Whether it's ramen, phô, thukpa, laksa, beef noodle soup, khao soi or anything else involving noodles and some sort of broth, i'm willing to give it a go. In fact, whilst visiting various countries on my yearly retreat, I make a point of finding ramen or phô places in the most bizarre locations (Odesa, Ukraine) just to see what the locals have done to these regional variants. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the time i'm faced with the prospect of politely finishing a mediocre bowl, but sometimes... just sometimes you really come up trumps. For this reason alone, the fire keeps burning, and the disappointments only act as a slight speedbump on the highway to the perfect bowl.
During my 2 week stay in Chiang Mai, obviously Khao Soi was high on the agenda. Having eaten many a good bowl here over the years, but arriving to find two of my old favourites shut down, I had to start again from scratch and get stuck in reading reviews, articles, interviews and of course, asking locals. From a myriad of different sages I managed to scratch together a list of six spots to visit in between other restaurants, and came up with my "Best of" list below.
Taste is completely subjective, and for the reasons some people loved one restaurant, I favoured another. C'est la vie! Let the bowl crushing commence:
Worst to First:
Khao Soi Mae Manee
Mark Wiens travels the world to eat. I do the same, but just don't appear on camera, or get paid for it (sadly). After he spent some time in Chiang Mai he concluded that this spot had the best Khao Soi by far of anywhere else in town. Not a man who's opinion I take lightly on Asian food, I had to go try it out for myself.
I hailed a Grab taxi, got stuck in a huge traffic jam and managed to find this tiny shack miles out of town down some small streets that the taxi driver actually felt unsure driving down "I don't think Khao Soi here"... "Yes, yes.. straight and right side".
Found it. The friendly old ladies were in good cheer. They were out of Chicken so I settled for pork Khao Soi since the North is famous for it's pink gold. Sorrow washed over my face like a slow monsoon. The contents of the bowl stared back at me almost mirroring my grief. Thin, watery soup lay speckled with dots of red oil, suspended above were some crispy noodles and pieces of pork that looked tired and rubbery. Truth be told, the most unforgiveable part of this bowl were the noodles, raw, undercooked, gluey, pasty noodles that immediately were pushed to one side. The soup had some flavour but lacked any real umami, thin and desireless. Pork slices were tangy but dry. I ate what I could of the crispy noodles before they too became sodden in neglect. Embarrassed about leaving 3/4 of the bowl, I walked into the kitchen and just handed the lady a 100 baht note and didn't wait for change.
As I hurtled down the street away from my own sins of gluttony, she shouted after me "Change go to poor children".. I smiled and waved back. At least one good thing came of the visit, but good food it wasn't.
Khao Soi Islam
As the Aussies would say: Yeah, Nah!
I wound up in yet another Grab taxi hurtling my way to the night market to try this Khao Soi place that always creeps onto top 10 lists in Chiang Mai. My driver was confused as to why it was called Islam? I didn't have an answer for him other than the owners were probably muslim (they were). He added that the world is going to hell because of the Chinese building hotels and casinos everywhere and putting locals out of work, I gently nodded.. hungry.
The spot was in a small soi, a giant place with a rather unnassuming facade, I wandered in, found a vantage point as far away from people as possible and ordered "Khao Soi Gai".
Within 2 minutes flat the food came. Worryingly fast. It wasn't hot, the chicken was tough, the noodles were cut into small pieces like kids spaghetti, the "crispy" noodles became mushy after 10 seconds, the curry soup was thin and uninspiring and doused with soy sauce so much that it overpowered everything else.
I left most of the bowl, paid, smiled and vowed to tick that one off the list and never return.
Khao Soi Samerjai
Samerjai had featured on a lot of "Best Khao Soi" lists, been recommended by my Thai friend Amit, and also been highly recommended by another couple of "food-forward" people. I was starting to like sitting in the back of Grab taxis. The drivers barely talk to you, the cars are generally clean and the AC has been blasting all day. You can just gaze out the tinted windows and suffocate on life's emptiness for a brief spell.
