I have somewhat of an obsession with the northern Thai specialty, khao soi. It’s a typical northern Thai curry noodle soup that is ubiquitous in Chiang Mai but uncommon in American Thai restaurants and even uncommon in Bangkok and southern Thailand. To my shame, I visited Chiang Mai about 4 years ago, but had not yet discovered the dish, so I never ordered it. It wasn’t until I returned to Seattle, WA that I first tried it in a restaurant specializing in northern Thai cuisine. And I was hooked. Instantly. The rich broth, the mix of spicy and sour and sweet, soft and crunchy, pleasure and pain. For me it’s a perfect bowl. So when I returned to Chiang Mai, I wasn’t going to miss my opportunity to have the best khao soi in the city. And try every permutation of the dish wherever I could find it.
As it turns out, like most things, it’s more complex than the one best bowl. There are different styles and regional specialties, like pizza in America. And everyone has a different opinion on the subject. So I tried my best to sample as much as I could, and here’s the results of my endeavor. Treat it like field notes. Do your own explorations. And let me know what you discover. I’m fascinated by the dish and my education is far from over. Good luck and happy hunting!
The basic elements of khao soi.
Khao soi is a fairly straight forward dish and most of the heavy lifting is done with the complex and luxurious broth. Fresh egg noodles are added along with a protein, usually a chicken leg, but stewed/grilled beef and pork are common, as well as different Asian style meatballs, local sausage, and less commonly, seafood or an omelet. On top of the soup, a nest of fried egg noodles is added and sometimes a bit of cilantro. On the side are served: diced raw onions, a lime wedge, and tart pickled greens. These are all important to the overall flavor. The table usually includes a variety of other condiments that let you adjust the spice, sweet, and sour of the dish if you like.
Khao soi broth is a type of curry. You start with a red curry paste (or occasionally yellow), especially one heavy with cumin and coriander. Then add coriander, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg and allspice or a good mild or Madras curry powder. Add to that some palm sugar. Then coconut cream and coconut milk for the richness and texture. The last ingredient brings the spiciness which is typically a quality chili oil. The more oil, the redder the broth and spicier. I find the oil is necessary to balance the sweetness of the broth but I tend to go a bit lighter than your average bowl in Chiang Mai. You can ask for “less spicy” or just take it as it comes. But sometimes you get a bit more kick than you’re looking for. Especially the further out of town you get.
The fresh egg noodles
Northern Thai khao soi uses fresh egg noodles which are flat and yellow instead of rice noodles. They should be a little soft instead of chewy.
The fried/crispy egg noodles
It’s important to use fresh egg noodles because dried egg noodles don’t really fry. Ideally you will have a nice handful of fried noodles to make a nest on top of the broth and then crunch the noodles down into the soup to add texture right as you start eating.
You can really use any type of protein with khao soi. The most common option is a chicken leg and if there are no options, that’s probably what you’re going to get. The dish is Muslim inspired so the second most common would be grilled or stewed beef, and then third would be grilled pork. Beef/pork/chicken meatballs sometimes make an appearance. And a few fancier places will include squid, fish, shrimp, or other seafood and Khao Soi Nimman also has an omelet option. Back in Seattle fried tofu was a common option but I didn’t see that anywhere in Chiang Mai.
The onion, fresh lime, and pickled greens are essential to the overall flavor profile. Use these. I typically use all of them and squeeze the full lime wedge. It really rounds out the flavor. I never adjust the spice, sour, or sweet otherwise. But feel free if that’s your thing.
The khao soi tour
To create my tour list I consulted a variety of online sources. I usually like to read a variety of travel food blogs but you typically get the most famous places that way and those aren’t always technically the best places. So I try to find local blogs with connoisseurs of that particular dish and dig up the harder to find locals spots and get a bit more insight into the current trends of the dish. Along with asking locals their opinions. I feel like I have a decent selection of well regarded khao soi joints to share. It’s hard to go wrong with anything on this list.
