Eating in Pai, Thailand
by Katie Marty
One of the main reasons I love to travel so much is the food! Every country, every culture, expresses itself in the myriad of ingredients, spices and herbs they use in their cuisine. Food is a trademark of every region around the globe; it distinctly defines a group of people and their history. The hands that fold murtabak in Malaysia and roll sushi maki in Japan and the aromas of pho from Vietnam and deep dish pizza from Chicago carry with them age old traditions. Food is a great gift of culture and one I never miss an opportunity to grab hold of!
No matter where you go in the world, there are dishes and ingredients specific to that area–and they must be tasted! When I arrive on new territory, the first thing I do is go where the locals go and ask them what is a signature dish. In Scotland I ate haggis, that national dish made of sheep offal. Although reluctant at first, as I have never eaten or desired to eat heart, liver and lungs before, I couldn’t get enough!!! In Norway, I fell in love with Gudbrandsalsost, a brown, almost caramel like cheese. In addition, I ate butter and mayonnaise on bread with loads of peeled shrimps on top. This is also something I was hesitant to try as I do not eat shrimp, but as they say, “When in Rome….! I never would have fallen in love with roti canai or panipuri if I had not devoured all the local fare of Malyasia and India. To this day, I try to find anywhere else in the world to eat the signature dish of Ha Noi, Vietnam, called Cha Ca Thang Long– a turmeric and dill fish dish. This is why I cant stop traveling–because you have to go where the food was birthed in order to truly experience the culture and indulge in its genuine flavors.
An Eclectic Town
I currently live in Pai, a valley community tucked in the grandiose mountains of Northern Thailand. 4 years ago, on my first visit to this small town, I immediately noticed one thing–the food. Walking down the infamous night walking street, I could smell fish sauce and hear the crackling of fried eggs. I saw fried insects and skewers of dried fish. At the same time, however, I smelled lasagna and baked potatoes and saw sushi and pizza stalls. Because many Western expats have decided to reside here, the local fare has become a miscellany of influences. There are loads of restaurants that serve various types of cuisines, but staying true to their own culture, there are many places to get proper street Thai food as well. Whatever you are craving, you can be sure to get most of it. However, because Pai is a 3 hour drive from Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, there are certain ingredients that don’t make an appearance here. A variety of cheeses and cured meats are hard to come by and are very expensive. Getting a filet is out of the question, as is fresh seafood. Despite these challenges, I wake up every day excited to eat somewhere new or pop on down to the places I love to eat at. Pai is a town that is constantly recreating itself, and with it, the food.
Here is a list of some of my favorite places to eat in Pai.
- A Taste of Joy
- Plern Pai
- Jaow Pra Ya
- Nong Beer
- Carrot on the Moon
- Lemon and Thyme Cafe
- Pai Center
- Street Stalls
A Taste of Joy
A Taste of Joy is a new, rustic café with a homey feel. Joy, the Thai chef and owner, is full of incredible ideas. Her menu is made up of Asian and Western fusion dishes that you will not see on other menus in Pai. She changes her menu often, staying true to local, seasonal ingredients. Within weeks of opening, she became renown for her Bánh Mi. There is no where else in town to get the famous sandwich of Vietnam made with french bread, pâté, meat, pickled vegetables, coriander and sauce. Trust me, it is incredible! I eat it at least one a week!!!!
In addition, Chef Joy hosts Chef’s Table events. On certain Saturday evenings, she invites a guest Chef to cook a surprise 3-course meal for his or her guests. The café sits up to 20 people, so it is perfect for an intimate setting and for guests to experience something unique. Currently, she is the only place in town that offers this special event and seats fill up fast.
This is by far this year’s best new edition to the Pai food scene. Take an afternoon or evening to stop by Taste of Joy to sit, relax, and eat some of the best food this town has ever seen!
When the smokey season rolls around in late February, many locals travel down South or leave Thailand for a couple months. This is also true for me, so around March or April I pack my bags for yet another adventure. What was disappointing about leaving Pai last April was that I just found out about a new, solely vegetarian place that had opened up. Some friends of mine took me to this quaint spot with only 3 tables. One of my friends is a meat-eater, but he couldn’t stop raving about the vegetarian burger. His girlfriend, a true vegetarian, reinforced how yummy the food was and I was in. From the first moment I had the Buddha Bowl, a beautiful salad of crispy tofu, asian warm slaw, avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, purple rice and seeds in a light lime dressing, I was hooked! The Chef bakes fresh sourdough bread, makes homemade tempeh, and to-die for vegan desserts. At a glance it looks like a simple menu, but it is loaded with unique and explosive flavors like the BBQ jackfruit burrito and turmeric spiced latte. You can find ingredients at her shop that you can not find anywhere else in Pai like hemp seeds and açaí.