Another out-of-the-way spot, housed in a huge canteen style building with rows of food stalls. The Khao Soi stand was right at the front, which is why the punters come here. I was served mightly quickly, but the food was steaming hot so that's always a plus. First look, I kinda knew where this was headed. It would taste good, but it would be too rich/creamy for me. Spot on.
The noodles were a solid bunch, the chicken was nice and flavoursome, the crunchy noodles on top were unsatisfactorily "sweet", and the broth had far too much coconut cream (or condensed milk) in it to deliver a deep punch. The flavours were all washed out in this creamy-sweet overload which did not abate when mounds of chilli paste were added.
I can see why people like this Khao Soi, the flavours were good but the over-riding flavour was sugar and coconut-cream.
Khao Soi Lam Duan
Having sworn off Khao Soi after eating 3 bowls in one day, I found myself unwillingly checking out one last spot since Andy Ricker said it was his favourite spot in Chiang Mai, and SP Chicken was closed.
Housed in a large, old wooden building this Khao Soi institution is barely a stones throw away from the ever popular (and too sweet) Samerjai. I ordered the chicken bowl, slightly recoiling when the words left my mouth. A cold glass of water was produced, and ten short minutes later a bowl set before my eyes. It looked good.
Personal taste aside this was a very good bowl of Khao Soi, however, for me it was a tad on the sweet side too. The curry sauce was packed with flavour and had a slightly thicker consistency than Islam, but lacked the altogether luxurious depth of Khun Yai. The noodles were proper, the meat was flavoured well, the side plates and chilli paste added texture, heat and complexity to the dish. However, all things considered, I see why Andy may love this place, it just wasn't exactly "to my taste".
Khao Soi Mei Sai
Propped up at the counter at Sanmai Ramen, I took a moment to ask the chef if he had any recommendations about good Khao Soi joints in town. He thought for a moment, then said "Mae Sai does great beef bowl". I noted it down on my phone and went about my business for the next couple of days, always planning on visiting it at some point. Another random night 2 Thai chefs sat down next to me at a bar and started talking about food. I told them about my slight addiction to Khao Soi and they immediately beamed at me "Khao Soi Mei Sai does very good beef version". Then and there started a cycle of 5 consecutive mornings where I tried to get up before they were closed, and failed miserably.
Today was the day! I set my alarm, headed out to hunt it down in the small soi baked on with sweltering heat. I grabbed a table (unfortunately had to share, it was packed), wrote down my order and sucked down on my ice cold coke to try regain some temperature balance within.
Bowl arrived. You knew it was going to be good. Slightly thinner "curry", but packed with flavour. Incredibly tender beef that still kept its texture, great noodles, good crispy noodles, and a bloody hot chilli sauce to pour on if the broth was too tame.
Definitely worth tracking down since it's a little outside the main drag, but this bowl is up there, but just didn't have the depth to knock the best one off it's throne.
THE WINNER: Khao Soi Khun Yai
After a rather brutal night before, we all headed out bright and early to stand in line to eat what is reputed to be Chiang Mai's best Khao Soi. The line took about 10 minutes to dissipate, but the food took at least 30 minutes to come. Hungry revellers sitting anxiously twiddling thumbs around the table in expectation anxiety.
It finally arrived, 4 steaming bowls of Khao Soi with the cripsy noodles layered atop. I dove in. Fuck me. This was already the best bowl I had eaten in my life. The next 15 minutes passed in slurping heaven, perfect noodles, moist chicken, crunchy noodles, mustard greens, red onion and specks of life-giving coriander all came together in a majestic symphony of flavours.
4 bowls left behind, scraped to the bone for the last drops of soup. Absolutely stunning, the undisputed champion of Chiang Mai. In my opinion anyway, and for me that's all that matters.
Ignore the rampant throng of tourists visiting this spot every lunchtime, they are here for a reason. The Khao Soi is exceptional. Also, due to the great reviews it happens to appear as the first place when you search for Khao Soi, so little wonder it's so packed. These old ladies turn out a faultless bowl of rich soup, amazing noodles and all for the merry sum of 40 baht. I cannot stress how great this place is.
It closes 2pm so get there early!
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.