Mae Hong Son, a tiny town seemingly forgotten in Thailand's northwesternmost corner, doesn't have a reputation as a culinary destination. And honestly, most visitors would be disappointed by the town's more apparent restaurant options. But if pointed in the right direction, there's some quite interesting stuff to eat there.
I've been writing about the food in this town for a while now, yet quite a few of the restaurants and vendors I've mentioned in previous years have shut down or gone down in quality. So I thought it high time to do an updated summary of the city's better places to get local food.
Although most people in Mae Hong Son are Shan/Thai Yai, there's a handful of places to get northern Thai-style food.
My personal fave is Lung Roen. It's little more than wall-less, street-side shack, but the older family here do good laap and sides, in particular a really excellent -- rich, fatty, eggy -- aep (grilled banana leaf packets of meat and herbs) and a tasty tam som oh, a "salad" of pounded pomelo.
New to me, although it's been around for a while, is Laap Pang Lor. Expect tiny dishes of cumin-heavy, rich northern-style laap:
and great sides -- the bamboo salad shown above was crunchy, spicy and savoury.
Another decent option for northern Thai is Laap Chiang Mai. The laap here tends to be heavy on the blood and light on the spice, but the various soups and sides, in particular the nam phrik taa daeng (a northern Thai-style "dip" of dried chili and fish), are pretty good. It's also just about the only place in town to get relatively good local food come evening.
For khao soi, the northern Thai curry noodle soup, by far the best bowl is town is at Chom Mai Restaurant. The chicken version here is rich and spicy, with, unusually, a hint of tomato. They also serve a few OK Shan-style dishes.
And it's not an acknowledged part of the northern Thai genre, but kai op faang, chicken "roasted" in rice hay is available -- and delicious -- at Chaay Thung, about 13km outside of town.
The Shan (also known as Thai Yai or simply Tai) are an ethnic group related to the Thai, but who predominately live across the border in Myanmar. Much of their food has been influenced by Burmese-style cooking, and Mae Hong Son is the best place (in many cases, the only place) in Thailand to try these unique dishes.
Quite possibly the most ubiquitous Shan dish of all is khao sen, thin rice noodles in a light, tomatoey broth. Places that serve this dish also often serve khang pong, deep-fried fritters made from green papaya, shallots of banana blossom, and khao kan jin, rice kneaded with pork meat and blood. Khao sen is available at Mae Hong Son's morning market, as well as all the places mentioned here; in particular, Paa Khon does an excellent bowl of khao sen, fortified with crunchy banana stalk (not to mention an amazing banana blossom khang pong):
and Paa Jaang does excellent khao kan jin -- both raw and steamed (pictured at the top of this post).
For Shan-style dishes with rice, the best choice is Mae Sri Bua. Her kaeng hang lay, a Shan curry of pork belly:
has an awesome balance of salty, sweet and sour that reminds me of American-style barbecue sauce -- if American barbecue sauce tasted about 100x better. The dishes available change on a day-to-day basis, but she usually always has jin lung, the Shan-style herbal meatballs, and oop kai, a Shan-style chicken curry.
And they're take-away only, but amazing Shan-style sweets -- honestly, some of the best traditional sweets in the country, as far as I'm concerned -- such as alawaa:
can be got at Paa Nii.
Ban Rak Thai, about 50km northwest of Mae Hong Son, was founded by KMT fighters who originally fled China in 1947. They took their cuisine with them, and today the village is home to a handful of restaurants serving Yunnanese-style Chinese food. The longest-standing, and my favourite is Gee Lee Restaurant. They do a dish called muu phan pii (thousand year-old pork), which takes the form of thin slices of braised pork belly over a pile of spicy pickled greens:
I recently took chefs Andy Ricker and David Thompson here, and the latter was so taken with the dish that he took a kilogram of the pickled greens back to Bangkok!
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