Finding tasty food in Chiang Mai is not difficult. If anything, we were a bit overwhelmed by all the tasty smells and sights and had to remind ourselves to take it one meal at a time. Our general rule of thumb, during our short two-week stay, was to follow our noses to what smelled good and to look for simple plastic chairs at stalls full of locals. We found ourselves really happy with the tastes that Chiang Mai had to offer and look forward to many flavorful returns!

North Gate Night Market

Across the street from the north gate of Old City Chiang Mai. Map.

Just across the ring road and a bit west of the North Gate, the North Gate Night market starts cooking right around sunset with around fifteen stalls, each focusing on a different meal. If your heart beats as fast as ours for real, down-to-earth Thai food and if small plastic chairs under an open sky are all the atmosphere you need, then this is the place to feast in Chiang Mai. Most dishes are between 25 and 50 THB (just over $1 US on average) and you can order different dishes from different stalls and sit at the same table. That way you can combine a tasty noodle soup with some satay, while sitting with your friends at the Cowboy Pork lady’s tables.

The Cowboy Pork stand, serving Khao Kha Moo, is definitely the number one reason to come to the North Gate Night Market, and is pretty easy to find. Look for a huge line with an attractive Thai lady wearing a legit cowboy hat and a pair of high heels. Cowboy Lady stews a huge vat of pork legs for hours on end in a supremely tasty gravy. When you order a plate (30 THB with a hard boiled duck egg), she’ll expertly slice some meat off of the pork leg with a giant clever, finely chopping the meat and then placing it over a bed of rice, topped off with some of the gravy. What ended up on our plates was so simple and yet so perfect. Between the soft, perfectly cooked meat, the flavorful and fluffy rice, and the perfectly cooked duck egg (with a slightly runny, bright orange yolk), this basic looking dish is packed full of flavor. They serve the typical condiments such as fish sauce, vinegar, dried chili peppers, and sugar. I found that the dish was perfect as-is while Josh liked to add a bit of vinegar to his.

Another one of our favorites at this market was a noodle stand that sold, among other dishes, a spectacular beef noodle soup and exceptional phad kee mao (aka drunken noodles). The stand is right smack in the middle of this night market and is run by an energetic “uncle.” If you are passing by and look a bit lost, he will bring out an iPad menu and scroll through the selections. Once you know you’ve found the right place, forget his tablet menu and just order the two dishes listed above. These two unpretentious dishes are truly magical and set an unbelievably high standard for Pad Kee Mao and noodle soup lovers. The soup is a heavenly bowl full of a flavorful assortment of beef, vegetables, and fresh chewy noodles, in a sour and spicy broth. The phad kee mao here will completely reset the standard for drunken noodle lovers. While it’s a pretty standard take on phad kee mao, the balance of flavors as well as the perfectly wokked noodles with just the right amount of charring, make this version our favorite of any phad kee mao we’ve tried before. Both dishes mentioned here have a very healthy spice kick, so if you’re a bit sensitive to chillies—beware! Find this place early in your trip and you’ll have a hard time eating elsewhere!

While there is a number of other stalls that will serve typical Thai dishes (phad thai, satay, etc.), the Cowboy Pork Lady and the noodle soup stand were such a cut above, we stopped trying the other stands and just kept coming back here. There is a pretty good shake stand towards the western side of the market where I got a passion fruit shake each and every time I came to the market.

SP Chicken

9/1 Sam Larn Soi 1, Phra Singh, Muang, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Map

We ran across this little treasure of a simple restaurant while getting lost trying to find a guest house. The irresistible scent of garlic and roasting chicken, as we happened to pass by one day, made us vow to return and sample the BBQ chicken glistening on the spit. Before venturing back, we did a quick bit of googling and found out that not only is SP Chicken a pretty popular place with the locals, Andy Ricker (the James Beard Award winning chef and owner of Pok Pok in Portland and Red Hook) lists SP Chicken as one of his influences for his food. Our noses had certainly not led us astray. This chicken is just amazing. Garlicky enough to scare off every vampire in existence, juicy, and with perfect skin, we both agreed that this might just be the best rotisserie chicken we’ve ever had. Fresh veggies on the side made for a great balance and Josh could not resist getting one of his favorite Thai salads—naam tok nua—a beef salad. SP Chicken’s version of naam tok was great—moist with a great balance of Thai herbs. We left happy, with the perfume of garlic trailing us for the next few days.

