Khao soi is Chiang Mai's signature dish, beloved by locals, emulated by restaurants abroad and sought out by celebrity chefs. But where did it come from? What's actually in it? More importantly, where do you get the good stuff? Don't worry, we're here to help.
Chiang Mai's Best Khao Soi
Not only does Lert Ros (เลิศรส, "outstanding flavor") do some of the most loaded, delicious khao soi in Chiang Mai, it's walkable from Thapae gate making it accessible to backpackers, families, the package tourist set and anyone else traveling through. They serve other things, but you're doing yourself a disservice to miss the khao soi.
Samerjai's khao soi isn't quite as good as Lert Rot, but it's still awesome and they have a huge array of other dishes to go with it. The pork satay and chilli dips (nam prik, น้ำพริก) are solid choices.
Just Khao Soy feels a bit like it's been sanitized for tourists (being the main clientele) but that's not always a bad thing. Their khao soi isn't as flavorful as the small local kitchens, but they have a much bigger menu in English. If you're new to Chiang Mai and are willing to sacrifice a bit of authenticity in order to actually understand what's going on, Just Khao Soy is a good choice.
Chiang Mai's khao soi (variously spelled khao soy, kao soi and kao soy) is a bowl of egg noodles and a chicken leg covered in a soupy mild coconut curry, topped with crispy noodles, lime, shallots and pickled cabbage to your taste. It's as awesome as it sounds. There are regional varieties if outside of Chiang Mai - the name actually means something like "trimmed rice," which refers to the flat rice noodles of the Lao version. They also don't add coconut milk and the broth is clear. Further north in Shan State the khao soi is closer to Chiang Mai's, but they'll often add blood-jelly to it.
Ultimately though, all khao soi comes from the Burmese ohn no khauk swe, which even made it west into India during WWII. So really, khao soi isn't Chiang Mai food at all - real Northern Thai food is a lot of thin, spicy soups with no coconut, strong herbs and the occasional ant egg or deep fried frog (you can read more about real Northern Thai food in our Regional Thai Cuisine article). But it's still iconic and it's still delicious.
By the way - if you're not in Chiang Mai and need a recipe for khao soi, take heed: most recipes on the internet in English are really bad. No, khao soi is not made with red curry paste. If you want to find the real deal, you'll have to venture into the Thai internet - try running this recipe through Google translate, and then you can watch this video of a Thai chef.