Andy Ricker

Tall, white and raised in Vermont, American chef Andy Ricker is an unlikely champion of Siamese food culture. And yet. The opening of Ricker’s game-changing Portland restaurant Pok Pok showed America’s north-west – and, in time, the rest of the country – what uncompromising Northern Thai food should taste like. Today, the James Beard-award-winning chef and multiple cookbook author lives in Chiang Mai: the Thai province that inspired the original Pok Pok, which closed its doors in the fall of 2020. Here’s his hit-list of essential Chiang Mai eating experiences.
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Intro To Dining In Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is mostly known for casual eateries serving local food, cheap Japanese izakayas and noodle shops for students but there is also a small and growing fine-dining scene. Without doubt, the leader of this group is chef Black and his pastry chef wife and partner, Bia. Together they operate Black Kitchen, Chiang Mai’s preeminent tasting menu and only modern Thai restaurant. They concentrate on ethically sourced, farmed and harvested produce, meats and seafood, going so far as to partner in business with some of Thailand’s finest purveyors of this type of foodstuff. Black also makes his own shochu which can be purchased at the restaurant. They are located in a small shophouse in the Nimmanhemin area close to a lot of the city’s best little boutique hotels. Another long running fine-dining spot is Cuisine De Garden in Hang Dong, about 30 minutes south of the city centre by car. There chef Nan and his crew serve up a tasting menu of locally sourced product, mostly from the Royal Project along with a nice wine list, cocktails and local beers. Lunch and dinner available, and reservation is a must.

The Story Of Chiang Mai’s Best Khao Soi

There are a stack of places that I keep going to time and time again in Chiang Mai. Some restaurants I’ve been visiting for over 30 years. One of those is Khao Soi Prince. It’s a really fascinating place. It’s been around for around 70 years or something like that, and is now in the hands of its second generation. If you do a search online, it will say that Khao Soi Prince is closed. But they’re still around. The mother – the original cook there – was sick, so after 40 years in its original location, the family moved the shop closer to home so they could take care of her. They first moved behind Maejo University. But if you’re at a university in Thailand, you have to sell the food for cheap. Students don’t have enough money. They can afford to drink beer – they just can’t afford to eat food. It used to have all this awesome Muslim food there, but it pared things back because the kids weren’t buying it. But they never stopped selling khao soi. But because the food had to be sold for so cheap, the shop couldn’t make it there so it moved again, this time down a small soi in front of the university. Again, same story: student-focused sales. When that didn’t work out, the shop moved further on the main highway – right at the crossroads where Maejo University is – and it’s been there now for a year and a half. It seems to be doing okay.

The old Muslim dishes have started returning to the menu. And the family have enjoyed the success from online recommendations. It’s one of those stories of how a place can be so iconic, and yet suddenly, just disappear. The son who’s the head of the family is a really, really good cook, so everything on the menu is great. The family still make their own curry paste, their own noodles, and the noodles for the khao soi are soft, like khao soi noodles should be. They shouldn’t be too chewy. The khao soi here is Muslim-style, which tends to be quite mild compared to other versions. It’s essentially a Muslim stew that has coconut cream added to it. It’s just great. It’s very, very umami-rich, but it’s not over-powering. So, for me, Khao Soi Prince is definitely number one for khao soi. It also has a khao soi phat which is a stir-fried version of khao soi. And there’s some Thai ahaan tham sang (food made to order) stuff on the menu that’s really good. But the khao soi neua – the beef one – is my go-to.

To find Khao Soi Prince: If you’re going north on Highway 1001 away from Chiang Mai, you’ll come to the intersection of 1001 and 1367 at Maejo University. Take a left at the road that goes south-west and it will be on the left in approximately 200 metres.

A Taste Of Yunnan In Chiang Mai

I’ve been going to Mitmai forever. It’s been in Chiang Mai for decades and decades and is run by a Yunnanese-Chinese family that’s lived in the city for a couple of generations now. They do really neat Yunnan food. Anything made with the Yunnan ham or Yunnan sausage is really, really good. There’s a cucumber salad with herbs and a kind of soy-based dressing-slash-sauce that you mix together with sesame seeds, and it’s really fantastic. The menu is huge and unlike any food I’ve had in Chiang Mai. To be honest with you, it’s unlike most Yunnanese food that I’ve had outside of Yunnan. The food is similar to what I remember having in Yunnan when I went there 12 years ago. I don’t like using the word real or traditional, but I get the feeling that the family has a recipe book that comes from where they were living in Yunnan at the time they immigrated, and they’ve just kept cooking those recipes as they are. It’s an excellent restaurant. I make a point of going every time I’m in Chiang Mai. We often do celebration dinners there because there are giant tables and the food is just really, really good.