When I came back to Pai in September, I was pleased to see the Plern Pai built a balcony with added tables and a stunning view of the mountains and sunset. This place is only gaining momentum. Even if you eat meat, trust me, you won’t want to miss this special gem Pai has to offer. Go on, save an animal for a day and treat yourself to food unlike you’ve tasted before!
Jaow Pra Ya
Known to the locals as Pear’s, Jaow Pra Ya is the place you go to get the best Khao Kha Moo in town. Khao Kha Moo (pictured above) is stewed pork shoulder, and no one comes close to making it like Pear and her mother do. This is one of those spots that a local turns you on to, as a local friend did for me. When driving down the street it’s located on, you could easily miss it. The title of the restaurant can only be found at the top of the menu chalkboard. More like a food stall than a restaurant, it is unpretentious and yet so delicious, offering only the same 5 authentic Thai dishes each day. You do not want to get there too late in the afternoon because when they run out of food, they close for the day, and this often happens before 2 or 3 o’clock! If you eat pork, make sure to stop by this modest place and indulge in some Khao Kha Moo.
You can’t visit Northern Thailand without trying Khao Soi. Khao Soi is a yellow curry dish made with egg noodles and topped with crispy fried egg noodles. What has always impressed me about Nong Beer is that the Khao Soi always tastes the same. Nong, the Thai owner, makes sure that her recipe never varies from the original. Whether you order gai (chicken), beef (nuea), or vegetarian (jay or pak), your palate will always be satisfied. For 4 years now I have been going to Nong Beer for my Khao Soi and each time I am amazed at the quality. If you don’t like Khao Soi, don’t worry. They have an extensive menu of Thai dishes, all of which are packed with loads of flavor. Trust me, no matter what you order, you’ll be impressed!
Carrot on the Moon
I love it when you have lived in a place for awhile and one day you notice a cute little spot down a small soi (side street) right in the center of town. I stumbled upon this place only last year and was immediately blown away by their food. Their speciality is desserts, ranging from the best (and I mean the best) brownies in town, to scones, cakes and cookies. They also bake their own bread and offer open face and regular sandwiches. Their poached eggs are done perfectly and their coconut milk lattes stand out from any other in town. All in all, this café offers a quiet ambiance, great service and impeccable food! Make sure to wander on down their little side street and get your grub on!
Lemon and Thyme Café
This is one of those places that gained popularity immediately upon opening and hasn’t stopped. Just last week they expanded into the building next door as they were busting at the seams with people everyday. The food is cooked with passion, and you can taste it. They crush their open-faced sandwiches, bake their own bread and have incredible weekly specials like Ratatouille and Fish Provençale. All their herbs come fresh from their garden and they are one of the few places you can get a proper Shakshuka in town.
Two young Thai men single handedly run this place. It is massively impressive. They do tell you when you order that you will have to wait 20 minutes or more for the food, but it is more than worth it. I respect them for being honest and anyone can see inside their little kitchen that 4 hands can only work as fast as they can. It is common in Thailand to wait a bit for food anyway–it’s not a culture of fast food and it is something I love about this country. Read a book, play a card game, or catch up on your social media while you wait. You’ll be glad you did!
This is another one of those spots in town that locals call a different name. We call it Mio’s, after the Thai chef who runs it. Mio’s has been a favorite spot to watch football in the evenings by the local sports fans, but her specialty is good food during the day. Located two places down from the Bus Station, Mio gets loads of foot traffic from the tourists coming and going. Recently, she has remodeled her space, adding fun table cloths and chair cushions, as well as drawing her own menus! Coming back this season I was super impressed with her artwork and as usual, with her food. She offers a vast array of shakes from banana mango to lime mint watermelon. Something unique to her menu, and one of my favorite dishes, is the grilled chicken, mango and avocado baguette. I always add two poached eggs and wow, this hits the spot!!!! In addition, she knits and sells her hats and other merchandise in her shop, making her a versatile spot for food, drink and something a little extra. It’s the perfect spot to try when arriving or leaving Pai. Don’t miss it!
