Where to Eat in Chiang Mai for the Best Northern Thai Lanna Cuisine
Where to eat in Chiang Mai for the best Northern Thai Lanna cuisine depends on how far you’re prepared to travel to eat well. Make the effort and you’re in for some of the most memorable meals you’ll have in Thailand.
With its distinctive Lanna cuisine, Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is heaven for food lovers. Urban development and all that goes with it, from traffic gridlock to pollution, may have turned this little city surrounded by mountains, jungle and valleys into a mini-Bangkok, but Chiang Mai’s fantastic food remains some of the country’s best and it’s one of our favourite eating destinations in Thailand.
Most visitors don’t feel like straying far from the Old City after a sticky day traipsing around Chiang Mai’s temples and pagodas. Fortunately there are excellent restaurants serving Lanna specialties in the historic centre, but you’ll find even better eating beyond the walls and the finest Northern Thai food just out of the city.
Here’s what to eat and where to eat in Chiang Mai. Note that we’ll be covering street food and markets in other posts.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai for the Best Northern Thai Lanna Cuisine
Northern Thailand’s Lanna Cuisine
If you’re not familiar with Thai food, like many cuisines, Thai food is regional. It essentially comprises four distinct cuisines that are different to each other due to a combination of climate, geography, culture, history, migration, and ethnicities of each region.
There’s Southern Thai cuisine, Central Thai cuisine, Northeastern Thai or Isaan cuisine, and Northern Thai or Lanna cuisine, named after the Lanna kingdom, of which the people of Chiang Mai are very proud.
‘Lanna’ is ‘Lan’ (a million) and ‘na’ (ricefields) combined, so the Lanna, a fertile agricultural region, was the land of ‘a million rice fields’. Chiang Mai was capital of the Lanna Kingdom from the 13th to 18th century, before being absorbed into Siam’s Rattanakosin Kingdom. Founded in 1296, Chiang Mai was under Burmese rule from 1558 to 1775.
But before it became the Lanna Kingdom, most of Northern and Central Thailand were part of the Mon Kingdoms of Dvaravati and Hariphunchai and the Khmer Empire. On its eastern border was Lan Xan, which would become Laos, with which Lanna had close ties, and during the Burmese occupation, Lanna was for periods ruled by Shan and Laotian kings.
It’s therefore not surprising to find influences from Mon, Khmer, Shan, Lao, and Burmese cuisine in Northern Thai food and it’s the unity of these disparate elements that make Lanna cuisine so distinctive.
Traditionally, an array of dishes will be served family-style, including a soup, salad, relish, vegetables, and a curry. While rice is considered to be the accompaniment by foreigners, for Thais, like most Southeast Asians, it’s the main component of the meal. Steamed sticky rice is preferred to jasmine rice and is generally picked up with the fingers, rolled into a ball, and dipped into a fiery nam prik (chili relish), which can also be scooped up with crispy and boiled vegetables, and used to mop up a curry (kaeng or gaeng in Thai).
While you’ll still find chicken and pork – including Chiang Mai’s beloved khao soi soup made with chicken, and plenty of pork sausages – Northern Thais also love their beef, water buffalo and offal. A favourite dish is laap muang moo, a ‘chopped pork salad’ made with offal, blood, and dried spices.
One must-do experience for many tourists is the ‘khantoke’ experience. ‘Khantoke’ is the name of the low round bamboo tables found right across Southeast Asia that people sit around to eat family-style from, their feet tucked beneath them. Below, however, we’re covering restaurants that are frequented by locals mainly or are as popular with locals as tourists.
For a good introduction to Northern Thai food, we highly recommend Chiang Mai Food Tours.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai – the Old City, Nimmanhaemin and Beyond
Most first time visitors to Chiang Mai don’t want to stray far from the Old City where most of the star attractions are located. We get that. The sweltering heat deters all but the most dedicated foodies from venturing far beyond the city walls – as does the often-gridlocked traffic.
After a morning gawking at pagodas you probably just want to swig an icy cold beer or two, sate your appetite, and snag a sun-bed by the swimming pool. Don’t worry, we’ve been there. In that case, opt for our Old City choices. Huen Phen is perfect for lunch and Dash Teak House is lovely for dinner under the stars.
