November 27th, 2017

The Best Restaurants in Chiang Mai (and a Cooking School for Good Measure)

While in Thailand, I read a short story collection called Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. My favorite quotation from the book came in the first story: “Americans are the fattest, the stingiest of the bunch. They may pretend to like pad Thai or grilled prawns or the occasional curry, but twice a week they need their culinary comforts, their hamburgers and their pizzas.”

Not exactly complimentary, but there’s some truth in there. When I go on vacation for a couple weeks, I always eat the local cuisine, but traveling as I am for months on end, I do need my “culinary comforts.”

The Chiang Mai food scene is the best of all possible worlds, offering both delicious (and deliciously inexpensive) Thai food and, given the large expat population, all the Western comfort food you could want, from Tex Mex to fancy brunch. Before this month, I’d been eating one meal a day at home and one out. In Chiang Mai, I ate out morning, noon, and night; it was just too good.

Even so, I didn’t come close to trying all the fantastic food the city has to offer—I think I could be in Chiang Mai for months before doing so. Of the restaurants I did manage to visit, here are a few favorites:  

Thai Food

Tong Tem Toh

One of the group favorites and the site of my joint birthday dinner, Tong Tem Toh is best at night, when they have the grill going on the side of the street. It caters to carnivores—the Northern style sausage was the best I had, and the grilled pork shoulder was equally delicious. There’s a wait every night, but take a number and grab a beer from 7-11; it’s worth it.

Anchan

On the other end of the food spectrum is Anchan, a vegetarian restaurant. The sign outside proclaims you “won’t miss the meat,” and while we were skeptical, they’re absolutely right. They change a few items on the menu weekly, but one constant is their blue pad Thai, colored with the butterfly pea flower, their namesake. Everything I ate there (and I went more than once) was amazing: pumpkin curry, banana fritters, papaya lime smoothie—you can’t go wrong.  

Ginger and Kafe

For a more upscale experience (the site of another birthday dinner [I had three in total; don’t judge me]), Ginger and Kafe has an adorable atmosphere, with a perfectly decorated patio, as well as delectable food. We all stuck to their Thai specialties—pork belly curry and garlic fried rice for me, yum—they also have a large Western menu. And they have excellent cocktails, which is a rarity; beer is the best option most of the time.

Western Food

Rustic and Blue

Rustic and Blue is maybe the most expensive restaurant in Chiang Mai (almost certainly the priciest casual spot), but they can take all my money. They have healthy smoothie bowls and sinful almond croissants as big as your head, all-day breakfast with amazing French toast and duck confit, and pages and pages of lunch and dinner options as well. They cater to the expat and digital nomad crowd, and they do it well.

The Salad Concept

The name says it all; build your own salad or choose from their extensive menu. I can personally vouch for the chicken Caesar wrap and Thai mint dressing on anything. But what really had me coming back was the smoothie menu. I’m addicted to their mango-passion fruit smoothie, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do without my fix.

Why Not

This is where you get your pizza—wood-fired, natch—which is what we had for our untraditional Thanksgiving dinner. Their spinach tortellini in cheese sauce is also amazing. And everything is served on a large and lovely patio. So Why Not? (If you’re also a fan of The Lizzie McGuire Movie, sorry not sorry for that one.)

Coffee Shops

Ristr8to

Your coffee cup runneth over in Chiang Mai; I’ve never seen so many coffee shops in such a small area. Ristr8to is your place if you like your coffee fancy. They’ve won awards, they make lovely latte art, and they have a sign out front asking you to please not drink iced coffee because it is not their specialty. I had a chilled espresso with butterscotch milk that is their specialty, though, and it was insanely good.

Roastniyom

I’m a little biased because Roastniyom was downstairs from my apartment, but it has solid coffee, and moreover, it’s a great place to work. Bustling but not too loud, good wifi, and there was always an empty table. I can also highly recommend their muffins.

Street Food

Go to the Sunday market. Eat everything that looks good (sausage on a stick, freshly cooked pad Thai, pork dumplings, coconut waffles, MORE SMOOTHIES). Be happy.

It’s a very simple, yet brilliant, life plan. 

Cooking School

Asia Scenic Cooking School

Not exactly a restaurant, but one of the biggest and best meals I had in Thailand. In just four hours, we took a tour of the market and made noodle, salad, and curry dishes, plus a spring roll. I opted for the pad thai, chicken larb, and panang curry. Our instructor made it seem easy, and the food was worth slaving over a hot wok outside. We received cookbooks as souvenirs; I’ll definitely haul my butt to an Asian grocery so I can stock the pantry and make this food at home.

Chiang Mai may well be my favorite food city so far; honestly, it was hard to narrow this restaurant list down. I couldn’t eat all the food in Chiang Mai, but I certainly tried my best.

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