Central Thai Food Cooked The Traditional Way

I didn’t know about Puang Thong until maybe three years ago, but it’s been around since the 80s. It’s run by a woman called Malee and her daughter Aunchalee. Khun Malee cooks Central Thai food using recipes that go back several decades, recipes that she probably learned when she was a little girl. She’s in her 70s now, so these recipes are 50, 60 years old. The food is just amazing. So good. She uses really good-quality produce and picks out nice, big, fat prawns and really nice crabs. If you order fish, it’s going to be beautiful fish. The way that she approaches things kind of reminds me a little bit of Jai Fai in Bangkok. One important thing to note about this place is that you can’t just walk in. I mean you can, but they’ll just say “sorry we’re busy, we can’t seat you.” You’ve got to pick up the phone and call. You’ve got to tell them how many people are coming. And you should order before you get there. If not, you’re going to be waiting a long time for your food. Which is fair because everyone else has called and ordered ahead. You really should call a day or two in advance, at least.

There’s one dish she’s really well-known for called moo tom khem, which is braised pork rib stewed in a soy-based sauce. She does really classic Central Thai dishes like chu chee plaa (mild fish curry) and kung tom manao (prawn soup flavoured with lots of lime juice) which is kind of like a very simplified version of a tom yum. It’s mostly just prawns, garlic, fish sauce and lime juice. She might put some aromatics in there, but not much. There’s one more dish that she’s really well-known for called yam kratiam. The name means “garlic salad”, but it’s much more interesting than that. It’s got squid that’s been fried till dry and crisp, cashews, tomatoes, dried chillies, fresh chillies and lots of garlic. It’s a really good, interesting dish that tastes hot, sour, salty and sweet: all four of the flavours that people associate with Thai food. Khun Malee’s basic palate tends towards the tart and the umami-rich, so often her dishes are quite sour and spicy. Her stuff tends not to be very sweet, which I find appealing.

A Quintessential Stir-Fried Noodle Dish

There’s a Chinese-Thai place in the centre of the city, called Yok Fa Pochana – another one that’s been there forever – and it’s known for its lat na (deep-fried noodles in gravy) and phat si ew (stir-fried flat rice noodles). I’ve been going there since the 90s. The uncle who runs it is still around, and he spends most of his time walking around with no shirt on. But to me, it makes one of the most quintessential versions of phat si ew. It’s cooked in a giant wok with lots and lots of fire. It’s super flavourful: a brilliant version.

In Defence Of Pad Thai

I think pad thai is a good dish – it just depends on where you go. There’s a place by the McCormick hospital called Pad Thai 5 (Ha) Rod. There are a few branches around the city, but this one in particular is very good. If you go past McCormick Hospital heading out of town, there’s a little row of restaurants on the right-hand side. They’ve been there for a long time – and they’re all serving great food – but you want to get yourself to Pad Thai Haa Roht. They pre-season the noodles in tamarind and fish sauce, and maybe a little black soy for colour. Then, when you order it, the pre-seasoned noodles go into the wok and get stir-fried in lard before they add a little sugar and maybe a little more fish sauce for seasoning. They’ll throw in some prawns if you want them. Then the egg, tofu and garlic chives go in, and that’s it. It’s not overly sweet, overly salty or overly sour. It’s like right in the middle. They also offer a version with ground pork, which is very much Chiang Mai-style. It’s cooked in pork fat – so its unctuous and kind of mild – and is served with pennywort and garlic chives. I think the pad thai here is really worth seeking out. If you don’t like pad thai because it’s gloopy and sweet, then you would like this one. It’s very, very good.

Where To Get Local Northern Specialties

Laap Ton Yang is one of the best places in Chiang Mai to get local Northern specialties like the eponymous laap, tom som (sour soup), awm neua (a rich and very spicy soup/stew of beef and beef offal), muu yaang (grilled pork) plus all manner of meaty drinking foods. An all-women owned, operated and staffed joint, this place is known for great food and service and it is conveniently located on the side of the road that’s on the first ring road near Meechok Plaza. It is also open until 9pm, which is later than most joints of its ilk.

Country-Style Laap

Pa Daeng Jin Tup isn’t open during the day, but if you’re out there around lunchtime, I’ll recommend a laap place which is right next to them. It’s called Laap Long Goi which means “come taste” in the Northern Thai language. It is a classic Northern Thai country-style laap joint that specialises in laap khwai dip, a raw version of the dish that’s made with buffalo and uses four different kinds of organs and two different kinds of stomach. It also serves a broad array of really local herbs and vegetables to eat with the laap. I know a lot of Thai ingredients, but there’s stuff I don’t recognise at all and it’s mostly wild gathered stuff. The restaurant is known for its luu (raw pork blood soup) and yam hok, which is kind of like the frog tom yum but made with buffalo fetus. It’s very soft and it isn’t super gamey. It sounds really fucking hectic, but it’s kind of like eating tripe, but less tough and less funky. You really want to dive into this shit.