Aroon Rai

Chaiyapoom Road, east of the moat and south of the east gate. Map

This is a great restaurant specializing in norther cuisine with a nearly fifty-fifty mix of locals and tourists dining here. Their huge menu of food can be overwhelming, but if you stick to the northern specialties, you’ll not only get some of their best dishes, but also a few things you won’t be able to find outside of Northwest Thailand. This is the restaurant where I fell in love with gaeng hang lay—a northwestern ginger pork curry—succulent, slow-cooked, and (of course) full of ginger. Made with slowly boiled pork belly, it’s like a party of melt-in-your-mouth pork and spices. We also loved other northern specialties here, like sai ua (the northwest’s unique and tasty sausage) and zingy som tam, all the juices sopped up with sticky rice. This place has a busy, no-nonsense atmosphere. Although the menu is huge and most tables are busy, you’ll be fed quickly and your tastebuds will rejoice!

We’s Restaurant

50 Phrapoklao Soi 1, near the corner with Ratpakinai road. Map

We’s Restaurant is living proof that it’s still possible to find some great home-cooked Thai food even in the touristy center of Old City Chiang Mai. The kitchen is run by the ever-energetic We and her small crew of prep cooks. The restaurant is cozy and the resident labrador, Muffy, is always happy to wake up from a nap to say hello. Pet him for just one second and he’s belly up for a tummy rub—instant friends! Besides the great canine company, We’s Restaurant serves some very satisfying Thai food. If you make a special request, Wee will make phad thai the traditional way for you with tamarind instead of lime juice. Her version of phad thai is not cloyingly sweet like so many others too! Tom kha (coconut soup) here is also very tasty, with lots of mushrooms, which is in keeping with northern style of the dish and just the way I like it. Of course, while in Chiang Mai, it is imperative to eat the city’s signature dish—khao soi (curried coconut noodles) as often as possible. We loved Wee’s version of this dish and came back to learn to cook Khao Soi for ourselves, among other dishes, during our stay in Chiang Mai. Wee shuts down her entire restaurant for the day quite frequently for cooking classes. These cooking classes take place in her small, but well-equipped kitchen; the classes are rigorous, hands-on, and a great learning experience. The restaurant is always open by dinner time, so no worries if you come by during the day and see the “closed for cooking class” sign at the door.

Sutthep Road Spicy Noodles with Pork

Across from the Chiang Mai University South Gate on Sutthep Road. Map
Delicious beef noodles
If you’re looking for a change of scenery and want to get some cheap food amongst students from the Chiang Mai University, head west on Sutthep road and look for the University’s south gate. There you’ll find a huge range of restaurants open for dinner, including the spicy noodle soup restaurant, the western-most restaurant in the strip that is directly across from the gate. There you can get a hearty bowl of soup noodles and some pork skin cracklins (what we in California call chicharones) in a spicy, lime-based sauce. Combined with the other fun stalls nearby, this is a great place for a change of pace with cheap and tasty eats.

Paday Rotee

Corner of Tha Pae Road and Tha Pae Soi 4. Map
This Banana Rotee stand (just outside and east of the east gate of Old City Chiang Mai), open in the evenings, warranted a post all its own, but we thought we’d mention it again here. The irresistible treat of this banana and egg “pancake,” topped with condensed milk and chocolate (if your heart so desires) is a perfect sweet ending to a day of feasting in Chiang Mai. Change up the ingredients and leave out the eggs if you like, but whatever you do, don’t skip this rotee stand—you’d really be missing out!

Sai Ua

Not a restaurant but more of a staple snack from every day while we were in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, sai ua is a sausage only found in the northwest. Spicy, garlicy, with the herbal tastes of lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, and ginger, it’s the best snack for the in-between meal times. You can find sai ua at any restaurant that serves northern style food as well as loads of bbq stalls on the side of the road or within the night markets. Make sure to ask for it hot, that’s the best!