One reason we were so keen to return to Chiang Mai is the food. We visited about a year ago and, for some weird reason, didn’t take full advantage of the variety of vegan options. This time around, however, we made it our mission to visit as many restaurants as we could, taste the rainbow, and present you with a comprehensive guide.
What’s so great about Chiang Mai is the selection of food on offer. There are vegan restaurants elsewhere in Thailand, but they generally are your standard “Jay” (a Buddhist form of veganism) lunch buffet and are not always amazing – mind you, sometimes they are. We didn’t visit any of those whilst in Chiang Mai, because they can be found everywhere else. Instead we went for the organic farm to table, Japanese macrobiotic, healthy salad bar concepts and all the different and original options in-between, because they truly are what make Chiang Mai a vegan food paradise. Here are the places we visited, in order from our most to our least favorite.
1. PUN PUN
We visited the Wat Suan Dok location only, and I quickly made it my favorite restaurant based solely on a dish called nam hed song kreung, a fermented mushroom sausage served with lime, red onion, ginger, chili, spring onion, cilantro and cashew nuts. Take a bite of sausage and a little bit of everything else at once. Sit back and open your eyes wide as the flavors mingle and clash and collide and party with each other. It was my first encounter with a vegan version of the ubiquitous Thai fermented sausage and all I have to say is: ZING! Also worth a mention were the fruit and veggie salad with seeds and legumes, the spicy and sour glass noodle and mushroom salad and the Yen ta four, a “fat noodle” soup with beetroot lime sauce. Everything here seems to be great, in fact. Closes at 5pm and all day Wednesday.
2. HAPPY GREEN
Happy Green is a bit of an unknown gem. Located in a remote and lovely little rustic oasis on the bank of the Ping River, they serve the most humongous organic salads I have ever seen. We ordered the eponymous salad every time, the priciest item on the menu at 60 baht ($2!) and saw the waitress proceed to the backyard to literally pick our lunch straight out of their organic garden. There is a selection of low fat raw vegan dressings, but if you are 100% raw, beware that there may be some cooked sweet potatoes in your salad (which we don’t mind). There is also a lunch buffet out front, but the fresh salad menu is really what makes this place shine. Closes at 7pm. Discount if you come on a push bike.
Tucked away in a quiet little garden, Amrita serves a mix of Japanese inspired and Western macrobiotic fare, all prepared with organic ingredients. The daily macrobiotic lunch comprises of a few veggie dishes, a detox soup, a mug of papaya leaf tea and a rice bowl that I urge you to pay the extra 10b and swap for the rice balls wrapped in seaweed and pickled mustard leaves. The portions are small but satisfying and the food is refreshingly not over seasoned. On a separate visit we also tried the veggie burger and the pasta bolognese and found them to be the best we’ve had in some time, the burger especially. Amrita is an all-round winner. Closes at 7pm.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Lovely small café located in the heart of the Old City, in a peaceful inner courtyard with other shops and restaurants (our favorite massage place also happens to be located in this same courtyard). The juice and smoothie menu is great and so are the avocado sandwich with pineapple, ginger and tomatoes and the grilled vegetable salad with cashew nut topping. The food is simple, honest and healthy and is prepared with care by the friendly staff. The coconut/coconut/coconut/cinnamon shake is out of this world. Open late.
This is our go-to place on days we’re on the move for their pre-packaged vegan granola bars, freshly baked rolls and soy yoghurt. Come early (before 8am) and watch the life go past before farang flood the street as people set up their market stalls and shoot the shit around a grill full of weird things on skewers and sticky rice. The coffee is delicious and so is the avocado/tomato bruschetta. Closes at 5pm.
6. BAMBOO BEE
Bamboo Bee is a little unsuspecting hole in the wall in the northeast part of the Old City that packs a punch in its menu of Thai, Japanese, Korean, Shan and Western dishes. I’m a little torn for placing it so high up on the list because of the salt and fat content in the food here – Richard woke up one morning complaining of a “Bamboo Bee hang-over” while downing bottle after bottle of water – but the food here really is delicious, notably the yellow curry and the sour kimchi soup. I have read several reviews raving about the salads, but we didn’t try those. There were some inconsistencies in the food quality when the restaurant was full, so come early and do drink plenty of water before, during and after. Open late.