Another Kind Of Laap Joint

If you’re going along Faham Road and come out on the other side of the river, there’s a place called Laap Dee Khom Patan, which is like saying “Hamburger Patan”. Laap dee khom (laap with bitter bile of buffalo) is a type of dish they specialise in and there are shops with the same name dotted around the province named for the area they’re located. In this case, the Patan neighbourhood. It’s a classic laap joint, where you get cooked or raw laap, and all the Northern Thai stuff that comes along with it. I think that’s a pretty cool spot. We go there quite a bit.

An Approachable Introduction To Issan

SP Chicken is a classic place that I always recommend. I’ve been going there for 20 years and I’m good friends with the family. Year after year they’ve just churned out really good-quality Isaan food, but I would say that it’s not deep, dark, dank Isaan. It’s kind of like a cleaned-up version, but it’s very, very tasty. It’s approachable, but it’s also delicious. If you go here you, of course, you have to have the chicken. The salads are good too, especially the bamboo shoot salads. I always get the ribs . They’re seasoned simply and roasted in a gas oven, but they’re super tasty. The som tam is excellent, too. Everything on the menu is tasty – it’s one of those rare places where you can’t go wrong.

The Best Of The Iron District

For a slightly upscale but laid back take on Thai food, you must try Maadae Slow Fish KItchen. Yaowadee Chookong and her team source fresh sustainably harvested fish and seafood directly from fishing communities in the south of Thailand, prepare them carefully and serve them up in an indoor-slash-outdoor seating area in a little alley off Thaphae Road called the Iron District, where there is also a really good coffee kiosk, a live music bar and arts space called Thapae East. Maadae has a small but nicely curated wine program plus some Thai microbrews to go along with their mostly seafood menu. Reservations a must!

Chiang Mai’s Best Herbal Sausage

Sai ua (a herbal Northern Thai sausage) for me, is really a market food. My favourite version is at a place in Talaat Mae Hia which is out towards the Royal Park Ratchaphruek on the canal road. There’s one vendor in particular whose name I can’t recall, but it’s at the front of the market, you can’t miss it. It sells charcoal grilled sai ua and naam hprik num (Northern Thai green chilli relish). In my opinion, it’s the best sai ua in Chiang Mai. I really like the way it’s made which is a little bit dry and crumbly with shitloads of herbs. Some people like sai ua a little fattier, and maybe a little more snappy, but I don’t agree with that. The naam phrik num is quite good as well. There’s also a couple of unusual places in that same market, including a place down the aisle from the sai ua vendor that smokes meat. Generally speaking, it’s an interesting little market. Definitely worth checking out.

Thai Desserts From A Master

For a khanom (Thai desserts) place that’s consistently good, go to Talaat Chang Phuak. You want to find the cowboy hat lady, then look to the left and there, right on the corner, is a woman that’s selling ruam mit (fruits and sweets in coconut milk on ice) all year-round. During winter, when oranges are in season, she makes an orange juice which is fucking fantastic. She squeezes it to order and serves it on crushed ice with a pinch of salt mixed in. It’s wonderful. She also does a dessert called bua loi khai waan which is a duck egg poached in syrup and then served in coconut cream with little tapioca balls. In my opinion, she also does the best khao niaw mamuang (mango sticky rice) in the city. Nowadays you can go to any market, at any time of the year, and they’ve got those fucking khao niaw mamuang that look perfect all-year round. And they’re not. They’re not perfect all-year round. They’re only good for one part of the year, and she only makes khao niaw mamuang during mango season which generally starts in April or May and goes until the end of August. She only buys the best mangoes and she buys them for flavour. She’s been doing it for decades.

Chiang Mai Coffee 101

I have to say the first choice for coffee in Chiang Mai is Akha Ama. For me, it’s number one and there’s definitely a community around it. There are two locations in the city. I first met the owner Lee Ayu a decade ago, when he had just started out. He was primarily roasting the beans and selling them as wholesale. He’s now recognised as one of the leading authorities and pioneers in craft coffee in Thailand. The coffee scene in Chiang Mai grows so rapidly, but all roads lead back to Lee. A lot of these people used to work at Akha Ama or are associated with Lee and have done coffee trips with him up to his village. They all know and have worked with each other.

Where To Grab A Cocktail in Chiang Mai

What has been missing from Chiang Mai up until a couple of years ago is a truly great cocktail bar. Luckily these days there are several but one has my attention at the moment: the newly opened Noir cmi. It is the brainchild of Sitthan “Turk” Sa-Nguankun, founder of Sugarray, Alonetogether and a few other nightspots in Bangkok, who is known for curating interesting spaces, top notch live jazz, sophisticated service and carefully-crafted cocktails. Noir delivers on all four in spades – truly a world-class bar. Reservations are recommended and almost certainly required during prime hours and weekends. 

Selected Works: Pok Pok Noodles: Recipes from Thailand and Beyond (2019), Pok Pok The Drinking Food Of Thailand: A Cookbook (2017), Pok Pok (2013).

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