So let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Yes, I did actually order that monstrosity that’s quite possibly the biggest cardiac arrest food offering in all of Chiang Mai. No, I didn’t realize it would taste even worse than it looks so I only took a few bites and offered up my review on one of the dozens of Facebook food groups. Regular followers of this blog know I’ve sworn (even promised) not to make this another “foodie blog”. But arriving in Malaysia two years ago meant sampling a cornucopia of new tastes normally unfamiliar to most western pallets so I decided that writing about local food was an important part of our expat experience. With Malaysian favorites like Nasi Lemak, Hokkien Mee and Laksa part of daily life, I figured I’d post the original Dreaded Foodie Post once and never look back.
Fast forwarding two years to our present expat life in Chiang Mai, I found myself wondering how to continue a blog mostly written in storybook fashion in a place known as “The Digital Nomad Capital of Southeast Asia.” Competing with thousands of gen X bloggers trying to sell people e-books and information seemed pointless and as you may know, monetizing and commercialization are synonyms for work in my book. Keeping the overall theme of two North Americans experimenting with early retirement overseas meant asking my readers how to find a niche to avoid duplicating other blogs.
After reading your comments, the consensus was to write about life in Chiang Mai for married, childless middle age couples that voluntarily chose a place usually reserved for backpackers, drop out of lifers, and complaining retirees that live here because they’re “financially challenged”. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s very unique “season free” climate spoiled us and we didn’t expect four straight months of rain almost every day and night even in rainy season. Mostly describing the weather since July as worse than Seattle in winter but much hotter, our adventures haven’t really panned out yet . Since we’re not big fans of hiking in the rain and can’t afford the gas money associated with driving for the sake of creating stories, I’ve decided to devote a post to the default topic that’s universally appreciated by almost anyone. So today we present the Thai version of That Dreaded Foodie Post. Keeping with the blog’s theme, this post is a suburbanite expat’s guide to food in Chiang Mai with most places south of the old city and airport. Also including a few choices in the main drags, it’s certainly not all-inclusive and of course all food reviews are subjective so I’ll understand if you patronize one and think I’m way off base. (Disclaimer: a long wordy post with lots of pictures follows so don’t click if you have no patience)
GIven the size of this post, I cheated a bit. Having spent way too much time on Chiang Mai Eats, the premier Facebook food group for the area, I’ve been posting reviews for a few months trying to add both honesty and a bit of levity where possible. Often finding it difficult if the food comes out less than stellar, there’s always a big debate about whether negativity should be permitted or if people should only post five-star reviews. Personally, I follow the admin’s viewpoint that says it’s good to know if certain aspects of a restaurant were poor like service or quality of food as long as there’s no slandering. Nobody wants to take business away from a market quickly becoming flooded with more choices than customers.
So instead of writing an entirely new post, I thought I’d share ten recent reviews I posted on “CME”. Understanding that members of a local Facebook food group are very different from the diverse group of readers from around the globe that stumble onto my blog, I prefaced each review with a summary and edited for content but I apologize if some of it sounds like inside information for locals. Many places don’t have their own websites so I’ve linked to something for all of them so you can find them if you’re curious. Unlike Penang, the western food in Chiang Mai is actually good so I’ve included various types of food besides Thai to help give readers a sense of what’s available here. Listed in chronological order over the last two months, keep in mind we actually don’t eat out every night. And we’re apparently in the minority since hardly any expats in Chaing Mai even know where their kitchen is. (Many don’t even have one)
Style: Northern Thai
The skinny: Above average regional cuisine from the Northeastern parts of Thailand. (Isan). Normally quite spicy and rarely seen in North American or European Thai restaurants.
1) Lemongrass chicken: crispy golden brown and served with a vinegar based spicy red sauce.
2) Lao Pork – not the same as Larb (a type of Lao salad) but a very flavorful grilled Pork served with fried potatoes (not sure why the world loves French fries so much) and a mildly spicy and slightly starchy brown sauce
3) Mango Salad with Fried snapper – one page on the menu is all spicy salads. Watch out for this one if you like “pet nit noy”. We did ask for all dishes mildly spicy and even heard them yell it out. I think the Thai have a private laugh when foreigners make this silly request. Anyway, when you order take away the fish comes separately which is a good thing ate because it was really good by itself but gets a bit drowned out by spice when mixed together as intended.
4) Som Tam with vermicelli and fermented fish – basic Som Tam. Nothing special and I prefer it without noodles but a happy wife makes a happy life. They have a large selection of Som Tom variations so go crazy.