Khao Soi Islam Noodles
One of the first versions of khao soi I tried was the Islamic variety and the most famous place to try it is Khao Soi Islam Noodles. Islamic khao soi is halal and few qualities set it apart. First the broth is intentionally underseasoned. You’re expected to add additional condiments tableside to create the perfect balance you desire. The curry is also kept separate from the coconut milk and you can request your desired amount to further customize your bowl. Islamic khao soi tends to be more coconut milk forward. The Yunnanese-style pickled greens are also a bit more sweet than tart so it give a subtly difference balance. At this place, the fried noodles seemed like they were mass produced and not particularly interesting. Overall the soup was good but eating it as it comes will leave you with a very mild experience. I did enjoy exploring the style though.
Katy ordered the Kiew Nam, a dumpling soup with beef meatballs and enjoyed it. And an order of Khaonom Geap or chicken shumai, also good.
You can find Khao Soi Islam Noodles in the Hilal Town section of town east of the east gate almost to the river.
Khao Soi Lam Duan Fa-Ham
Khao Soi Lam Duan Fa-Ham came highly recommended as an example of modern khao soi that is extremely popular with local Thais and is often touted as the best khao soi in Chiang Mai. As with all great khao soi places they primarily sell khao soi. The coconut milk is added just before serving to allow customization. And they create two different broths for the chicken and the beef (the beef is a bit darker and richer). The noodles are fresh and fried in-house. It’s a great bowl. And the atmosphere is a simple tin covered room packed with locals.
I chose the beef. For my personal taste, I prefer a slightly thicker and more flavorful broth. It was delicious as it comes but I think I’m more into the traditional style. But if you’re looking for great khao soi, this is the place to start. You can find this place to the north east of old town just on the other side of the river. If you’re walking, it’s easier to walk north on the west side of the river and cross at the bridge just before as the east side has less sidewalks.
We also ordered the spicy Chiang Mai sausage which was typical and quite good.
Khao Soi Khun Yai
Khao Soi Khun Yai is located a bit west of the north gate near Wat Lok Moli. I have to say the broth here was perhaps my favorite of the trip. A thick flavorful traditional broth. A bit on the spicy side but so delicious. The fried noodles were a little odd though. Very thin and not like the egg noodles in the soup. I prefer the full sized fried noodles. But a solid bowl that you should definitely check out.
The main criticism I hear about Khun Yai is that since it’s one of the only great khao soi joints within old town it can get packed with tourists. But honestly to me that has nothing to do with the taste of the soup. It was indeed a bit crowded but at least half the diners were local and the food came very quickly. It’s only open for lunch.
You will need to write your order down on a slip of paper and hand it to the cook and they will come find you when it’s ready.
Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm
This one is a bit outside of old town directly to the south. The street is a bit narrow and busy but you won’t find many tourists this far south. I took a Grab car and was there in no time. And it was packed with locals.
The broth here is fantastic. There’s a giant pot of it at the door. I tried the beef, it’s supposed to be the best, and tucked in at the only table left nuzzled under a collage of photos from the show Somebody Feed Phil who apparently stopped here. I haven’t seen the show.
I took the soup as it comes and in this case it came in a scorchingly neon bright red just loaded with chili oil floating on the top. Normally I might try to skim a bit off but I was by myself and felt a bit on display, especially after I started taking photos. So I ate the whole thing with sweat pouring down my face and a pain=love kind of enjoyment. Heat aside I really loved this bowl.
Khao Soy Maesai
Khao Soy Maesai is another of the traditional places that’s easy to walk to from old town. And hence gets a bad reputation as being a tourist joint. But the traditional style of their soup is my favorite and it really wasn’t that crowded when we were there. You shouldn’t miss it. You’ll need to write your order down on a slip of paper and hand it to the cook.
