When I decided to start research for a second book, this one for, basically, all of Thailand ex-Bangkok, I knew it would be a big undertaking. Nosing out Bangkok’s street food stalls took a year; this one … could take more. More months of 5 lunches and 3 dinners a day, more weeks registering a steadily rising number on the scale, more nights of clutching at my belly as I struggle to digest (I know, I know. Pity me! Pity me!).
Well, screw that. I’ll tell you now: I want this done by year-end. I’m no spring chicken, and I am no longer pregnant, so I can no longer hide all the extra poundage behind the “but I’m pregnant excuse!”. Maybe I don’t have that much time left before my digestive system finally rebels once and for all and explodes. Long story short: I will have to eat more, now. What better place to start than Chiang Mai?
It’s obvious where out-of-towners eat when they come to the “capital of the North”: the usual suspects, Lamduan Faham (either branch), Samoerjai, Huen Phen. What they eat: khao soy, roasted young chili dip (nam prik num), deep-fried pork (moo tod). I decided I would do all I can to avoid that for the time being. You already know these places, right? There must be some culinary gems that all yinz guys have overlooked!
Apparently, “hidden culinary gems” means this:
Yes, I had a whole lot of khao mun gai. Inexplicably. Because, I think you all know this, chicken rice is not in any way a Northern Thai thing. It’s a “way north…er…east of Thailand” thing (my geography isn’t too good). In my defense, it’s a little different here in Chiang Mai: the rice is fluffier and less fatty, and, well, the chicken appears to be too. Two stand-outs were Khao Mun Gai Hailum (to the right near the entrance of Rotfai Road, 053-242-833) and Gied Ocha (41-43 Intawororos Road, 053-328-262-3); the former a bare-bones haven for chicken rice purists who are picky about both their rice and their chicken, the latter a sunny, welcoming favorite where the owner — a former lottery winner, yes really — still patrols the dining room, barking out incomprehensible orders to a beleaguered and obviously very clever Hainanese chicken rice-making station in front.
On the same road as Gied Ocha stands a fish noodle-and-rice porridge stand called Sa-Ard (33-35 Intawororos Road, 053-327-261) that, as full as I was, turned out to be among the most delicious fish noodle places I’ve been to (I am not a fish noodle fan). The broth, perfectly clear and a bright, fresh slick of seafood; an assorted array of fish meatballs of various shapes and degrees of deliciousness; a bowl heavy with lettuce and deep-fried garlic. What I’m talking about, when I came to and remembered to take a photo:
Other good things: Isaan sausages, both stuffed with rice and with woon sen, or glass vermicelli; deep-fried bananas, encased in a lattice of batter and coconut flakes; som tum muang, or “Northern-style” grated green papaya salad, flavored with tamarind juice instead of lime (is that really what makes it Northern?); and thu-ka-ko, rounds of taro tossed in flour and deep-fried, a street snack you actually honest-to-God can’t get anywhere else, apparently.
But where’s the Northern Thai food? What am I, made of stone? Of course I had some. First, at a Disneyland-style “Northern Thai” restaurant where the food swung through some very un-Northernlike extremes of flavor to accommodate the Bangkokians who want their Northern food to be as highly spiced as Isaan; then, at a restaurant my dad directed me too, promising that the food would be just like what I would get from my Aunt Priew (this is very high praise).
Huen Jai Yong (near Sankumpang intersection, 086-671-8710, 086-730-2673) might be hard to get to, and it’s definitely a restaurant, not a street food stall, but it’s worth it to call and ask for those directions (I am useless at directions. Can you tell?) This is Northern food: flavorful yet a little mellow, yummy but not pandering (too sweet, too spicy). Don’t miss out on the saa pak, a “salad” of minced vegetables that recalls salty and tart without overly favoring either, or the thum makuea, mashed Thai eggplant bearing a mellowness that defies its fierce appearance.
But as good as Aunt Priew? Sorry. No.