I can’t tell you the hours because nobody told Google maps yet but I can say they’re one of the rare places to get take away during those sadly dead hours between lunch and dinner (usually when we want it so I can get out of Nimman before rush hour).Parking? Hahaha. Actually, not bad at all at 10 AM on Tuesday in low season. It’s a small place but the food came out quickly. Overall, 4 out of 5 for me and recommended but not a “must do” with so much great food to discover.
The Skinny: Quite simply, this is easily the best American style food in Chiang Mai. Conveniently located (for us) across the street from our suburban moo-baan in Mae-Hia (south of the old city and airport), the proprietor was the head chef of Duke’s (the most well-known and one of the oldest American style restaurants in Chiang Mai), and he also worked at Outback, Chi Chi’s and several other American restaurants. He’s classically trained and is constantly adding new items. Often holding “best of” contests on the Facebook group, the winner for best ribs was someone else which clearly shows how subjective food posts are. The hands down winner for ribs and enormous portions, don’t miss this place. He also makes the closest thing to “New York style pizza” you’ll find. Trust me, I’m from Brooklyn.
Style: Western style Brunch
The skinny: “Nimman” is the hipster neighborhood in Chiang Mai where thousands of digital nomads, gen Xers and wannabe chic urban types live. Easily the place with the largest choice of eateries, many are good, most are overpriced by Chiang Mai standards and many expats literally never leave the area (which is a damn shame given how much the region offers). Prone to impossible parking and jokes from the food groups targeting those who limit their eating to the overcrowded tourist hub, we like to eat late breakfasts or lunch on weekdays when crowds are smaller. One of the better choices for those seeking something besides “proper British breakfast” (we can’t fathom baked beans in the morning), their food is all locally sourced, fresh and another reason living in Thailand blows away Penang.
Yeah, um, Nimman. Again. Sorry. But for my 600 Baht this is the best brunch we’ve come across and we’ve tried (and disagreed with) several CME “best western breakfast” recommendations. I know this isn’t exactly a new and undiscovered place but we’ve only been here two months and haven’t eaten our way through town yet.
Not doing justice with the menu description, my dish had to have at least four eggs. The sage onion sausage is worth the trip alone and isn’t like most boring “American style” breakfast sausages. It also had four prices of baked Brioche, pomegranates, sour cream, a mustard glaze, and roasted onions.
The eggs Bennie dish had avocado sauces and sweet potatoes but not as much protein. Best part was the five-minute wait unlike Food4Thought where we waited upwards of 20 minutes while a large inattentive staff spent their time texting despite how we were one of only two customers. Fresh squeezed OJ was awesome (65 THB) and the Bloody Mary tempted me but I chose a latte instead. Well worth the hassle of the Nimman parking trudge which actually isn’t bad at 9:30 AM on a weekday in low season. Can’t wait for lunch there another time.
Style: Western style Pub Food
The skinny: Great for suburbanites like us, it’s located off Hang Dong Road about 20 minutes south of the old city. Basing the review on my own subjective likes for burgers, the owner not only responded but actually changed some of the menu based on dozens of comments spurred by my review. They have a som tom bar where you make your own spicy (or not) papaya salad and a good beer selection. The reference to rare beef below refers to a very controversial new place owned by Bangkok hot shots that’s received droves of publicity. Serving uncooked burgers (rare) which is unsafe, I can’t endorse them.
With burger wars heating up on CME as more small businesses open and compete for our meat lover’s dollar I thought we’d give Wild Hog Saloon in Hang Dong a shot. Recently opened and offering free fries and drinks for CME members it’s the only place so far where you can “build your burger” any way you want. First off there’s no issue with minced beef being rare, uncooked or otherwise offered in various states like rare to medium. Gaz, (the friendly owner) cooked the beef just fine and nobody asked how you like it done. Right off the bat I can say the owner is as friendly and personable as they come and came out to chat with us and the other patrons. Accepting constructive criticism, he calls his shop a “local place” and doesn’t expect to compete with the likes of every joint in town. There’s a som tum bar where you can try your hand at making homemade papaya salad so that was fun.
*Excellent large soft buns (sesame, poppy and plain)
*Good selection of optional toppings including some that Americans would never order like pickled beetroot (except me because I’m strange).
*Seven choices for cheese and five different sauces as well as HP, malted vinegar, ketchup and chili sauce on the tables
*Well presented and large burger with fast service.
