First things first. Wake up after a short and uneventful flight from Bangkok, head out into the blistering heat, walk 3 blocks and 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.
Our group were all slightly worse for wear and therefore needed the healing broth even more. 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 soup. Absolutely stunning, nothing can beat this? Surely?
So it's Loi Krathong, I barely realised. I woke up after days of speckling the porcelain after eating a streetfood Khao Soi that was definitely not worth the pain and agony. I feebly walked the 6 blocks to this ramen spot that featured highly on all the lists and lips. The place looked suspicious, however, presumptions aside I walked in, found a cool corner (insatiable heat), ordered the shoyu with bean sprouts and anxiously watched the chefs prepare.
The food came after a delay since 5 hungry Japanese revellers ordered just before me, however, the bowl was placed and I basked in its possibilities for a second, before raising my spoon and diving in.
To be fair the broth was acceptable... in that "could have been more flavour" way, but acceptable. The noodles were cooked well, sustaining some personality in their mesh of spiderweb constellations. Pork, rather tasty but rather chewy. FAAAAR too many bean sprouts in proportion to the rest, egg decent. The thing that brought it down a notch from a solid score, was the broth just lacked that little umami-kick that elevates everything. Be it more tare, MSG or tender loving care, I don't give a fuck... just give me the flavour and i'll be happy.
An altogether forgiveable effort, but there are far better ramen shops in this small town for those who are dependant on a bowl now and then.
Airport food is usually a ramshackle event. A conscious choice to get a cheeky McDs or BK, or a microwaved burger sold in a "Irish Pub" called Flanagans or Molly's. Either way, its a tie-over until the grave disappointment of in-flight food comes rolling your way.
At Don Muang Airport, they opened a branch of Ippudo in Terminal 2. Not my favourite place to eat ramen, generally, but a far better option than the golden arches at midday with a slight groggy feeling resonating deep inside.
It looks like this place hasn't been here long since the staff were in complete disarray, beside the fact that there were only 3 customers and 9 staff members. I ordered, the food came, they had "run out" of eggs already at lunch-time. Not a great sign.
What followed was a fairly ok attempt, for being an airport. The broth was so-so, the noodles were boring, the pork was sufficiently tender and they added beansprouts which I loved. Nothing to write home about, but better than popping next door to the countless fast food options.
The best Khao Soi I ever had was in a now demolished hotel in Chiang Mai back in 2003. Memories of that bowl always flood back to me whenever I take a chance on a new spot, and invariably I am left comparing what was to what could be. Coincidentally, last night I was chatting with 2 chefs in a bar and both of them highly recommended Hom Duan saying they eat there twice a week religiously. I grabbed a cab, headed to Ekkamai, found the spot, noticed only 1 foreigner in there and a packed restaurant full of locals slurping down big bowls of hot soup. Ordered at the counter, within 3 minutes my Khao Soi arrived with the regular mustard greens, lime slice and shallots on a small side-plate.
I dug in.
The broth became more and more complex the further down you got, a characteristic I prefer since you don't get tired of it as easily as super rich flavours. I read a few online reviews and one mentioned that the cumin content here was a tad higher than normal places. I can't say I would have noticed that without the words ringing in my brain, but I did think it was a touch too much. However, this hardly took anything away from what was a great bowl of Khao Soi, and priced at 90 baht with a coke you could hardly complain.
I'll be back here if i'm in the Ekkamai area again.
With jet-lag still punishingly strangling the life out of me, I awoke at 01.00 am, fell back asleep at 7am, got up at 1pm and decided I deserved a good bowl of Ramen.
Ikkousha was a short cab ride from my hotel, and had very favourable reviews online. The fact that the broth looked good in photos also helped, as that can very often be a litmus test in such cases.
The service was quite slow, but friendly. The prices were reasonable. Ramen arrived with a glass of soda water, and I dove in (taking photos beforehand of course). The broth was solid, slightly more fatty that Kio but not as rich as Bankara, the egg was cooked well but not marinated so it was a little boring, the noodles were regular ramen noodles and cooked well, the pork flavourful but lacking a bit in the tenderness department. All things considered a very decent bowl, but not pushing for the top 3 spot yet in Bangkok.
Seriously? Third day in a row?
Yes. I have just spent 5 months in Norway where I have not been able to find a decent bowl of ramen, so coming to the land of Thai food it sound incredulous to spend my first few days gorging on ramen, but I am an addict.... and I am not ashamed to say it. Besides, I already had a couple of great Thai meals and will be here another month so there is plenty of time.
Now onto the ramen. Uma Uma, never been before, took a cab, ordered, waited patiently in the hopes that this could be the next best thing... it ALMOST was.
