the first of three establishments that set the gold standard for khao soi in the city. The aunties at Khun Yai are running one of the more “professional” operations, and that does not necessarily mean fancy. Instead, it is the choreographed efficiency, movement and the spacious open-air seating area. Each combines for an expansive feeling that is rare within the Old City walls. Here, the rich deep-red broth is married with an abundance of noodles cut to the perfect thickness and cooked al dente. The chew on the glutinous strands at Khun Yai might be the best in town. The atmosphere is a flashback trip to grandma’s house - that is, if grandma was a hip lady that allowed you to eat out in the yard and made kick-ass noodles.
Pro Tip: Khun Yai serves, perhaps, the largest portions in town. This means they serve “normal” size portions. Most bowls of khao soi are modest portions served in small bowls and meant to leave you satisfied. They do not fulfill the Western “super-size” expectations. Great flavors and ingredients deserve moderation.
2. Khao Soy Maesai: My first stop in town and likely the same for many arriving to Chiang Mai with a prior awareness of the signature dish. Maesai benefits from (or has been victimized by, depending on your perspective) popular awareness from word-of-mouth morphing to social media and travel “influencer” zeitgeist. It populates at the top of Google searches. It is also the shop that is geographically closest to the hip and trendy Nimman neighborhood. Folks know to look for the yellow sign on the roadside that cautions one to steer into the otherwise unmarked makeshift kitchen. Grab a seat and fill out one of the paper slips on the table to put in your order. The spot is popular for a reason, they balance demand without sacrificing quality. The milky broth has an undercurrent of sweetness that sets it apart from others, and the chicken is fall off the bone moist. Note that a defense mechanism to the crazy popularity of their shop seems to be a relatively cold and methodical serving style here. It is especially noticeable against a backdrop of otherwise lovely Thai interactions and smiles you encounter everywhere else in the city. It reminded me of in-demand ramen shops in Tokyo - get there early, get your order in, slurp it down and then make way for the next patron to saddle up.
Pro Tip: Besides the obligatory guidance to get their early or be left taking your ball and going home noddle-less, look for the Thai Lemon Tea on the menu. If you do not see it, ask for it. My understanding is that it is somewhat seasonal but if you luck into its availability, you’ll be enthralled with the well-balanced sugar levels and lemon kick. This is exceptional iced team, and that is coming from someone who grew up on sweet tea in the South.
1. Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm: Firmly posting itself atop a strong set of contenders is this “blink and you miss it” spot in the Hai Ya District southeast of the Old Town. Most visitors will unknowingly find themselves in this neighborhood for the Saturday Night Market, but likely not many other dedicated journeys to this mostly residential neighborhood. Do not be this unfortunate soul. What they produce in this simple setup is a khao soi that delivers the best combination of each of the individual elements described so far: moist chicken that surrenders to the slightest touch of the spoon, seasoned broth of ideal consistency and heat that delivers real flavor in lieu of pain. This is the only location where the broth required zero fiddling. Spice level is “pret-a-manger,” delivering just enough burn to make one sit up a little straighter and recognize the game, but not enough to dull the tastebuds and render the rest of the bowl a numb slurping exercise. The complex broth is thick enough that the floating bubbles of savory oil cling defiantly to the porcelain sides - proudly marking your progress as you greedily dig in. The location only adds to the mystique and experience. Stainless steel shanty walls and roof that could double as an auto garage, trapping the heat and aromas of the massive stock pots and exposed burner flames. Helming it all is an old uncle in perpetual, yet still graceful, movement between stirring and seasoning. With the exception of the low volume from the mounted TV in the back of the space playing some Thai version of a Judge Judy style program, this place is quiet. I came here three times during my nine days in Chiang Mai. They did not even ask for my order on the final trip, just set in front of me the best damn bowl of khao soi in the city.
Pro Tip: Pair your bowl of noodles with an ice cold Mexican Coke. Given the rustic abode and balanced heat of the dish, it’s an ideal supporting player.