*Cute local atmosphere and reasonable prices
*They serve the beef “smashed style” where they flatten it down really hard so that a patty can’t really be seen if you open the burger. For me, the beef lacked seasoning and without the benefit of a thick patty also lacked the juiciness when you bite into it. Looks big but didn’t have that delicious beef flavor I’m looking for.
*Potato wedges really need work as they were literally simply potatoes with no seasoning and not crispy or salty.
Style: Thai Noodle Soup
The Skinny: One of Chiang Mai’s best known fish noodle shops right in the heart of the old city. Basic menu that’s well worth a visit by visitors and expats.
Simple. Basic. Delicious. Like Anthony Bourdain, I also think a bowl of Asian noodle soup is the world’s most perfect comfort food. With the recent comments that Chiang Mai is becoming all burgers, ribs and pizza, here’s a perfect place to escape the western food craze and remember that this is Thailand. Enjoy some local food !! With only six items on the menu, Sa-Ard is well-known for its fish ball soup. Since Yen-To-Foo is my favorite Thai soup with its vinegary taste and soybean paste red color, I ate that and the fish soup. They also have Tom-Yum and Pork Bone soups that looked awesome.
The shop is quintessential Thai mom and pop with vintage pictures and old currency on the walls, a few fans providing no relief whatsoever from the blazing heat, staple condiments on the tables, a guy counting mounds of cash and one small menu in English. Exactly what lunch should be. The fish balls are tastier than others I’ve had and the homemade flat white noodles and flavorful broth will satisfy true noodle soup lovers. Be sure to add some crisp dried salmon that’s on all the tables. While I actually like Penang’s Hokkien Mee better than all Thai soups thanks to its rich complexity, I’d never go back to Malaysia to live and it’s well worth the 180 Baht tab so why not escape the Dreaded Burger Blues?
Style: European/North American/Pizza
The skinny: Featuring one of the region’s best Sunday Brunch options, September’s recently moved to a new location on Canal Road about 20 minutes south of the old city. Perfect before a visit to The Night Safari (a popular tourist spot we’d never go to), their menu is possibly the most diverse of all western food places with options suitable for all geographical pallets including North Americans, Europeans, Australians and Thais. They also have a brick pizza oven.
Offering one of my favorite Sunday Roasts with lamb, chicken, pork, gravy and mint sauce to die for, September’s also has a new brick pizza oven. We didn’t eat the pizza but I snapped a photo and it looks great and comes in a dozen flavors. September’s is Chiang Mai’s perfect answer to the European/North American/Australian taste and palette differences that have caused some feisty threads lately because the extensive menu offers something for every continent’s taste from burgers made with beef, pork or lamb to my personal favorite non Thai soup (Hungarian Goulash soup; seen below). There’s also pasta, European style meats, American appetizers, Thai, steaks and lamb chops.
All dishes are reasonably priced and despite the boisterous party of 25 kids taking up the entire small air-conditioned inside, the Finnish owner and his wife still accommodated us very attentively as usual. Outside seating is comfy if you don’t mind inhaling cigarettes and cooking pizza smells. Yes it’s far from many readers. But it’s not Nimman and it’s easy to park.
The skinny: Having lived in California with its large Latino population for so many years, I’m overly picky when it comes to Mexican food. After bad experiences in Cambodia, Myanmar and even here in Chiang Mai, we concluded there’s just not enough Latinos in Asia to expect anything remotely authentic. While Fajita’s won’t win any contests among ex California expats, its fresh and healthy menu filled with diverse choices make it the area’s best choice when you’re craving some tacos. The furthest from the old city on my list, there’s other options like Miguel’s or Salsa Kitchen but both fail miserably in my book for quality, authenticity and taste.
For my money Fajita’s is the freshest and tastiest Mexican in CM. Tortilla chips are super light and airy with perfect salting (the way they once were at Chevy’s for those Americans that remember the good old days when casual fast food was great). Nachos bell grande had lots of cheese, good sour cream, seasoned meat and fresh healthy salsa. The pickled jalapeños are great and the portion size is perfectly big without being enormous. I’ve never had any wrapped food item that’s greasy or heavy. Tonight we had two combos; grilled prawns and Tex Mex pork. Quesadillas and burritos are very light and taste more like falafel than that standard Mission District of San Francisco taste. (Unhealthy corn flour and so carb filled that the sugar dump lasts five hours).