Noodles were of the ultra-thin type which is not my personal fave, but still had some bite to them. The broth was deep, rich, not too fatty, perfectly balanced, the Chashu was up there with some of the best ever: MELT-ON-YOUR-TONGUE tender, full of flavour, absolutely incredible. Egg was cooked a few seconds the wrong side of perfect, but made up for it in leaps and bounds with the marinade, a deep smokey soy flavour. I also love when anyone puts bean sprouts on as garnish, adding that crunchy element. All in all this doesn't topple Bankara or Kio but sits strongly in third place. A crowning achievement and proof that you should always try new places.
The holy grail for Shoyu Ramen in Bangkok has surely been found? Upon publishing my review of Uma Uma, one of the managers kindly wrote to thank me for my review, but also suggested if I wanted a great Shoyu Ramen, to head to his personal favourite. Since it was just around the corner from Studio Lam, and a 15 minute walk from my hotel, I simply had to try it today for lunch.
The spot is a small, cosy ramen shop with counter space up front and seating in the back for families and bigger groups. I hid on the corner part and ordered their speciality Shoyu with extra pork. The menu described it as the stock being a mix of vegetables, chicken and pork bones, and bonito (which can polarise some people due to its "fishy taste") so I already had in mind what it would taste like. However, this was flavour +
Dark, umami-packed broth, absolutely sensational pork (some of the best I've ever eaten), and a well cooked egg along with the slight difference of Soba Noodles instead of "regular" ramen noodles. The soba were cooked to perfection, the chew was excellent and the overall texture was spot on.
I was dying to find a good Shoyu place in town since its not every day you feel like eating a calorie-laden bowl of Tonkotsu, so I am forever grateful to the Uma Uma person for tipping me off about this. In the years to come this will feature heavily on my Bangkok agenda.
Ichiran and Ippudo are simultaneously average, but sometimes offer a glimpse of real ramen flavour if you visit late at night or have gone months without. This time around I hadn't had a ramen in almost 6 months, and was at the airport with 3 hours to kill. Burger King, McDonalds or Ippudo. I went for the latter.
Having tasted their Tonkotsu broths before and never been largely impressed, I opted for the special Shoyu Bowl and found a quiet place away from people at the back. The bowl came, I kinda knew straight away this was going to be average. First sip the soup, SALT BOMB! I know it's Shoyu but holy hell this was literally just soy sauce. The pork was chewy, the egg was alright, the noodles were standard and the menma ok.
A disappointing bowl, but you know it as soon as you enter. Its the lesser of a few evils.
Another day, another adventure. This time the rain was a sheet of impenetrable glass, so I was forced to use a Grab taxi to seek out yet another Ramen place that lay untested and untried. I had read a lot of good feedback online, and it was highly rated despite its bizarre location.
The Grab driver had no idea where it was and the address didn't show up so I had to get off a couple blocks away and walk. Approaching the tiny soi where the place was stood an old lady who just looked at me and shouted "RAMEN?" and pointed. I walked in, was told I had to wait since it was packed (good sign), shown my ordering sheet, perused the menu, went for a spicy Tonkotsu to ward off the chills, and sat back waiting until a spot at the counter opened.
Within 10 minutes I was seated between 2 strangers (the fear started), my heart trembling at the thought of raising the spoon to my mouth and having the contents shake off in utter nerves. The bowl came, the chef spoke to me shortly asking "How the hell did you find this place?". He was Thai but had just left a head-chef position in New York to open a Ramen spot in his hometown. "This place desperately needs good ramen, they have everything else except that, and I hope I've created that now". I spooned in my first mouthful of broth. Excellent. The menma was on the sweet side but crunchy and good, the egg was perfectly marinated and cooked, the noodles totally decent but not amazing. The only thing that let it down slightly was the Chashu. It was quite firm and toothsome, which I can definitely forgive when the rest of the bowl tasted as it did.
I actually managed to clear the whole thing, paid, tipped, complimented the chef and headed off in the rain to order another cab back home to wait it out until calm was restored.
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.
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 Khun Yai, many many tourists but very good food".. I told them I ate there and it was spectacular, the other guy then blurted out "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 by Grab 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" than at Khun Yai, 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 Khun Yai off it's throne.
In true idiot abroad style, I actually got back to the hotel, drank some water, and decided to head out for one last bowl (3 bowls in one morning) before retiring from Khao Soi for at least a few months.
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 cream. Two things I try to stay away from in everyday life.
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 aside, I see why Andy may love this place, but i'm a Khun Yai addict and will be forever more.
Mark Wiens travels the world to eat. I do the same, but just don't appear on camera, or get paid for it. 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, I had to go try it out for myself, because of course: taste is subjective.
I finished off my superb bowl at Mae Sai, and hailed another 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.
The quest to find a decent bowl of ramen in every country on earth.