Chiang Mai: Where to Eat the Best Street Food
A food paradise
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Note: This piece was originally published on my old blog in June 2022.
The smell of roasting chicken, hanging in a clay oven, hits us even before stepping out of the songthaew, the local transportation vehicles. Fat dripping into the sides of the oven, my mouth waters in anticipation. Once I bite in – WOW – what an explosion of flavor, like most of everything you will eat in this street food mecca.
Thai culture is a culture of food. Food is integral to Thai life, and most of everything happens while eating. “There is a common saying”, our street food tour guide, Moui, tells us, “when we see each other we say: ‘hello, how are you? have you eaten yet?’”. This perfectly encapsulates how important food is to Thai culture. Street food is affordable and convenient so most people don’t cook at home. The options are endless, and they are good and diverse. Besides, kitchens are generally very small, so why bother?
Northern Thai cuisine is unique and differs significantly from Thai food in other regions of the country. Northern Thailand has always been a melting pot of cultures and its food reflects that, being deeply influenced by Myanmar, Chinese, and local ethnic cuisines. The most common Thai food outside of the country – what you are likely eating in your local Thai food joint – is food from the South.
The north of Thailand was its own kingdom for hundreds of years before joining Siam (Thailand) officially, so it developed its own cuisine independently. The region’s weather, cooler than the rest of the country, lends itself to agriculture so there has always been plenty of raw materials to cook with. Northern Thai cuisine is veggie heavy, and in fact the most popular protein now, pork, was not part of the diet until recent history. Chiang Mai is far from the ocean so seafood and coconut are not common in the cuisine (note Khao Soi is a big exception here, which uses coconut milk). Shrimp paste gets replaced with fermented bean paste, and in stark contrast to the most common Thai dishes, sugar is rarely use in Northern cuisine but herbs and flowers are heavily used.
While in Chiang Mai it’s imperative to go on a food tour. There are so many food options in the city that it will take you years to try all of them, and most will be average. If you want to maximize your time and make sure you try some of the best, then go with a local. You will also learn a lot – about the culture, the history, and the local ingredients. We did this Airbnb Experience and highly recommend it, but there is plenty to choose from.
During our 10+ days in Chiang Mai we also ate in plenty of other places beyond the tour. My parents have lived in Chiang Mai for 5 years, so they know what’s up. You can find all our recommendations in this google map, and below are some more details!
I am defining this as either a street cart or a small local spot.
Served by the “cowboy lady” (or one of her sisters) this tender pork leg over rice is mouth watering. The owner is originally from Burma and have been serving this dish for over many years. Deemed the “cowboy” lady because she used to wear a cowboy hat when serving the dish.
This was one of my favorite places! this low key eatery (closes early) serves roasted chicken as well as crispy pork sided with basil and two fabulous dipping sides.
Excellent spot, but not for their Khao Soi (you can find better, see below). However, their satay, dumplings, curry, and oxtail soup were all very very good!
Inside a market. Famous for its nam ngiao, a Northern Thai noodle soup with a tangy tomato base and cubes of congealed blood. This market also has a shop that sells pastries filled with coconut cream and they are delicious!
The best mango sticky rice! It is a street cart at the market.
Didn’t know I loved this dessert until I tried it here. Little rice flour rolled into small balls, and cooked in coconut milk and sugar. It’s warm and it’s delicious!
Burmese food! Order the tea leave salad and Shan pancake (kind of like a filled pancake).
Authentic northern Thai food in a homey setting, filled with locals. Get the larb , the pork curry, and the chicken soup!
The most famous Northern Thai dish outside of Thailand, and for good reason! Khao Soi is a curry noddle soup made with coconut milk and it’s addictive. You will find it everywhere in Chiang Mai, but not all are good. This one is excellent!
Another great Khao Soi! The broth here is next level!
A bit more upscale than the above.
Yummy and beautiful food in a cute spot. It’s small and it gets busy so make reservations.
Very unique and tasty set menu.
Gorgeous setting in the Royal Park and very good food. Perfect for lunch while you bike around the park.
Set in an old grand house that is basically a museum. Well executed dishes.
The most beautiful food you will eat!
I love a good local market, to both eat and wander.
Great for fruits and vegetables.
Good for food, clothes, local crafts, etc.
All kind of ready made food. Very interesting to walk around. You can find an excellent northern thai sausage here!
Both of these markets happen just once a week. Streets are closed to traffic and tons of vendors set up. There are big food areas in both, in addition to any souvenir you might desire.
I love a good espresso, and Chiang Mai has both the beans and the skill to produce one!
Great little place for a good cup of coffee.
This art center deserve an entire morning as it’s gorgeous. Plus it has a wonderful coffee, great spot to work from!
Solid coffee, small.
Great place to get some work done while having a good cup of coffee.
Beautiful and tasty pastries.
This place was right by my parents apartment so it was really convenient, but also had great coffee!
Chaing Mai is truly a paradise for foodies. ENJOY!