So much more than khao soi.
Eating is pure joy in a city like Chiang Mai, where nature provides an abundance of tastes and flavors beyond coconuts. Two important elements to understand in regards to Chiang Mai’s local cuisine are geographical history and a famous dish.
First, understand Lanna food, which encompasses Northern Thai regions that were formerly known as the Kingdom of Lanna. Its cuisine is far more difficult to find in other parts of Thailand where coconuts are far more prevalent. Lanna-style dishes come with many wild mushrooms, forest vegetables, and fruits since temperatures are cooler in the northern mountainous areas. Most dishes will contain flavors similar to those in the Shan State, Burma and/or Laos.
In addition, you won’t miss khao soi on any restaurant menu since it’s a profoundly beloved regional dish. Khao soi, which means “cut rice,” is a curry-based egg noodle served with pickled mustard greens, lime, shallots, chillies, and meat. Although in several vegan restaurants on the list below, meats are replaced with vegetables.
Here are some of my personal restaurant recommendations that will expand your palette and a deeper appreciation for local tastes.
1. Cuisine de Garden
For the most incredible meal in Chiang Mai, reserve a table at Cuisine de Garden. The 15-course tasting menu is completely nature-inspired, offering a deep dive into an innovative vision of local ingredients and produce. Chef Nan Leelawat Mankongtiphan was a furniture designer who became inspired by Copenhagen’s renowned Noma restaurant. The entire culinary experience begins right at the minute you exit the car, entering a charming garden with stones that pave a hushed path into a minimalistic setting. The 12-seat restaurant includes an open kitchen, brilliant presentation, and artistic bites. Expect to have every part of your senses be wonderfully surprised. This is, by far, the best restaurant in Chiang Mai.
2. Oxygen Dining Room
The French and Thai fusion is delivered in the most playful and creative manner at Oxygen Dining Room, thanks to chef Alexandre Demard who comes from a background of Cannes’ Mediterranean glamour and outstanding caliber. When butter comes in three different flavors, alongside an organic egg khao khao moo (braised pork leg,) you know that chef Alex likes to mix things up with a whimsical wink. Much of his genius comes from transforming Thai street food’s traditional dishes into an imaginitive affair, delivered to excite your palette with unpredictability.
3. The Service Restaurant 1921
If Oxygen Dining Room is serving up the best French/Thai fusion, then The Service Restaurant 1921 depicts a pretty fabulous Sechuan/Thai blend. To begin with, Anantara Resort is a sexy location full of style and zen. Additionally, The Service Restaurant 1921 retells a powerful history of the British Consulate where the restaurant is situated today. The colonial house built in 1915 now features old-school allure with a secret door that leads to an opulent dining room. Menus are delivered inside secret service envelopes, and dishes are wildly delectable. Both hot and peppery, the menu remains a good balance between Sechuan and Thai. Don’t miss: Pla Tom Buay Mor Fai (Tilapia fish soup in plum broth with Chinese celery and fresh chopped chili) and its signature Gaeng Nue Yang Bai Chaplu (braised beef shank concealed in yellow curry with betel leaf). Afterwards, the cocktail bar is a sleek spot to cool your taste buds.
4. Free Bird Cafe
For something a bit more casual and vegan, don’t miss Free Bird Cafe. This “café with a cause” offers a fantastic array of organic options, from food, smoothies, juices, coffees, and desserts. You’ll see many travelers eating here, but we love it because the café supports Thai Freedom House, which gives back to a community language and arts program for refugees. If you didn’t know, there’s quite a huge population of Burmese refugees in Chiang Mai. Founder of Thai Freedom House, Lisa Nesser is originally from Saint Louis, MO. She created the foundation to provide “a healthy, fulfilling daily meal, a safe house where students and their family members could gather and use as a community space, they could share their challenges and receive the much desired education that they sought.”
5. Reform Kafé
Inside the cozy Green Tiger Hotel, Reform Kafé is a vegetarian restaurant that serves Thai and European dishes. The ambiance is extremely relaxing and zen. Large trees and even frogs surround the outdoor courtyard where you’ll witness travelers indulging in tasty dishes or working on their laptops. Dive into Thai specialties, fresh garden salads, fruit juices, smoothies, and coffee. Reform Kafé uses locally sourced, organic or pesticide-free ingredients whenever possible.
6. Sukhothai Tom Yum Noodle Shop ร้านก๋วยเตี๋ยวต้มยำสุโขทัย
The best way to find this place is to copy and paste the restaurant name in Google Maps ร้านก๋วยเตี๋ยวต้มยำสุโขทัย, because if you type in Sukhothai, it’ll bring up something else. BUT, you’ve got to stop at this street food/noodle restaurant for the most authentically local experience! I had the cheapest and most absolutely deletable meal here. The menu will be completely in Thai or Chinese Mandarin, so you can point at pictures if that’s easier. But let them know you’d like a tomyam noodle, and the ladies behind the open kitchen will take good care of you. Other goodies include: rice topped with stir fried pork and basil, stewed pork leg on rice, and garlic pork on rice. Everything goes down even better with a fresh coconut juice, that’s key!