sanmai ramen - chiang mai
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.
khao soi islam - chiang mai
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.
zest - agonda, india
Nothing brings violence to my hearts core more than Tofu. Crippled sole inserts from 30 year old shoes laid out in rubbery fields to soak blandness up from dead rivers, only to be "kissed by the flame" in a void attempt of imparting any more flavour than nothingness possesses. Anyone who could make me eat Tofu and actually prefer it over literally any other ingredient on earth, deserves a Night-hood.
This bowl of Vegan Ramen at Zest did indeed include the torment of Tofu, but had enough other options to disguise the floating particles of polystyrene. The broth was a deep shiitake flavour rounded off with some specks of chilli, seeds and fresh herbs. Noodle-wise, this wasn't a miracle, favouring the overcooked standard packet noodles you get all over India. Some cleverly selected vegetables and a surprising amount of depth from the broth left me only missing a nice piece of chashu or a perfectly boiled egg.
Kudos to the chefs for obtaining so much umami from meatless, boneless stock.
mae sai - chiang mai
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.
samerjai - chiang mai
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.
lam duan - chiang mai
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.
momoyama - odessa, ukraine
I know... I know... Odessa, Ukraine? RAMEN? WTF?
After gorging myself silly in Kadikoy for 2 weeks straight, I just had to have a bowl of Ramen to restore peace and order in my soul. I was googling frantically the night before I flew to Odessa and noticed they had a spot that did Momo's & Ramen. How could I not try?
Situated downtown, about 3 blocks from my Airbnb I ventured out on a blistery midday (perfect for ramen), and sat in the far corner, opposite to where the 20 or so other people were busy laughing, watching their iPhones and engaged in conversation. I found a corner with no neighbours and a wall to stare at. The bowl arrived. It looked rather odd, broccoli floating on top (I had asked for them to omit the corn, which they did) and all sorts of veggies that normally don't end up in a bowl of Ramen.
Putting my predjudice aside, I sipped the broth.... actually pretty ok. Dashi-Shoyu-ish flavour. The noodles were far overcooked an mushy, the pork tasted good but was just regular stewed pork and had no marinade flavour. The egg was actually superb, very well cooked and marinated nicely. Shockingly enough, this was a better bowl of ramen than I have had anywhere in Oslo (shame on you), so never discount a place based on it's location. Last year, remember, Kazu in Slovakia had one of the best Shoyu Ramen outside of Japan.
If you're ever in Odessa.., Try it.
The quest to find a decent bowl of ramen in every country on earth.