While Bangkok has established a slick, glamorous dining scene, the comparatively laid-back, earthy Chiang Mai remains rustic, traditional, and, of course, very spicy. This mecca of night market fare and hole-in-the-wall discoveries—“restaurant” may entail little more than a three-walled concrete inlet or portable tables and chairs under a makeshift tin roof or tarp—is where Andy Ricker, James Beard Award–winning chef and owner of Portland and New York’s Pok Pok restaurants, found his calling.
In fact, Ricker spends several months a year living here, and many of the recipes featured in his New York Times bestseller, Pok Pok, are inspired or derived directly from his favorite Chiang Mai haunts. Currently at work on a pair of new tomes, dedicated to noodles and drinking fare, respectively, Ricker maintains an Instagram account, @pawkhrua, that serves as an invaluable visitors’ guide to the best tucked-away, mouthwatering Chiang Mai gems, while the blog of Ricker’s photographer friend, Austin Bush, is also riddled with delicious dishes and spots to seek out.
Ricker took us on a motorcycle tour of some Chiang Mai musts, which you’ll find here with a few other choice hot spots, from a romantic fine dining venue to a trendy “hi-so” (high society) Thai hangout to a dose of American comfort fare.
Khao Soi Prince
Where: 105-109 Th Kaew Nawarat
Over a half-century old and named after the nearby Prince Royal’s College, this is one of Ricker’s favorite khao soi joints. Chiang Mai’s best-known and most ubiquitous culinary staple, khao soi, is coconut and curry-based soup with egg noodles, chicken, and some crunchy fried noodles for texture. It’s rich, distinctive, and best served with a lime wedge and a pickled mustard greens garnish. A bowl costs just $1 or $1.15 with beef, and if you’re feeling really hungry, add rice with Indian spices, herbs, and soup ($1).
Laap Dii Khom Patan
Where: Soi 5, Thanon Arak
For a broad sampling of northern Thai flavors, this almost ramshackle roadside venue is the place. Aluminum pots crowd a table at the front—there’s no actual door to speak of—containing intensely flavored soups, stews, and spicy laap minced meat salads. Laap khom consists of raw beef with bile and blood for flavor, while the wok-fried (and less likely to impart unpleasant bacteria or heebie jeebies) laap khua adds offal to the mix. Pescetarian? Try the catfish-based laap plaa duk. A word of warning: mosquitoes fond of Western blood congregate near the dining area’s rear, so apply repellant liberally lest you become a tasty farang meal for these pesky little residents.
Where: 16/10 Kutao Soi 3
Myanmar’s Shan region and people, Tai Yai in Thai, are responsible for one of Southeast Asia’s most delicious and, to North Americans, obscure styles of cuisine. Located across a narrow dirt road from a gas pump and close to Wat Ku Tao, this discrete hole in the wall serves up lovingly made-to-order, utterly mind-blowing Tai Yai fare. Burmese ephemera pepper otherwise bare white walls, while retro Burmese pop music plays. Conveniently, menus are available in several languages, including English, with photos of each dish, but these images barely convey the ultra-fresh, fragrant food you’re in for. After sampling moo gon turmeric pork meatballs bathing in succulent gravy and creamy Pit Ko Sai soybean dip with crisp veggies and herbs, you may feel compelled to journey to the north.
Huen Jai Yong
Where: 65 Moo 4, Thambon Buak Khang, Samkampaeng
One of Ricker’s musts for Chiang Mai visitors, this wooden home-turned-restaurant offers a refined survey of northern Thai cuisine, particularly that of the Lamphun province, in a halcyon and rural environment. It is well worth its 20-minute drive outside the city, so be sure to order Chiang Mai’s famed sai oua sausage, its insides packed with coriander, lemongrass, and galangal; tam baakeua, eggplant salad with hard-boiled eggs; and kaeng kanun, a coconut-free curry with jackfruit and pork ribs.
The Dining Room at 137 Pillars House
Where: 2 Soi 1 Nawatgate Road
One of the city’s most gorgeous five-star boutique properties, the lushly landscaped 30-room 137 Pillars House, is the setting for this contemporary fine dining venue. Creative, upscale Thai, Southeast Asian, and Western fusion dishes like gaeng hung lay gae, lamb shank curry with edamame, are offered and use local and organic farm products. The coffee is sourced from a tribal village (part of an NGO effort). If you stay overnight be sure to use the infinity pool, juxtaposed dramatically against a sprawling living wall.
Tong Tem Toh
Where: 11 Nimmanhemin, Soi 13
Chiang Mai’s trendiest, boutique-y neighborhood is thick with see-and-be-seen eateries, local design and art shops, galleries, cafes, and nightclubs. One of the hottest weekend lunch spots is the leafy, patio-like Tong Tem Toh. Between taking endless selfies, stylish patrons chow down on northern Thai sausage, sai oua; roasted banana pepper chili dip, nam prik noom; pork belly, kaeng hang lay curry; and olive-shaped “puff mushrooms,” served with galangal chili dip (recommended during May, when in season). It’s a very different scene and crowd, and Thai people from across the country love to come here and brag via social media.
Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak
Where: Thanon Manee Nop Parat, Amphoe Mueang
Possibly Chiang Mai’s most famous food personality is the cleaver-wielding, cowboy hat-wearing, deadpan-faced food hawker known as “Cowgirl.” Featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” her stall at the White Elephant Gate (Chang Puak) night market serves up one of Ricker’s favorite comfort foods: khao kha moo, fall-apart stewed pork knuckle meat over rice with a hard-boiled egg on the side.
Where: Nimmanhemin, Soi 11
If itching for some farang comfort food after days of khao soi, offal, and spicy laab, this compact yellow and white food truck offers prime ground beef relief to Western expats and tourists alike. Good artisanal hamburgers in Chiang Mai, who knew?