In 10th grade, in an exercise to get to know each other, my teacher asked each student to share what their favorite food was. I remember that moment well because the question was a hard one for me to admit to, but my answer that I still stand by today is toast. Like the kind you have for breakfast with jam. Or maybe peanut butter. I just love toast. Wheat toast to be exact.
The point I’m trying to make here is I’m no foodie. So, I was surprised when the food in Chiang Mai blew me away. I know what you are probably thinking—I just said I don’t care about food, so why trust me? Of course, you don’t have to, but hear me out.
A legit foodie couple we met on our elephant adventure almost entirely inspired this day of eating. They live in L.A. and had planned their Thailand trip ENTIRELY around food. They told us of their favorite spots then shared some pins on a map with Andrew and we followed their advice but added more desserts because that is a food I do care about. So, let’s talk food. (And if you want a handy map, there is one at the bottom of this post.)
Khao Soi From Phil Rosenthal
Our day of eating started with the most famous local dish of Northern Thailand—khao soi. The recommendation for the best bowl in Chaing Mai came from my new favorite TV personality, Phil. His Netflix show, Somebody Feed Phil, is possibly the most endearing thing on TV. Seriously, if you like food and travel it’s worth checking out.
See? Isn’t he the best? And this bowl of khao soi is second best. Khao soi is a tangy, spicy soup filled with thick egg noodles, super tender meat, and loads of toppings including crispy onions, lime juice, pickled green things (sorry, a real foodie would know what they were), and fresh shallots. I don’t generally crave soup for lunch on 90-degree days, but Phil convinced me it was the thing to do.
After biking across town toward the pin on Andrew’s map, we settled into plastic stools in the back of what can only be described as a shack. Here is a map. As I was leaning across the aisle to catch a breeze from the nearest fan, the owner came over, pointed to the khao soi on the menu and asked, “chicken or beef?” He knew why we were there.
We said “chicken” and he was off. Within two minutes, he had our big bowls of soup in front of us. We dug in. OMG, neither of us could stop grinning as we ate. Andrew paused for a second, looked up and said, “This is WHY we travel.” This delicious khao soi was the perfect mix of spicy and tangy, yet comforting and delicious. We were dripping with sweat but downed both bowls.
The best part? Each bowl cost only 50 Baht, which is about $1.60 USD. We loved it so much that we went again the next day on our way back from Sticky Falls where we determined the beef was even better than the chicken.
Gateway Coffee Roasters
After the soup, our goal was to cool off and fight off the impending food coma. Iced coffee was the answer. After riding our bikes to a recommended coffee shop pin on Andrew’s map, we looked around only to see an all-white building with one small door.
We went through that door and followed the coffee aroma up a flight of stairs, through an artist’s loft, and then found ourselves in the supply room with another door. We opened the door and walked into Gateway Coffee Roasters. The space was decorated minimally with hardwood floors and big open windows. It had a very L.A. vibe and was a nice place to rest for a while.
When it was time to order, I really just wanted to sit down so I blurted out the first menu item my eyes focused on—the Lost Star Coffee. After ordering, I was sure I had made a mistake. Plum juice and coffee? Yuck. What have I done?
But as I watched the barista prepare my drink with the precision of an artisanal cocktail, my worries began to subside. The Lost Star drink was iced espresso, a chunk of sugar cane, a spritz of lemon, and a side of plum juice to mix in. It was like nothing I have ever tasted.
Tart but smooth. Bitter but sweet. And so flavorful that I had to sip on it like a fine scotch. It was beautiful and delicious and a flavor combination I doubt I will taste again. But, it was not cheap. At 160 Baht, this coffee was more than three times the price of lunch—about $5 USD. However, worth every penny.
Cowboy Hat Pork Lady
Then, it was time for dinner. We grabbed our friend Alan (remember him from motorbiking?) and set off for the North Gate Market in search of a woman wearing a cowboy hat. She was featured on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows for her pork dish, though her secret sauce is the real star. Apparently, she has been famous in China for years but her western fame is more recent.
Cowboy hats aren’t common in Chiang Mai so we found her within minutes of arriving at the market and she looked impeccable. She wore a big cowboy hat, perfect makeup, and tailored lacy blouse all while chopping up big pieces of meat. We sat at an outdoor table behind her stall to browse the menu. It had two things on it—a small bowl of pork and rice or a large bowl of pork and rice. At just 60 Baht ($1.90 USD) we ordered large bowls.
When the bowls arrived, they looked simple. Just pork on top of rice with a soft-boiled egg on the side. Each table had pickled green stuff (clearly, still not a foodie) to add as a topping and buckets of the sweet vinegar sauce labeled “Flavor of Love” or just simply “Happy Sauce.”
The dish was soft and warm and just felt … comfortable. The sauce makes it unique but doesn't overpower your taste buds. While not my favorite dish in Chaing Mai, I thought about that bowl of pork for days after. It was simple enough that I could eat it every day for dinner and be happy.
Andrew and Alan liked it so much they ordered seconds, which they wolfed down as fast as the first bowls. But, I knew better. I saved room for dessert.
My Roti Guy
I ate roti every night we were in Chiang Mai. Roti is something in between a crepe and a pancake but made with more butter. The roti starts as a ball of dough that is spread very thin, then tossed back into a pancake shape filled with bubbles before it is thrown onto a hot griddle. Once solidified, more butter is added along with toppings, then it is rolled up like a taquito.
This was my personal roti guy. His stand was just outside of our hotel (here's a map that will get you closeby) and I bought roti from him five nights in a row. Even though he showed no sign of recognizing me after five nights, I still feel very loyal to his roti cart. I think he liked me.
Each night I ordered strawberry marmalade roti. They reminded me of the strawberry crepes my mom made for dinner each time Dad was out of town (which is what my grandmother, Omi, made for my mom each time her Dad went out of town). Except much thicker and sometimes a bit charred from the griddle. Delicious. And filling. I practically rolled into bed most nights.
Maybe it is not surprising that roti was my favorite food in all of Thailand. After all, it is essentially bread and jam—a sweet alternative to toast. What can I say? I know what I like.