7. KHUN CHURN
Khun Churn offers an all you can eat veggie buffet for 169 baht ($6) for lunch and a la carte for dinner. We stuffed ourselves silly in the salad bar for lunch, eating plate after plate of delicious, fresh raw veggies, fruits, grains, herbs and legumes, and sampling all of their lovely (unsweetened) herbal drinks. Dinner is also worthwhile, notably the isarn laarb and the nam prik (the first time we see vegan nam prick anywhere – the one we tried was made of fermented beans that perfectly captured the essence of a traditional, fish-based version). Open late.
The food here is mostly Burmese, with Thai and Western options thrown in for good measure. What we were mostly interested in were the Shan salads: for 110 baht, you can choose an assortment of any three of them and add a bowl of steam rice for a further 20 baht. We especially loved the fermented tea leaf salad and the green tomato salad. There is a wide selection of rice, noodle and curry dishes (the pumpkin ginger curry is excellent) and a great breakfast menu (we spied some vegan pancakes and “milk” shakes in there!). A little hard to find and not in the best location, but overall great. Closes at 4.
9. BUBBLES LIVE
Nice bright restaurant, rather exuberant but nonetheless very friendly French owner, tasty if a little nondescript vegan and vegetarian selection. The organic menu felt a little overpriced for the size of the portions, but I understand that the dishes are made with quality ingredients. I had a brown rice salad and it was a VERY light bite, albeit a delicious one. Superb spring rolls. The set menus are excellent value, with a large vegetarian curry, rice and fruit shake coming in at a little over $2.
10. SALAD CONCEPT
We read an especially gruesome review for Salad Concept on TripAdvisor involving a cockroach in a salad, but we still decided to give it a go one day because it was on our way and we were in a rush. I’m glad we did, because we found a clean restaurant (the Nimmanhamein branch) and a generous salad at a really good price. Salad Concept could possibly be one of the most westernized restaurants in all of Chiang Mai, but it’s convenient when you’re on the go and want to choose exactly what you are eating. The dressings are quite oily, but otherwise it’s a great option, much better than the sadly overhyped Juicy4U. Open late.
11. DADA KAFE
Dada Kafe has a lovely garden out front and makes their own peanut butter and kombucha – which is enough for us to like them straight away. The waiter made a bit of a fuss when I asked for khao soi without egg noodle (vegan). He instead recommended I have pad thai (which has egg!) because the khao soi “came” with egg noodles. C’mon now, how hard can it be to swap noodles in a recipe? He obliged in the end, but it left me a little irritated. The food was otherwise very tasty although the khao soi was lacking its traditional fresh raw veggies and pickled cabbage toppings which would have otherwise possibly made it the best vegan khao soi of Chiang Mai. Open late.
12. WRAP & ROLL BY BIRD NEST CAFÉ
Brand new little joint in the backpacker enclave on Soi 6 serving burritos and falafel sandwiches. Nice hip ambiance. Pick your own fillings. The vegan options of refried beans, brown rice, avocado, extra spicy sauce and cilantro is 60 baht, which is tremendous value for non-Thai food and such a huge, California-style burrito. A little oily, but otherwise: YES. Open late.
We went to Aum for the khao soi. And it’s quite good, if perhaps not super authentic – if I’m not mistaken, there are some Indian flavors in there. It also had all the pickled cabbage and raw onion fixings you’d hope for, which is mandatory for a khao soi if you ask me. Aum is one of the rare restaurants in Chiang Mai to have tempeh (Amrita also does), the spring rolls are especially great and the juices are delicious. We’ve read mixed reviews about Aum, but we like it. The upstairs sitting area is a quiet little oasis off the main road. Open late.
Quiet, clean little vegetarian restaurant, friendly service, nice salads, tomkha, curry, khao soi and tofu with cashew nut, cute puppy wearing a bumblebee suit, large healthy juices, free WIFI, fair prices. Overall great if a little generic. Open late.