Second time visitors to Chiang Mai should check into a hotel in hip Nimmanhaemin and focus their foodie forays on the laidback sois (side-streets and lanes) and surrounding neighbourhoods. This is where you’ll find some of our favourite restaurants, including Tong Tem Toe and Huen Muan Jai. You should also get out of the city for a Lanna feast at Huen Jai Yong.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai for the Best Northern Thai Lanna Cuisine
Note that this is by no means a comprehensive list. These are our picks of the restaurants that we found to be the best for Northern Thai Lanna food after a month eating in the city while updating a guide book.
Huen Jai Yong – Our Top Pick
Ask a Thai chef where to eat in Chiang Mai for the most authentic Lanna food and they’ll send you to Huen Jai Yong. In our case, it was chefs David Thompson and part-time resident Andy Ricker who recommended this rustic restaurant as their top tip. Occupying a breezy, traditional-style timber house with tables set amongst the pillars on the ground floor, Huen Jai Yong also has air-conditioned rooms in a modern building that wrap around the garden. The restaurant is around 17kms southeast of the centre of Chiang Mai, about a thirty-minute drive from the Old City, so you’ll have to hire a car or take a taxi and have him wait. We were fortunate to have Noi and Dash of Dash Teak House introduce us to this earthy home-style cooking at this local favourite – there wasn’t a single farang on the day we dined. Order as many dishes as you think you can squeeze in but don’t miss the nam prik num (roasted green-chilli, garlic and onion relish) and pork crackling (kep moo), the naem (the fermented pork sausage) and the rich, fragrant gaeng hang lay (pork curry), easily the best in Chiang Mai. Very few staff speaks English, however, there are English menus on the counter. Prices are ridiculously cheap for the incredible quality so go crazy. Reservations are a must.
65 Moo 4, San Kamphaeng Road, Tambon Buak Khang, Chiang Mai, 086 6718710
Chiang Mai Old City Restaurants
Not far from the Old City’s star attraction, Wat Chedi Luang, is Chiang Mai’s most popular Lanna restaurant. Ask your concierge where to eat in Chiang Mai for the best Northern Thai food in the Old City and Huen Phen is where you’ll be sent. Fortunately, this 40-year old restaurant is a longstanding favourite and pulls in an equal number of locals as it does Thai and foreign tourists. We strongly recommend eating here for lunch, when, while you’ll be sitting in the characterless and more casual outer eatery, there’s a greater chance you’ll be eating with locals. Dine here in the evenings and you will be sitting in the cosy interior dining room cluttered with antiques and bric-a-brac, however, we guarantee you’ll be dining with other tourists. Don’t be deterred by the photo menu or intimidated by the long list of dishes, the Northern Thai specialties are consistently delicious. Everything’s good but we especially love the moreish sausages – the sai oua (spicy Chiang Mai sausage, distinguished by its lemongrass and kaffir lime flavours) and naem (a sour fermented pork and sticky rice sausage). We also recommend the sweet tam khanun (jackfruit salad) or gaeng khanun (a spicy sour soup made from young unripe jackfruit), the earthy larb khua moo (spicy minced pork and offal salad), and the Northern Thai-style khanom jeen nam ngiao (fresh rice noodles with a hearty, spicy broth).
Huen Phen, 112 Ratchamanka Road, Old City, Chiang Mai, 053 277 103
Dash Teak House
Located on a lane near Tha Pae Gate, in a beautiful, traditional-style, two-storey teak house with a balcony and fragrant garden, Dash is arguably the Old City’s finest Thai restaurant and the most professionally ran. Guests couldn’t get a warmer welcome from this convivial Thai mother-son team who returned to Thailand to open the restaurant after living in the USA for some years. While mum Noi, the cook in the family, oversees the kitchen, son Dash looks after the diners – and occasionally joins the band in a song. This is where to eat in Chiang Mai if you prefer the familiar Thai classics, all executed perfectly and served in very generous portions. The Massaman curry is exceptional. However, for us the Lanna specialties are the stand out dishes, especially the creamy khao soi (Northern Thai chicken curry noodle soup) and a rich gaeng hang lay (Northern Thai pork curry) with fall-off-the-bone pork. The pair takes pride in the fact that all of the fresh produce is sourced from local farmers. Reservations essential. While the garden is popular we love the front balcony tables.
