Featured Image: Airport Plaza, entry to Kad Luang Food Hall, pre-prepared meats to take home
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 9 April 2016
Food in Chiang Mai 5: Airport Plaza with some side notes on Bangkok
Articles in the series on food and restaurants in Chiang Mai are: 1 Akha Tribal Food, 2 Pho Vieng Chane, 3 Khao Soy, 4 French & Italian Restaurants, 5 Airport Plaza, 6 2017 Update. All Chiang Mai food articles have been updated to March 2016.
Coming from Australia, it seems strange to recommend and be writing about food in a shopping mall. I have eaten in shopping malls in Australia but I wouldn’t brag about it. However, shopping malls in Thailand and their food halls and restaurants can be very good.
I’ve just spent three weeks in Chiang Mai, Thailand in March and have updated all my Food in Chiang Mai articles to March 2016: Lunch at Pho Vieng Chane, French and Italian Restaurants and, in particular, Akha Food and Khao Soy.
A digression to Bangkok and history
I first visited Thailand at the beginning of the first Gulf War in 1991 and for several years stayed in Khao San Road at the New Nith Charoen when in Bangkok. Not far away was a small 8-story mall called New World (which we called Coles New World, but that would only make sense to an Australian). New World first introduced me to the wonders of the Thai Food Hall. Two other memorable eating places around there were a very dirty alley, the concrete polished by grease, which became a daily luncheon place for Thai Office workers and the Restaurant under the Pinklao Bridge.
Unfortunately, things change rapidly in Thailand and particularly Bangkok. One time we came back and the Pinklao Bridge Restaurant had vanished. Another, the New World was an abandoned concrete shell. It had been shoddily constructed and was declared unsafe. Khao San Road was also becoming feral as well.
I remember flying back to Bangkok after six months in India in 1995, the smell of fish sauce wafting across the city at 4 am in the morning was heavenly (reminiscent of Colonel Bill Kilgore’s famous quote about Napalm). We ate at the Pinklao Bridge Restaurant that night and by accident chose five really hot dishes. Every mouthful burned but we ate like champions, such wonderful food. The pomelo salad and the catfish were to die for.
We shifted our base of operations in Bangkok to Soi Kasem San 1 and Patumwan House, near Jim Thompson’s House and The National Stadium. (I’ll do a photo essay on the area sometime.)
MBK a huge flea market style mall and Tokyu Department Store are beside The National Stadium. It is my tradition whenever I stay here to have lunch at the 6th Floor Food Hall on the first day. I usually eat Muslim yellow rice chicken and somtam from the famous somtam stall, which is as good as it gets.
The food hall used to be grungy and encroached upon by flea market stalls. This March 2016, however, they’ve tarted the place up and got rid of the clothes and the bric-a-brac. However, I got over it quickly, as the food stalls haven’t changed.
There is also a small food booth where you perch on stools at the counter called Togato in Tokyu though the big sign from the escalator says Miyatake. It is on the fourth floor between the supermarket and the pharmacy. If you’ve got the money, Togato does tiny Japanese steaks to perfection, which you can have with Japanese beer. Not quite Kobe beef but pretty good.
My other favourite place for books and hanging about nearby, The Siam Discovery Centre, is currently covered (all five floors, I think the tower is still open) and closed for renovation. Next to it, The Siam Centre has had a more upmarket food hall for two to three years. It is quite atmospheric and a pleasant place to eat at lunch-time.
The reason I’m mentioning Bangkok is that all the chains mentioned in Airport Plaza are also in Bangkok in MBK and all over. The Oishi Grand Japanese Buffet in Bangkok used to be in The Siam Discovery Centre but I’ve noticed it is now in the fairly sterile Siam Paragon Centre next to The Siam Centre.
The Oishi Grand is more splendid and wonderful than the Oishi in Airport Plaza but it’s Bangkok and there are so many choices in Bangkok that one hardly knows where to start, except to say that food is more expensive there than in Chiang Mai, not surprisingly.
Airport Plaza, Chiang Mai
Airport Plaza in Chiang Mai near the airport is a tad tired but still pleasant. It’s formal name is Central Plaza at Chiang Mai Airport but everyone calls it Airport Plaza. There are splendid new Malls in Chiang Mai but they tend to be a bit further out, less interesting, and harder to get to if you don’t have transport. It is dangerous on the superhighways on a motorcycle. Indeed, traffic in Chiang Mai has become such that I am less comfortable on a motorcycle than I used to be and it is definitely not for inexperienced riders.
All the locals complain about the Chinese around Chinese New Year creating chaos on the roads (see Khao Soy article for more detail and for information about police and roadblocks).
