Dining Out in Chiang Mai: The Author Shares His Prejudices

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 15, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, German, English, Indian, and, of course, American, whatever that adjective may mean. These are but a few world cuisines on offer in that bafflingly cosmopolitan Wild West town of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and forthwith I will tell you where they are at their best.

For pizza, go to Mr. Chan & Miss Pauline, a quaint, air-conditioned eatery near Chang Puak Gate. Thai "pizzas" tend to be small and greasy, and the Thais invariably elect to drown them in ketchup. But Mr. Chan knows a foreigner's palate and appetite. His 10-inch doughy pizzas are chock full of ingredients and smothered in cheese. The restaurant's ownership has ties with Sweden, so the menu also includes a wide range of Scandinavian food.

For Italian food in general, the local favorite is De Stefano's, run by an enthusiastic Italian man named - Stefano. Free bread with grated Parmesan cheese precedes every meal, and the meals are tasty and reasonably priced (a pasta dish is about 100 baht.) The decor is artfully Mediterranean, and the restaurant is frequently full of patrons chatting over wine.

De Stefano's is located in a soi opposite the Art Cafe, a pleasant air-conditioned cafe that serves De Stefano's food in addition to Mexican and Thai dishes. Art Cafe's Mexican is a praiseworthy attempt, but it's better at El Toro, a slightly dingy belowground bar just off Kotchasan Road. Enchiladas, tacos, burritos - expect all the Mexican standards, as well as - no small point, this - free chips and salsa. Also expect to hear the same collection of rousing Latin tunes by the Gypsy Kings, Mexico's unwitting musical ambassadors the world round.

If you're hankering after a tasty sandwich, visit The Amazing Sandwich on Prapokklao Road. Using a pencil stub and a form, you can design your own sandwich from a variety of ingredients - just like Subway, except without Subway's "white or wheat" interrogation. The sandwiches are indeed amazing, and you'd probably have to go to a French bakery in Vientiane, Laos to find better.

Desperately seeking sushi? Look no further than Akamon in the Chiang Mai Hill Hotel on Huay Kaew Road. The decor is Japanese, with special VIP rooms and low tables, and the Thai waitresses all wear kimonos, white socks, and flip-flops. Very Shinto-Zen, and the sushi and tempura and miso are to die for.

Near the McDonald's at Night Market are a number of European pubs, like the enviably bicultural German Hofbrauhaus Y Casa Antonio and the staunchly British Red Lion. In the space of a few meters, you can indulge in Sauerkraut und Bier or bangers and mash and a Bass.

For Indian food, foreigners tend to favor The Whole Earth Restaurant on Sridonchai Road; for Middle Eastern fare, Jerusalem Falafel near Thapae Gate; and for Vietnamese, Le Gong Kum off Huay Kaew Road. This last has a marvelous garden inhabited by caged parrots that can be made to curse in English.

The award for best cheeseburger goes to The Easy Diner on Rajadamnoen Road. A Thai "cheeseburger", like a Thai "pizza", tends to be too cute to be nourishing, and the patties are often made using different kinds of meat and spices. The results are inconsistent at best. But The Easy Diner's burgers are divine. The diner's 50's-retro decor is - amusing.

The best breakfast in town is probably that of JJ Bakery, though prices are high. The bakery is efficiently run, and the staff is courteous and, apparently, well drilled in restaurant English. Breakfast options include American, Continental, and "European" (a choice of breads and cold cuts), as well as the traditional Thai breakfast kao tom, or boiled rice soup. The coffee is roasted and brewed on site, and the croissants are fresh and genuine. A number of tables are arranged on an extended sidewalk, making JJ's the closest thing in Chiang Mai to a central, street-side cafe, though its charm would be much improved if something were done about the ugly snarl of traffic around Thapae Gate.

For a combination of food, service, and atmosphere, my vote goes to Belle Villa, a resort located about a 45-minute drive out of the city on the Hangdong-Samoeng Road. Nestled in a lush valley, the resort is lined with cobblestone pathways and bursting with ornate horticulture. The service at the restaurant is old-fashioned Thai, which is to say, unobtrusive: a waiter here can remove your silverware without your being aware of it. The Villa's menu of European and northern Thai food is a bit pricey, but it's worthwhile on special occasions. Sunset here is idyllic.

At last I come to the honor most difficult to bestow: best Thai restaurant. Difficult not because I don't have a strong opinion, but because there are so many great Thai restaurants. But I think only one excels in both quality and economy, and that is Lemon Tree on Huay Kaew Road. (For dirt-cheap, adequate Thai try Kanjana, off Rajadamnoen Road, where a bowl of yummy curry on rice sets you back 15 baht.) I could eat Lemon Tree's tom kha gai, or chicken coconut soup, even if the building were collapsing under my feet, and I revel also in their chu chi moo, or pork curry. Lemon Tree also offers a delivery service.

Among the many reasons why so many foreigners develop an affinity for Chiang Mai is this enormous diversity of cuisine at reasonable prices. They may be far from home, but they will never be far from home cooking.

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