One cannot visit Pai without tasting the mouth-watering food from Chef Dustin’s restaurant, Cafecito. Since it opened a few years ago, it has only continued to grow in popularity. Perhaps it is because the Chef has had years of experience in kitchens around the world. Perhaps it is because it offers authentic Mexican cuisine, a rarity in town. The menu offers tortas and chilaquiles, huevos rancheros and a variety of homemade salsas. Perhaps people can’t get enough of this place because the food is consistent, the service is wonderful and when the Chef is in town, he makes sure to sit down and have a chat with his customers.
Homemade tortillas, bagels and desserts are yet another reason to love this place. Everything is either grown by Chef or locally sourced. What is also exciting is that there are often specials of the day. Just a few days ago, they made homemade soft pretzels. If you’re a coffee lover, they even roast their own coffee in house!
I applaud this restaurant for attaining such a dedicated clientele and for continuing to produce delicious food day in and day out. I do not know what I would do without this place, seriously! A Pai must try!
It is only open for breakfast and lunch, so make sure to get there before they close at 5pm!
There are a multitude of reasons to have dinner at Silhouette restaurant. It is the absolute perfect place to go on a date. Or, grab a group of friends and share in the fine dining experience together. Surrounded by the mountains, this open air restaurant is nothing short of sensational. The ambience is romantic and luxurious. When you walk in, you feel transported to somewhere in Europe. They capture the Old World feel well, making it completely exclusive to Pai.
It is not only the decor and ambience that make this place distinct in town. It is also their multifarious menu of Mediterranean tapas. No other place in town does tapas, nor does any other place offer charcuterie and cheese boards. Within the last year or so, they have expanded their menu to also include sandwiches and pastas, while adding more tapas and main course dishes. It is still the only place in town to get salmon. It is still the only place in town with such an extensive wine list from France, Chile, Spain, and Italy.
When having dinner here, you are making a choice to treat yourself and people you love. There is often times live music playing and the service treats you like you’re in a highly acclaimed restaurant back in the West.
Make sure to take some time to check out and eat at this sensational restaurant and hotel. Yes, they also have beautiful rooms, but this is a food guide and so I wanted to focus on how important it was to allot some time to enjoy an afternoon or evening at Silhouette. We all have to treat ourselves sometime—and this is the perfect place to do it while visiting Pai!
I could not write a guide to eating in Pai without mentioning one of the most important parts of Thai culture—street food. It is something very rarely seen in the West. I know that before I came to Thailand I had gone to some street festivals back home, but never had I experienced the street food life as I have here. This is many people’s livelihood. Every single day they set up their food stall and cook the food right in front of your eyes. It is indeed an art, being able to make a kitchen outside that produces such tasty food.
In town, there are two main places to get down on street food. The first is one of the elements that make Pai so special—Walking Street. Every evening, two streets downtown transform from regular traffic streets into pedestrian walkways. Stall after stall contains either food, art or merchandise. It is very popular by tourists, as you can simply meander down the streets, trying this and buying that. You’ll find various types of Thai dishes as well as the Thai chefs’ take on Western food. Only a Thai can run a stall on walking street, and rightfully so, so it is interesting to see the spin they put on baked potatoes, burgers, pasta and pizza. Walking Street is a grand display of creativity and culture. It is a must-do when visiting Pai, no buts about it.
Away from the center a bit there is an all day market. Outside that market there are street food vendors that sell breakfast and dinner every day. These stalls are only Thai food. There is no signs of Western food here. The ones who set up for breakfast tear down their station and other vendors move in for dinner. In this area, there is mostly pre-made Thai food sitting so perfectly in plastic bags, waiting to be taken home for dinner. This is where I get my laab moo (a spicy, minced pork dish), and if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll grab a bag of whatever looks good, take it home, pour it in a bowl and try something new.
Recently, however, there have been more food stalls popping up on this same street. Every evening you can see the locals eating at one of these spots. Unlike the original stalls I just talked about, these stalls also set up chairs and tables so that you can eat their made-to-order food right on the street, Thai style! There’s a bone broth and pig’s blood soup lady that is delish. There is a stall that makes a handful of Thai dishes, and their Pad Krapow (Thai basil dish with rice) is awesome!
Most street stalls stay open late as well, allowing you to satisfy your late night hunger after the bars close at midnight.
When you have the opportunity to visit this wonderful little town in the mountains called Pai, make sure to come hungry and indulge in all it has to offer!