Khao soi is by far and away the most well known dish in Chiang Mai. This old northern capitol is the only kind of place where something like this could be created. A dish shaped by different cultures, trade, wealth, and refinement.
In Thai, khao soi translates to “cut rice”. This is in reference to the rice noodles that, many believe, the original dish included – and not the yellow wheat noodles khao soi is known for today. Those were added during one of the, precursors to khao soi’s contemporary state giving you Khao Soi Yunnan. The Jeen Haw (Muslims of Yunnanese-Chinese decent) are credited as the ones who first introduced this ingredient to khao soi’s evolution.
Trade routes and the spices they transported, are responsible for that orange color and amazing spice filled flavor. From there, visiting Bangkok elite and their hearty wallets, is where maybe the most defining ingredient in this dish, the coconut milk, was introduced. As Chinese, and more than likely at the time Lanna, people don’t much like the taste of coconut milk. Et voilà, we have now arrived at khao soi as it’s known today – well, that’s the abridged version anyway.
So what’s all the hype about with this dish. In short, it’s prefect Thai food. There’s the balance of salty, sweet, sour, spicy, ect. that is present throughout the cuisine in the Land of Smiles. There is the identifiably Thai, contrast of textures. Crunchy and crispy from the fried egg noodles, creamy richness from the broth, and that tender tearing of slow cooked meat.
The Thai feature of being able to alter a dish to suit your specific tastes (see the fish sauce, chili oil, and lime wedge surrounding your bowl). The not so Thai feature of combining large quantities of dry spices (turmeric, cardamom, coriander seed) with fresh aromatics (shallots, garlic, ginger). But even that, encompasses the many peoples and different ethnic groups that have touched this dish – not unlike Chiang Mai, or Thailand itself.
So let’s talk about that title. There are hundreds of places in Chiang Mai that serve khao soi. It would be futile (read impossible) to try and figure out what is the best khao soi in Chiang Mai. As such, this list is what I believe to be the best khao soi in Chiang Mai.
Different people like different things when it comes to… well, pretty much everything – khao soi is no exception. So, here are the things I like and am looking for when eating khao soi.
To me a prefect bowl of khao soi isn’t too thick. This is a curried noodle soup, and NOT a curry with noodles, big difference. I want a broth that can be sipped out of a spoon like a soup, and not slurped like a curry. A subtle distinction to some, but those people don’t know good khao soi.
I don’t want a completely homogenized broth. A very important step in making khao soi, and many Thai curries for that matter, is separating the coconut milk. This is done by boiling a portion of the milk until the water has evaporated and you’re left with the oil and coconut solids. You then use this oil to fry the curry paste before adding the remaining milk. This is in essence concentrating the coconut flavor in the final dish, but it also lends toasted complexities to the final flavor you just can’t get any other way.
I want it to be a bit spicy when it comes to the table, so I don’t have to overload the dish with chili oil; compromising the flavor balance that the chef intended. Ultimately, I don’t want to have to add anything to alter it’s flavor, aside from a few shallots and pickled mustard greens. But those are more for texture than anything else.
I want the noodles to be rich, preferably hand made, and firm to the tooth. Overcooking pasta in Italy is an unforgivable sin; not so much in Thailand – but it should be. Furthermore I want a big punch of flavor: tons of spices, lots of aromatics, instant gratification.
All of the places on this list are here because I like the food they make. I’d happily eat at anyone, anytime. They don’t all do khao soi the same way, and I don’t much describe how they’re different from each other (There’s only so many ways you can say “creamy” “crunchy” “rich” and “delicious”). So, the ones that are higher rated encompass more of what I like and the ones lower ranked; less so. But, all are making khao soi that many people would say is the best in Chiang Mai.
They also have the three marks that all worthwhile khao soi places share: they close before dinner, they cost less than 60 baht, and most importantly they primarily sell khao soi. You’ll easily know as much, because it’ll be in their name.
“BLANK has the best khao soi in Chiang Mai”. More often than not when this is said Khao Soy Mae Sai fills in that blank. This happens to be true due to the language, and those that speak it; namely English and farang. Mae Sai is without a doubt the most well known and easily findable good bowl of curried noodles in Chiang Mai.
This is a Chiang Mai institution, having been around well before I was born. The clientele here is maybe the closet to a 50/50, locals and tourists, that I have on my list (see paragraph one). The number of out-of-towners here would normally be a bad sign in my book, and an immediate turn off. However, the amount of locals dealing with the Elephant pants wearing white boys, is a testament to how good the food is.