Prawns were juicy and big, not over cooked and flavored with garlic. Using very tasty black beans instead of re-fried keeps it healthy and the only thing missing for me is no Mexican rice. (Maybe this is a Tex Mex thing? I’m scared of Texas so I wouldn’t know). Service was efficient and fast. Even though there was only one sever she was attentive and the entree came out before we finished the nachos. With the 20% discount the bill was a very affordable 670 Thai Baht although we didn’t have any alcohol.
Style: Small Cafe; Japanese/Thai/small pizzas
The skinny: Never far from a café or coffee shop anywhere in Chiang Mai, there’s literally about 20 within walking distance or a five-minute drive from our moo-baan even out in the suburbs. An undiscovered gem, this tiny café owned by some friendly people of Japanese descent features a rather large menu including ribs, pizza, curries, Thai food and delicious buns. Perfectly sized portions and inexpensive prices make it a great place for some coffee, a pastry, a healthy lunch or even dinner.
One of our favorite small local cafes has expanded their menu. Bunny Buns Cafe in Hang Dong is small (only three tables inside and two outside) relatively undiscovered despite great reviews on CME, and cozy. Serving a variety of fresh pasta, pizza, Japanese and Thai curries, the dishes are single sized and perfect for lunch. Now adding burgers, we’ve had the ribs and pizza for dinner and while it can’t compete with Rose’s Roadhouse around the corner, it’s a great choice when your appetite is less than American.
This time we had spicy black pasta with seafood (two shrimp, two squid and a huge well seasoned mussel and perfectly seasoned thin pasta), Japanese tonkatsu chicken (tasty breading and a delicious slightly spicy Japanese Curry) and a small portion of spare ribs with black bean sauce (Chinese style; salty and perfect). Since we just came from the gym and were still hungry we added an Azuki Bun. Soft, fresh and with perfect red bean filling, all the buns look great including curry, cinnamon and a pizza bun with cheese. With a total lunch bill of only 360 Baht it’s one of the best values around and the owners are friendly and helpful. It’s on Ratchapreuk Road between Canal Road and Hang Dong Road and well worth a visit.
Som Tum Pa Auan
The skinny: Whenever we need to be in or around the crowded areas near the old city, we try a new place for lunch. Almost like Manhattan, you’d need six lifetimes to try all the food places. Santitham is a cozy local neighborhood north of the old city with lots of small shops, local businesses and great charm. Getting used to the local expression “TIT” (this is Thailand), you often need to be flexible when you get a food hankering because places often close for no clear reason.
Unable to try a highly recommended ramen shop whose doors were bolted shut, we didn’t need to go far to find delicious local Thai food and with some help from the friendly Thai wait staff, we discovered a winner. Lack of farnags usually means great food and I love being the only white guy. Despite a huge amount of condescending negativity often found on many Chiang Mai Facebook groups, we think active participation in the local culture is one of the best parts of being an expat so we ignore the cynics and enjoy. This review addressed all the complaints about too many burger reviews and encourages readers to enjoy local food.
It’s no secret these been a barrage of burgers, ribs and pizza reviews on CME lately. While we like western as much as any other farang, we also like to remind ourselves we’re not in Kansas anymore (California, actually) so we made today an “Asian only” day for lunch and dinner and decided to keep it “Eastern” and share the results. We originally set off to eat ramen at Hideya Ramen but they were closed for some reason. Being that we were already in Santitham, you never have to go far for some good Thai food so we checked out Som Tom Pa Auan, a local place packed for lunch. Despite the English menu the order sheet is in Thai so the very friendly waiter helped us choose some dishes and then apologized for not speaking English which always gives me farang guilt since it’s their country.
Anyway, they have lots of Som Tom salads like most Thai places and we chose pomelo. Asking for “pet nit noy” worked perfectly this time and the sauce was one of the most perfect blends I’ve had in Thailand. With my Eastern European roots, I love pork liver and thankfully so do the Thai. The pork liver salad in Thai herbs was delicious with a generous helping of tender liver that wasn’t dry or too strong. Offering chicken wings, drums and legs as well as ribs you can order individually or by weight. One of the most perfectly marinated examples of Thai roast meat we’ve had, they cook chicken and non fatty short ribs in a Thai-Chinese style which I would call glazed but not too dry and not as sweet as a char su or hoisin with a moderately spicy Thai sauce for dipping. Perfectly done.