Dash Teak House, 38/2 Moon Muang Rd Soi 2, Old City, Chiang Mai 053 279230
The fine dining restaurant at the luxurious Rachamankha hotel is where to eat in Chiang Mai to sample elevated regional specialties, with good wines, in elegant surroundings. The menu features impeccably cooked Lanna, Burmese and Shan specialties, which diners find odd, but makes sense considering that Chiang Mai was ruled by the Burmese from 1560-1775, while the Shan people of Shan State, Myanmar, are from the Tai ethnic group. Known as Tai Yai in Northern Thailand they’re found in the mountains around Chiang Mai, as well as nearby Mae Hong Son, Lampang and Chiang Rai, and other northern Thai areas. During the day, dine in the air-conditioned, antique-filled interior with white linen-covered tables, fresh flowers and Ming porcelain on the walls. After dark, reserve a table in the pretty courtyard. If they’re on the menu, try a Shan salad (very different to Thai salads, with their use of sesame seeds and sesame oil), the aromatic Tai-Yai prawn soup, and a rich Burmese curry (oilier than Thai curries). Expensive by Chiang Mai standards, prices are nevertheless reasonable for such exquisite food in such a refined setting. Reservations advisable if you’re not staying at the hotel.
Rachamankha, 6 Rachamankha 9, Old City, Chiang Mai, 053 904111
Chiang Mai Nimmanhaemin (and Nearby) Restaurants
Tong Tem Toh
Follow your nose to the smoking barbecue out the front of this cool, casual, contemporary Lanna eatery with polished concrete floors and a beer garden with big wooden tables and benches tucked behind its walls. Located on one of the busiest sois (side streets) in the hip neighbourhood of Nimmanhaemin – home to a wide choice of wine bars, cafés, and restaurants – Tong Tem Toh remains the most popular option with young Thais, who come for some of the best and yet most affordable Lanna food in Chiang Mai. Get here early as the kitchen closes sharply at 9pm and order the Northern Thai style hors do’oeuvre platter, which includes fermented pork sausages (sai oua), spicy relishes, such as a fiery nam prik num (green chilli, garlic and onion dip) and milder nam prik ong (red chilli, tomato and pork relish), vegetable crudités and crunchy pork crackling. We also love the ant egg and glass noodle soup.
Tong Tem Toh, 11 Nimmanhaemin Soi 13, Chiang Mai, 053 854701
Huen Muan Jai
On a backstreet in an increasingly interesting local neighbourhood dotted with cafés and small eateries, that’s just a 5-minute taxi ride from Nimmanhaemin, this charming restaurant is set in a traditional teak wood house. Serving up some of the most authentic Lanna food in Chiang Mai, it’s popular with locals and expats, and sees the occasional small groups of tourists arrive with a savvy guide. Try the nam prik ong (tomato mince dip) served with crispy vegetables, the larb moo (a rich chopped pork mince salad) and the gaeng hang lay (spicy pork curry), which is widely considered by many insiders to be one of the best in the city was also very good. This is where to eat in Chiang Mai if you can’t be bothered heading back into the Old City to Huen Phen. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning for a second meal. Most do. And don’t miss the framed photos on the wall: yes, that’s the owner-chef appearing on Iron Chef Thailand.
Huen Muan Jai, 24 Ratchpruek Road, Chiang Mai, 053 404998
Ruen Come In
This is where to eat in Chiang Mai if your number one priority is the food. The only foreign diners you’ll find at the restaurant at this small hotel ran by a hospitable Thai couple, set in their family home, are guests too tired to go out. It’s a shame, because at lunch time the restaurant gets busy with government officials entertaining diplomats, in the evenings it’s an older generation of local regulars, and on weekends Thai families book the hotel property for weddings, reunions and significant celebrations. Once we dined, we understood why. Under the guidance of the matriarch, who was on the woks the day we ate here, the kitchen produces some of the most beautiful food we had in Chiang Mai (pictured above) all made using fresh produce from the family’s own organic farm. We thought the gaeng hang lay (spicy pork curry) was wonderful, but the signature dish is a the laap muang moo (bottom left in the photo above) or Northern Thai-style ‘chopped pork salad’, which combines fine pork pieces (not minced) with offal and pig’s blood, dried spices, fried shallots, and fresh herbs and greens. The sausages, sourced from the neighbourhood market, were the tastiest we had in Chiang Mai. Just off the Super Highway, it’s only a few minutes by taxi from Nimmanhaemin Road. Bookings essential.
Ruen Come Inn, 79/3 Sirithorn Road, Chiang Mai, 053 212516