Sanmai Has the best Ramen in Chiang Mai. Full stop. I usually stay away from words like “best” and instead use “my favorite”, but Sanmai is in a league of their own when it comes to ramen. I’ve tried most of the other dozen or so ramen joints in Chiang Mai, and while I haven’t had them all yet, the matter is entirely settled in my eyes.
Kevin is the owner and head chef here. He was born and raised in Chiang Mai, but spent the years leading up to opening Sanmai honing his craft in the kitchens of New York City. He is passionate about what he does, and what he does inspires passion. No corners are cut with him, and everything worth doing is done the right way. Laid back and usually with a smile on his face, he welcomes a conversation with his diners as the kitchen is just an arm’s reach from the only dining room.
The location is a little confusing. This first starts when you to make the turn down the dead end soi where Sanmai is located. If you think your Google Maps is leading you astray, go another 50 feet and you’ll either see the illuminated sign or a sweet looking grandma directing traffic. After entering the place you’ll more than likely sit in the waiting room for a bit, as this place is busy from the moment it opens until after it closes. The waiting room is half bar with no bartender and half baristaless café.
The dining area is segregated via a small white room with an inconspicuous staircase. I use the word cozy often to describe places, but it’s never been more apt than here. With just two tables capable of seating 4 people each and a bar with 8 stools, 16 is its max occupancy, excluding staff. While it is little more in size than a fancy office cubicle, you feel very at ease here. There are large open window opposite the kitchen which let in the golden hour’s light. The music is soothing, something along of the lines of a New York cocktail bar. This coupled with the ambient kitchen sounds sets the mood for a great meal.
Everything here is outstanding, not just the ramen. The menu is small-ish, fitting on one side of a half piece of paper. It’s divided into four categories: Ramen, Small plates, Dessert, and Drinks. While it’s concise don’t think it’s simple to understand, especially if you’re not familiar with Japanese food at a level a little deeper than Golden Curry cubes (no shade thrown at these, they are amazing) or tempura. I suggest getting a bowl or ramen, small plate, and dessert if you have room to spare. You’ll get a little less food at a little higher price here than other Chiang Mai ramen spots, but the quality is very much worth is.
While the thing to get here is the ramen, you shouldn’t pass on the small plates. Some come in pieces that are conducive to sharing and others are more of a solo journey, so keep that in mind if you’re unfamiliar with the names. Give Kevin a shout and he’ll be able to clear anything up, his English is perfect by the way.
The gyoza here, along with the ramen, is the best in Ching Mai, at least for what I’m looking for in gyoza. Soft but not too soft wrappers, perfectly balanced and artfully presented, they’re little flavor bombs. Filled with pork and garnished with spring onions, I was happy perplexed by what the sauce was – my only concern was enjoyment and not enlightenment the moment these hit my lips.
The same goes for the Chicken Karaage. Texture-wise it reminded me more of a good waffle than the popcorn chicken I’ll be describing it as to people in the future. I don’t know what they are doing to make it so tender and moist on the inside while being crunchy on the outside, but as of writing this, post meal – I don’t really care. That dollop of sauce is also quite nice. Almost certainly kewpie (Japanese mayo) and topped with a dash of shichimi (Japanese chili powder) it cuts through the richness of the Karaage nicely; a squeeze of that lime is a nice touch as well.
The mini Mentaiko Don is a taste of the sea. Comprising of white rice, a ring of puréed fish eggs, seaweed shreds, and drizzle of kewpie it is rich and briny. Something that should be avoided if you’re not a fan of let’s say sushi, perhaps. But if seafood is what you love, you’ll love this.
Ok, let’s get the the ramen already – It’s simply divine. I’ve never been to Japan before and as such never had the real deal, but I imagine it tastes like this. The noodles are special ordered from Bangkok. The broth is cooked for more hours than what a healthy person sleeps in a night. The Tonkotsu is beautifully opaque and coats the mouth with each spoonful. Full bodied and deeply flavored it is worth the price and would cost magnitudes more most anywhere else, outside of Japan.
Among the other varieties on offer here is a Zaru (cold dip) ramen. If you’ve never had this before it’s essentially all the same components of a typical bowl, only segregated. Noodles, chashu, seaweend, and pickled bamboo come in a small wicker basket, while the broth hides in an ornate cup, topped by some more garnishes of wasabi, green onions, and grated daikon radish. Ok not all your typical components.
As the name suggest you are suppose to dip the ramen in the broth before consuming. I didn’t understand why you would go to this effort before trying them, but after tasting the strength of the broth I get it now. This broth is more of a thin sauce than a stock for sipping. Smoky in flavor and lightly salted, it remained me of what liquid bacon would taste like if that existed. Or at the least the drippings from smoking a slab of the stuff – the smoke flavor is that present.
The real star of this dish is that chashu though. There is your more familiar, circular and pink slab of braised pork as well as one that could only be described as teriyaki bacon – even that exalted title comes up a bit short. They are both perfectly fall apart and tender. If you come here, and dear God you need to, you’ll be wanting to order one or two extra rashers of the stuff. The soy glazed and grilled chashu is the best few bites you’ll have the whole meal.
The desserts are just as simply complex as the other food. They change with the whims of the chef, but are replaced with equal or better offerings. Right now there is a tiramisu topped with matcha. The thought of which would probably have Roberto Linguanotto rolling over in his grave (if he were dead), but after a bite it would have his eyes tinted with delight.
The burnt Crème caramel is what you should order if tea isn’t your thing. Burnt is a desirable characteristic here, and not a lapse from a kitchen timer. Taken to the edge of browning, it has a smokey flavor that works with its creamy semi-set texture. The subtle coffee flavor pairs nicely too.
All in all Sanmai is a place that should not be missed. The vibe, amazing food, complimentary iced tea, and a warm smile from the chef and his Grandma directing traffic. All things I want when going out to eat.
Price: Ramen is in the 150 baht range for a bowl. Small plates are 65-85 baht and desserts 55-95. All in all a full meal here will cost about 300 baht per person
Open: 17:00-20:00 Yeah you read that right. It’s only open 3 hours per day.
The Good Stuff Chiang Mai