Finally, the Som tom salad with seafood was generously sized with lots of fresh shrimp, squid and mussels. Also not very spicy but extremely flavorful, lunch was about as perfect as you can get in Thailand if you want non western food. (No Pad Thai though) Service was fast, I was the only farang in the entire place which always bodes well and the entire meal was 290 Baht. There’s an abundance of food in CM besides traditional western if you venture out to any local neighborhood. If you’ve limited yourself to Nimman it’s well worth your time walking a bit and remembering one important reason for living here. Thai food !!
The skinny: Yet another example of a great ethnic restaurant that gets little attention, this place is right across the street from Mae-Hia fresh market but we barely noticed it until recently. Offering a very healthy menu heavy on the tofu, grains and pork, what it lacks in variety (no Korean bar-b-q or chap che), they make up for with large portions of super fresh ingredients. Even explaining the benefits of their ingredients on the menu, it’s feels like vegetarian or vegan but it’s got just enough meats to satisfy. The review was part two in my attempt to get CME members off pizza and ribs and into good local establishments. I can’t find anything at all on the internet in English for this restaurant so I’ve linked to the Mae Hia Fresh market; It’s across the street from there.
For part two of our “all Asian” food yesterday day we ate at a strangely unknown and underrated Korean place. Bean Story is hardly noticeable from the street and the sign is poorly lit but inside it’s comfortable, air-conditioned and part of an adjoining coffee shop.Offering a healthier menu the most Korean places but not going as far as being vegetarian, tofu, eggs, squid and pork are prominently featured on the menu which also explains the health benefits of various types of grains and plants. Starting off with the traditional sides, the Kim Chee was perfect for me with its anchovy paste and chili combination but not it’s not overly fermented like in Penang. Peanuts in teriyaki, bean sprouts and some type of cabbage top off the sides and they’re all fresh and delicious.
I’m a huge fan of Korean spicy stews so I ordered the soft tofu spicy stew and asked for “pet nit noy” like always. Filled with eggs and lots of fresh tofu I found it fresh and flavorful. Next up was Bibimbap. Surprisingly large and flavorful, the Korean chili paste on the side was not too spicy either but still had enough kick. Imitating sushi seems to be a thing in Korean food these days and I love sushi so I ordered the spicy squid kimbap which had so many pieces we took some home. Also very fresh and healthy. And finally, we had the spicy Korean pork and tofu which we also wound up taking home because the portions were bigger than expected. Arranged in a long row and topped with sesame, the firm tofu is better than average and they cooked the pork with garlic and spring onions. It also came out piping hot.
While not offering some other traditional favorites like Chap Che and most notably missing Korean style chicken, this place will no doubt not appeal to everyone but the trade-off is an incredibly fresh and very healthy meal.I’m looking forward to trying dishes we’ve never seen in North American Korean restaurants like a Korean seafood and chive pancake, ox bone soup and a dish made from perilla seeds. The Glass noodle stir fry also looks good and they even make Ma Po Tofu for those preferring a Chinese twist.
Usually not crowded, the service was great and it was possibly the fastest we’ve received four dishes so far in CM. Reasonably priced given the enormous portions the total bill with two Cokes was 590 Baht which is under $18 USD. Highly overpriced in our old world, burgers can be had anywhere on a budget and some are even good but good healthy Korean, Japanese and even Thai is another story which makes Bean Story another reason to add Asian food to your repertoire if you’re lucky enough to live in CM.The sign says they’re open for lunch staring at 10 AM but then again the herbal shop next door said open til 6 PM yet they were still open at 8 so like always I guess you should phone or at least check Google. Walkable from our moo baan, Bean Story is now part of our favorites list.
And there you have it. Probably not doing another major foodie post for a while, the rainy season supposedly tails off in November and eventually ends so we hope to be out and about more often. In three weeks we get our first visitor who ironically, is a Facebook friend I’ve never met. Liking the sound of Thailand so much, we chatted, I suggested she come visit and she said OK. After hanging out with us for four days she’ll be off on a two-week tour. Having seen her itinerary, I think it’s great and highly recommend it if you’re interested in a visit that gives a bit of everything. Here’s the link. After she’s gone, we’re off to Koh Lanta for our first trip outside Chiang Mai since becoming Experimental Expats in Thailand. So please hang around and if you wouldn’t mind, please give the blog a share to someone. Knowing I’m still not interested in making the blog a job, I’m hoping all my readers think my style is worthy enough for me to keep going albeit without becoming those Digital Nomad types. Cheers !!
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