Imm Aim is earning its spot here mostly because of its cool vibe: it’s a nice chilled garden away from noise and traffic. The food is good, but the portions are a little small and on the pricey end by Thai standards. I had a cashew nut dip with a salad and sweet potato naan (the word naan should be used very loosely) that had such a long name in the menu it left me thinking I was getting a lot more than I actually did. But it tasted great and left me feeling satisfied, so I can’t really complain. Great place to chill or work. Open late.
Cute little restaurant that is mostly worth going to just to see the cool neighborhood around Nimmanhamein Road – we ended up there after I had my hair cut at New York New York Hair Studio a few blocks away. Lovely salads and drinks, a little pricey compared with elsewhere, but the food is of excellent quality and the setting is lovely. We had the Thai mushroom salad which was spicy and fresh.
17. TEA TREE CAFÉ
A bit of a hippy community dig, Tea Tree whips up delicious salads, hummus and veggies plates and flatbreads that are a little expensive compared with similar other healthy western restaurants in Chiang Mai, but still definitely worth a visit. The vibe is super chill, there are guitars lying around and they do a weekly movie night and a jam session if you’re into that kind of stuff. Super friendly staff. Located right across from the Somphet market. Open late.
18. CAT HOUSE
We joked that this place uses child labor because our waiter was around 10 years old, but it’s a really lovely little family business and the kids seem to be happy and extremely keen to wait on and chat with customers. The food is different (some kind of Mexican-Lao-Thai-Indian fusion), affordable and the place is overall well worth the detour. The curry burrito is a brilliant idea, whether or not it delivers as much as you’d expect, I don’t know, but it was nice enough. Yummy homemade kombucha. Open late.
19. ANGEL’S SECRETS
Charming little café in a quiet soi. I came here because I had heard that the khao soi was great. Alas – and despite having vegan noodles on hand – the waiter refused to make me a vegan version under the pretext that it would not be traditional. I ordered a curry instead which was very tasty. Unbelievably, they were out of steam rice – this may be the first time this has ever happened in a Thai restaurant, so I was served a side of plain Chinese noodles (the ones they would have used for khao soi). Traditional, you say?
We visited the Think Park branch and found the setup a little confusing. Whatever we ordered was good enough, but we later realized that everyone but ourselves had gone for the DIY soup bar that looked awesome; an option we didn’t even realize was part of this restaurant (it was located just outside). I just wished they had told us about it. Difficult to get a waiter’s attention. Open late.
The service was great and the food tasted ok, and I really wanted to forgive them for forgetting to put chili in the food that we ordered “very spicy”. But alas, this is Thailand, and you just don’t forget to put chili in food. Honorable mention for the vegan brownie that is absolutely out of this world – make the detour and grab one to go.
The Thai food at this cute hippy dig is bland and watered down, but our hopes were high for the “build your own salad or wrap” concept. Unfortunately, this also fell flat: the salad portions were tiny and expensive. There are so many better places to eat around.
23. VEGETARIAN FOOD STALL AT THE NIGHT MARKET
This place gets lots of good press online and I don’t understand why. My guess is that people don’t dare to stray from the tourist trail and see this as one of the only vegetarian places around, but boy, are they wrong. The food here is not any cheaper than any vegan or vegetarian restaurant in town and is laden in enough MSG and oil to fuel a tuk tuk engine. Just no.
24. BEAGLE VEGETARIAN CAFÉ
Brand new restaurant by the same people as Imm Aim (the menu is pretty much the same). Although the banana blossom and green mango salads were delicious, we had trouble disregarding some issues we had during our meal. We received only two of the four dishes we ordered, one that was accounted for (they were apparently “out” of spring rolls, despite being located a minute from a fresh market), the other simply went AWOL. What we did receive took over 45 minutes despite the restaurant being empty. Richard ordered a beet juice and was presented with a small glass of murk with a spoon. A quick stir revealed an inch of thick slime at the bottom of the glass. The juice was swapped for a fresh one with great apologies, but at this point the wrongs had outdone the rights and, teething problems or not, we had seen enough of Beagle.
Whew! You still here?
There were many more restaurants we didn’t visit and wished we had! Here are a few that are high on our list for next time:
– Blue Gate
– Bird Nest Café
– Gap House
– TianZi Tea House and Garden
– Radiance Restaurant