Words and photos by Jesse Friedman 

It’s pouring rain as we arrive in Chiang Mai, which is my luck. If I arrive in a new city with luggage in hand, I’ve learned to expect rain. Like, buckets.

My wife and I exit our cab and duck under a large umbrella perched out front of our destination: Tong Tem Toh Resturant. Outside, a cook turns sheets of pork on a roaring grill, dabbing each piece with sauce as he goes. The waiting crowd huddles under a series of those large umbrellas, clutching plastic sheathed menus dotted with rain. We elbow our way in and try to find dry patches of ground on a flooded brick floor.

Finally, we find a host, who issues us a number and a damp menu. She instructs us to write down our choices on our number slip before we sit down. Hungry throngs of diners hum around us under slicking lights and a leaky roof.  

“Get the appetizer platter” was our chef friend’s only advice and so we oblige, jotting down its dish number on our little slip. We quiz locals on what’s good while we wait and take a few passes through the restaurant to see what everyone else is eating (the appetizer platter is on almost every table). We make a few more choices and turn in our homework. Forty or so minutes later, the rain abates just and we finally sit down to a table. Our food arrives just a few seconds after we do.

The much-loved appetizer plate turns out to be a selection of Northern Thai Isaan-style bites: a rainbow of steamed veggies and house-made charcuterie surround two center bowls—one red, one green—of nam prik, a fiery-hot local specialty. The green bowl holds a blend of galangal (a local type of mild ginger) and hot chilies. The red contains a ground pork, tomato, and chili dip.

Chicharrones nestle alongside soft-boiled eggs with vivid sunset-orange runny yolks, steamed cabbage, long beans and Chinese broccoli. Rustic pork sausage reminiscent of great German knockwurst has a slight green tint from Makrut lime leaves. The immediate stand-out is jeen som mok kai, a fermented pork pate topped with an egg and wrapped in banana leaf. The pork is tangy and sour, woven through with sweet onions.

It’s a plate overflowing with incredible flavor, texture, and heat, a far cry from any Thai food at home. A few bites in and sweat beads my brow in the best possible way as I grab more cabbage to cool the building heat. The spice is addictive; after a few breaths of reprieve, I find myself instinctively reaching for more, then washing it down with cold Chang beer.

The “Burmese Style Curry” that follows features chunks of tender pork shoulder surrounded by a fiery brown curry sauce with notes of cinnamon and peanut. Whole garlic cloves swim alongside the pork. Without the usual Thai coconut milk, there’s a nuttier, earthier profile peeking through the heat. We scrape the bowl clean with sticky rice.

Tamarind leaves arrive next, thin delicate branches with a delicate lemony aroma. With red onion, rough chopped tomato, a spicy fermented shrimp or fish sauce, and topped with thin-cut chicharrones for crunch, it takes on an almost blue cheese-esque funk. It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever had: funky, refreshing, deep with flavor.  

By the time we look up from our plates the restaurant is clearing out for the evening, and the wait staff circulates the room to check on last call for the kitchen.  

AND NOW, KHAO SOI

I already knew I loved khao soi—egg noodles and your choice of meat luxuriating in a rich yellow curry coconut broth— before I arrived in the northern mountainous jungle of Chiang Mai, and came prepared with a list of places to find it. It's the perfect representation of its setting: a tapestry of staggering depth of flavor with numerous subtle threads from their creator’s personal surroundings.  

Our first stop: Khao Soi Khun Yai, tucked into a Wat Temple parking lot on the north side of Chiang Mai’s Old City, just inside a moat and brick wall that surrounds the square district. We make our selections and grab a seat under what looks like the strongest of the rickety fans at a tile-lined table.  

Our bowls, floral-patterned and filled with broth the color of burnt sienna, hit the table. A small pool of white coconut milk peeks out from underneath a nest of crispy fried noodles perched on top of the soup. We mix in raw chopped shallot and salt-pickled greens and tuck in.

Thick sauce clings to the crinkled eggs noodles below and softens the fried ones above. A few stray cilantro leaves set off bursts of herbal brightness. The whole thing slowly builds in heat, and the tell-tale brow sweat resurfaces as I reach deeper into the bowl. It’s becoming a good sign.

Suddenly our bowls are empty. A perfect starting point.

Our next find, a rumored “Chinese-Muslim” khao soi, is located on the eastern side of the city, down Halal Alley. A mosque dominates the street, and the signs switch to silky Arabic script. We find the spot, a small fruit and dry goods market in the corner, with dozens of empty tables capable of feeding over a hundred people at once.

It’s in between services, so we’re the only ones here. The initial sight of pre-packaged crispy noodles perched on top doesn’t bode well, but underneath, the soup is an array of colors: deep orange in one side, lighter yellow at the other, with a handful of steamed greens in between the barely submerged chicken. Egg noodles poke out around the edges.

I swirl the broths together with my spoon and slurp: it’s a heady curry, much less spicy, with a deep nuttiness. The soup eats like a new TV show: slow at first in the introduction, but developing into binge-worthy infatuation the longer you go. The sin of the cheaper crispy noodles is forgiven as layers of curry flavor build in the bowl. As soon as it’s getting really good, it’s over; the elderly women watching us eat from across the room nod approvingly when we show them our empty bowls.

The call to prayer blares on speakers as we step back into the street.

 

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