This was the place I recommended to people for a long time if they wanted a great bowl. After living here for a while and digging a bit deeper, I still recommend this place – but for different reasons now. Namely that it’s the closest great bowl to Maya, in Santitham, not far from the old town, and is walking distance to Akka Ama. And if They’re asking for a khao soi recommendation they, probably don’t but, need to know about the top tier coffee available in Chiang Mai.
8. Khao Soi Khun Yai
Khao Soi Khun Yai gives Mai Sai a run for it’s money as the worst kept secret for good Khao Soi in Chiang Mai. They share a spot in most every list of “best khao soi” you can find on Google. It is fitting that it’s so often mentioned in the same breath as Mae Sai because they are similar in most every way.
Are they both in between the old town and Maya? Check. Will you have to wait to eat if coming during lunch any day during high season? Check. Is the consistency of the broth closer to American green curry, than Bangkok Tom Yum? Check. Will you hear English spoken too loudly from Chad in his elephant pants? Double check. The list goes on from there, but four examples was even one too many.
As such, this falls into the tourist category. Just like Mae Sai this isn’t a bad thing, as they wouldn’t be anywhere on this list if I wouldn’t happily eat them often. But locals are more than likely going to live closer to somewhere better, not want to deal with the moat traffic, and like to keep their distance from road block educing tour buses.
If the name didn’t give it away, the nearby mosque will. Khao Soi Islam is a Muslim run establishment and with it, serves a Muslim style khao soi. That’s to say pork is not one of the options. The other reason being that the khao soi sold at Muslim restaurants in Chiang Mai tend to taste rather different than non-Muslim establishments.
Muslim style khao soi tends to be intentionally, near criminally, under seasoned. You will have to add sugar, fish sauce, some lime juice, and chilies if you want it to taste “full”. After doing so the world gets put back in order. The fog clears and the sky is blue again. The oscillating fan lingers over your path a bit longer. Khao soi taste how you think it should.
The pickled mustard greens are a slightly sweet Yunnanese-style, which is reminiscent to kimchi. The other large difference I see is that Muslim style khao soi is that it’s much more coconut milk dominate. Always kept in a separate pot and mixed with curry to order. I’ve made it known before about how much credence I put into this subtle extra effort and why it’s needed. So, I’ll just move on by saying – it’s important.
This one falls into the tourist category like Mai Sai and Khun Yai for all of the reasons listed above: location, clientele, notoriety, etc.
Recommendation: Chicken or Beef
Open: 8:00-17:00 Everyday
6. Khao Soi Prince
Okay, so the name doesn’t give it away like it does with Khao Soi Islam, but the star and crescent on their sign will. Khao Soi Prince is also a Muslim owned establishment, and along with it so are most of their clientele.
They too are guilty of the crime that is under-seasoning this, oh so sacred northern specialty. So all the rules for eating at Khao Soi Islam apply here – salt, sugar, sour, and spice this bowl to your own discretion.
Unlike Khao Soi Islam, Khao Soi Prince is by no means in the tourist category. This has about as local a feel as you can get. Open air eating area, kitchen adjacent to the diners, a square tv playing the news.
This isn’t my favorite bowl (it is my favorite for Muslim style khao soi though), but I happily drive the extra distance as it’s maybe the most unique tasting on this list. The only bowl I’ve actually come across where whole spices are found after the last few spoonfuls of broth. It also is the only place on the list that makes their own noodles… that I’m aware of. Andy Ricker swears by this place (That whole Vice piece is worth the watch btw).
Recommendation: Chicken or Beef
Hours: 9:30-17:00 Everyday
The rankings may have only changed by one number, but IMHO there is a big gap between Khao Soi Mae Manee and everything below it. It’s also the first place on this list where I much prefer the beef over the classic chicken.
Khao Soi Mae Manee is the real deal from setting to substance. It is in a little neighborhood off the 107 just before entering Mae Rim. With this, you get the neighborhood Thai eatery vibe. Plastic chairs and wobbly tables, a healthy level of detritus on the walls and in the crevasses, a single room where cooking and eating both take place, and a warm old Thai woman (or her husband) greeting you at the door.
Mark Weins and his video on the 5 Best Bowls of KHAO SOI in Chiang Mai is how this place initially came on my radar. My list actually encompasses oall the places in his video, but I had already become well acquainted with those at the time of posting. It’s a good watch if you want to see more than just the photos, for over half this list. Just… be prepared for levels of exclamation that are near orgasmic – possibly tangential.
Recommendation: Beef, do not get the chicken.
Closed: Not open on Buddhist days. you can check their Facebook here to see if it is one.
