When it comes to Asian soups in the USA, ramen and pho get all the attention. They deserve a lot of it — the former draws hour long lines in trendy neighborhoods and the latter is our favorite steamy Sunday morning hangover cure. But neither rivals this relatively unknown northern Thai soup that I can’t stop drooling over: khao soi (pronounced, yummingly enough, as “cow-soy”).

Khao Soi Nuea (beef) — Get in my Belly

Khao soi is a curry-based egg noodle soup popular in Northern Thailand. Here you’ll find hundreds of roadside stalls and restaurants dedicated to the soup. Like many noodle dishes in Asia, khao soi is eaten primarily at breakfast and lunch, which means that following my morning cup of coffee, a bowl (or three) of it was the first thing on my mind.

My wife and I are on a 500 Day Trip Around the World, and we’re traveling primarily to eat. Prior to visiting any city, I spend hours researching the top local dishes in order to come up with our daily eating schedule. Heck, I’ve even desperately ventured to page five of Google search results hoping to discover a hidden gem. And while that alone may appear obsessive, khao soi inspired a whole new foodie quest in me, a Bourdainian effort that led me to force my wife to walk, bike, and scoot our way around Chiang Mai in 100-degree heat in search of an even hotter, steamy bowl:

Chiang Mai Weather Forecast (Fahrenheit)
Braving the heat prior to getting a bowl in Pai, 3 hours away from Chiang Mai

And I’m not the only one!

What makes khao soi unique is the variety of tasting experiences in each bowl. Thai cooking philosophy calls for every dish to have a spicy, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter component. Khao soi not only has these five crucial characteristics, but also has temperature contrast (hot and cold), texture differences (crunchy and creamy), and various forms of savory goodness. Unlike pho or ramen (which going forward we’ll refer to as “phamen”), there’s a lot more going on in every bowl than simple slurping.

  • Egg Noodles. Served in two layers — buried beneath the soup, a pile of savory, al dente egg noodles, and resting just above it, a generous heaping of the same noodles fried, which give each spoonful a nice crunch. I’m just going to go out and say it — egg noodles are the best noodles. Why? By relative fat percentage, they are the worst for you. And how do you make them even worse for you? Fry them. Khao soi has both deadly combinations, which is the first reason why you should chose it over phamen.
Soupy Shame

When in Chiang Mai

So where can you find the good stuff in Chiang Mai? Here’s a map of the places I’ve tried. My favorites are in green, places to avoid are in red, and everything in between is in orange:

My Top 4 Khao Soi Locations in Chiang Mai:

  • Khao Soi Samer Jai: One of my favorites and a classic on most khao soi tours. The near-perfect broth is what separates Samer Jai from the crowd.

Peak Ramen

Pho was so five years ago. We’ve now hit peak ramen. It’s about time we get a little coconut curry in our life. Gone are the days of the celebrated pad thai and mango sticky rice — let’s start lobbying our Thai restaurant friends for some serious soup. Neither our Asian soups nor our presidential candidate choices should be limited to two options. Portland has already figured it out. LA is embracing the movement. Help spread the word about khao soi!

Two for me. None for you.

Food. Data. Travel.

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