The broth is thick and flavorful, the noodles crispy, the meat is tender. It’s everything that I expect from a good traditional bowl. Katy as usual ordered the beef noodle soup which was likewise very tasty.
I discovered later that you can order delivery on Grab so I had another bowl at home. You can add additional meats easily online so this time I got the chicken and both kinds of meatballs. Might have been overkill.
This place is a bit northwest of old town going towards Nimman but an easy enough walk.
Kao Soy Nimman
I never actually made it to this place in person but they delivered on Grab so I tried it at home. The broth was excellent and I fully enjoyed the bowl. The thing that sets Nimman apart is the variety of protein you can get with the soup. In addition to beef/chicken/pork, a variety of seafood is available along with an omelet. Or get mixed bowls. I went a bit crazy and ordered 5 different meats. I only ended up putting two in the bowl and ate the rest right out of the bag. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. You can use it as an excuse to explore the Nimman neighborhood if you’re not staying there.
The menus have high production value and the costs are a bit higher so, without ever actually going, my take was that it’s geared more for tourists. Which I only mention because they have things on the menu like fried bamboo worms that I can’t tell are actually popular locally or added for “exotic” factor.
Khao Soi Mueang Klaeng (ข้าวซอยเมืองแกลง)
I discovered this place on my own. It’s not on any of the best-of lists that I referenced but it can easily hold its own against anything on this guide. It’s a couple blocks north of the large street food market at the north gate and if you’re in that area it’s worth a visit. There’s no english on the sign (I had to translate it from one of my photos) or menu but the staff are very friendly and welcoming and the food is excellent. Plus they mostly just sell khao soi so it’s a breeze to order. Katy ordered the beef noodles as usual and was very happy with it.
The broth style is very traditional, thick and flavorful, and the noodles were very good. Not too nuclear as it comes. Please try it out and tell me what you think. One of my favorite bowls in Chiang Mai.
This is not technically khao soi. But I felt it was important to include. In the Chiang Moi neighborhood a bit east of old town is a fun Japanese restaurant called Samurai Kitchen. They have the full gamut of fried yummies, sushi, and ramen. But one of their bowls of ramen is “khao soi style”. So it uses ramen noodles, you get a couple slices of pork and a salted egg, but the broth is khao soi broth and they include a little nest of fried noodles. I didn’t specify so it came with just an ocean of blistering chili oil floating on the top. Maybe the most I’ve seen on any bowl in Chiang Mai. I skimmed off a decent sized sauce bowl of the stuff but still ate enough to keep me in gastric distress for the rest of the night. But that aside it was quite tasty and a fun alternative to the normal bowl. Plus the place is decorated in classic movie posters and has some fun kitsch features. Worth a stop by. The food is mediocre but the atmosphere pulls it up.
The other dish was described as fried shishamo cheese spring rolls. Tasty.
This restaurant is not mentioned on any of the best-of lists and is not of particular note except that it was right across the street from our second airbnb and beside Wat Chiang Man if you happen to visit. The main reason I’m including it is because it happens to be Katy’s favorite bowl of khao soi. She’s not really into the spicy or heavily flavored bowls at the traditional places but the soup here is pretty straightforward and easy to eat. We ordered them “no spicy” and they had almost no chili oil. The broth was rich and coconuty. The noodles were good. I have no complaints. So if you don’t like your first bowl or are looking for something a bit more western friendly, give this place a try.
Chef Tao’s Thai Cuisine
As above, this place is not well known for their khao soi. They have a large western friendly menu and they push their khao soi as their specialty. It was also right across the street from our second airbnb and that’s mainly why I tried it. Honestly we mostly hung out here for their coffee. But hey, it’s one of the ones I tried so I’ll include it briefly. I ordered it “less spicy” and was delivered judiciously completely free of chili oil. This is when I realized how much the oil does to balance the sweet. This bowl almost tasted like it had maple syrup in it. Very sweet. It was interesting for sure. Not on my best-of list either. But I didn’t dislike.