It almost breaks my heart to put Khao Soi Gad Grom above Mae Manee. They serve very similar styles. I like them for very similar reasons. And I actually think Mae Manee has slightly better noodles. But after a sip of the broth from a beef khao soi here (you should really get the beef) you’ll empathize with me if you’ve tried them both. You might not agree, but that would be a debate worth having.
While the style of Khao Soi here is similar to that of Mae Mannee, it’s location is not. Off a fairly busy street and adjacent to a market that has what I think are the best fried bananas in town, Kad Gorm has the best-closest bowl of Khao Soi to the tourist hub of Chiang Mai… you should really make a trip to that market for the fried bananas after your meal.
The thing in particular I like about Khao Soi Gad Gorm is their beef and its pastrami-like pink color. Going with the beef here (and once again. You should) is like playing a game of roulette. Equal chance of fall apart tender/melt in your mouth, or a stringy mess of sinew you’ll be picking out of your teeth all day. It all has to do with what part of the broth the ladle for your bowl encompasses. Cross your fingers, but you’ll be happy with either outcome – the broth is that good.
Recommendation: 100% the Beef
10:00-17:00 on Friday
3. Khao Soi Fah-Hamm
I gotta shout out The Good Stuff Chiang Mai community on this one, as it was a reader’s recommendation that brought me here. I was woefully unaware that this place even existed, until I started compiling material for this piece. A real shame, as it’s the only one on here that breaks my “closes before dinner” rule – although 6 pm is only just cutting it.
Khao Soi Fah-Hamm is how I would describe a good place to eat at in Thailand. Open air building, but fully shaded. In an unexpecting location with a low budget sign. Busy with locals who are taking a break from their busy day. There is the presence of a few large vats that contain what you’ll be eating. And last but not least, ordering your meal by writing it on a white notepad and handing that to a waiter. Don’t worry ordering in English out loud is also an option.
While I usually prefer a broth that isn’t as homogenized as this one, more separated coconut milk solids with oil floating on top and what not, the flavor is excellent. It also arrived at my table hot and ready to eat in under a minute.
Hours: 9;00-18:00 Everyday
Not to be confused with the aforementioned Khao Soi Fah-Hamm, Khao Soi Lam Duan Fa-Ham (I know that was a lot to read, sorry) just barley eeks out its namemate. This is contentiously the first place in Chiang Mai to sell the current incarnation of this dish (think NY style pizza vs. Neapolitan and you get the idea). It also might be the most popular among locals.
This place pumps out some serious volume. If you come at lunchtime any day of the week, you’ll behold a team of fine tuned workers churning out dish after dish in no time flat. They are also such great people. Really nice in letting me get in the thick of things so I could get some of the best shots for this website yet.
I’ve already written a lengthy piece about why this place is so great, and if you aren’t convinced enough by its number 2 rank on my list, give it a look. I really suggest you do so, because you’re not going to like what I’m about to do to you – sorry in advance.
1. Secret Khao Soi
I love you all, but I’m not at liberty to disclose where I think the best khao soi in Chiang Mai is located. I know, I know, you’re upset. I get it, this is kind of a dick move. I’m sorry, but it’s for the greater good.
All the other places I’ve ranked are not like this one. The word, in one form or another, is already out about them. More importantly they can all handle the extra business, and what makes them great won’t change with the increase. The people who are eating there will still be able to do so with ease. This is most certainly not true for the last location.
This is a mom and pop kind of shop. They run the kitchen out of the back end of their home. The run-down stair case in the back probably leads to their bedroom. I have never seen another farang here, except the one that showed me it in the first place. Although to be fair, his Thai girlfriend was the one who showed him.
This place is always busy. There are only a few tables. The people that patronize this shop are working class. They work much harder than me, and I won’t ruin their oasis. I wouldn’t dare alter a place so perfect.
So, I’m not going to leave you completely high and dry on this – I’m not that sadistic. If you can find it with the following hints you’re the kind of person I’m not worried about. All I ask is that you respect the way this place is then be a good little Girl Scout and “Leave no trace”.
It’s down the road from a bar named after a cigarette.
The Lady cooking usually wears a hat.
And it’s near this relic from the Lana Kingdom.
That’s my list. I’m not done eating khao soi, so I’ll be adding more great spots once they come on my radar. But for now, this is how things stand. As khao soi is, and should be, a passionate subject feel free to tell me how wrong or stupid I am in the comments below. I’ll read them over a bowl of crispy noodles and broth.
The Good Stuff Chiang Mai.