Airport Plaza also seems to be a main meeting place for Thais. It becomes very crowded on Saturdays and possibly best avoided then. During the week it is a nice haven, particularly in the hot months, a way to escape from the heat during the afternoon. As well as food and shops, there is a cinema, a quite good supermarket (Tops), good coffee shops and reasonable parking, particularly for motorcycles. The Lanna Handicrafts centre is worth a look. There is also a Thai food hall (called Lanna Pavilion, go figure) near the cinemas, which is reasonable, but it is the same food as you’ll find all over Thailand and not Lanna food.
Walking through the other day, I was surprised how many food options there are in Airport Plaza. Too many to cover. Most I haven’t tried and some I’m sure are as good as those below. I’m only going to mention my favourite places, which I think are part of the affordable gourmet experience in Chiang Mai.
If you want more trendy and more upmarket stuff City Life the must read free English Magazine for Chiang Mai has information and a monthly supplement called Spoon and Fork that I’ve only seen online. Spoon & Fork, which began in 2014, looks good: City Life and its courageous editor Pim certainly is excellent and sometimes hard to find because editions disappear quickly. However, with anything that depends on advertising, do take the recommendations with a grain of salt. Hopefully, Spoon and Fork will be more reliable than Trip Advisor. The trouble with Trip Advisor is that it depends on tourists and sometimes people who don’t know much about food. This is more of a problem in Paris, but it is also a problem with excited people, who think tourist Thai or indeed any Thai is just as good as all the other Thai places in Chiang Mai.
Spoon and Fork tends to focus on the new and the trendy and hence is a good counter to my articles, which focus on the long-lasting, the good and the reliable but also on a limited range of places.
So here goes (Fuji and the Lanna Food Hall are good places to go alone. Oishi and MK are much better in a group):
1 Fuji Restaurant (second level)
Fuji is a chain in Thailand and Japan. There are almost 100 branches in Thailand. It presents middle of the road Japanese food relatively cheaply. For example, sashimi and sushi is reasonably priced. The sets are good ranging mostly from 200 to 300B ($8 to $12).
You can even eat very cheaply. I had Katsudon for a quick lunch which cost me 150B ($6 AUD) and a Coke ($1.20) but a normal meal would be around 200B to 300B each.
Fuji isn’t the best Japanese food you’ll get but it is nice enough. A menu link is given below.
2 Oishi Japanese Buffet (second level)
Oishi provides an all you can eat experience with excellent Japanese food (better than Fuji) for a fixed price of 539 B and you are allowed 1 hour and 45 minutes for your meal. Cold things, for example, endless salmon sashimi, sushi, maki, and some hot things you serve for yourself. Other hot things you ask the chef to cook for you. The process is more relaxed in Bangkok where the time is longer (3 hours).
Feedback on the Internet shows that most people both Asians and Westerners like the buffet and think it is good value (there are always a few disgruntled). The food is varied and mostly very good, perhaps not up to the standards of Japan but excellent for anywhere else.
The Oishi Group founded in 1999 is a Thai traded public company on the Bangkok Stock Exchange. They have one Oishi Grand Buffet in Bangkok and 19 other Oishi Buffets around Thailand, as well as other brand restaurant chains and food related businesses — ‘ready to cook and ready to eat products’.
3 MK Restaurants (second level)
I ended up going to MK Restaurants in Chiang Mai in 2013 for the first time almost by accident. I told Phing Phing that I enjoyed dim sum at Toey Dim Sum (more in another article). She was immediately dismissive and said that MK was much better for dim sum, which ended up with me being taken out to MK by Phennapha and Phing Phing for an absolute indulgent feast. Phennapha who is so thin and elegant has an enormous appetite.
The dim sum were very good but that’s like saying a very famous French restaurant is good because of some minor entrée. The really fabulous food at MK is the Thai steamboat, the roast duck and the wonderful gravy that comes with it.
I managed to return the favour this time in 2016 by taking out Phennapha and Phing Phing to another complete over-indulgence at MK at Airport Plaza.
Phennapha and Phing Phing are such generous friends that it is difficult to get them to take anything. They often treat me to dinner or fruit cocktails at their shop in Anusarn Market. Their shop is the third from the end on the left as you approach the river exit onto Charoen Prathet. They sell mostly old quality tribal textiles, artifacts and handicrafts. Their main customers from around the world are wholesalers, designers and the like. If you want cheap, low quality but still interesting tribal clothing and textiles, the open stalls at Anusarn are OK but you get better value at the Hmong wholesale market up from Wararot markets in China Town.
MK began with a single restaurant in 1962 but only opened its first branch in 1984. It opened its first restaurant in Japan in 1994 and in 1995 celebrated its 30th branch. The MK Restaurants are a chain that have been offering Suki (a variation on Japanese shabu shabu and a ‘twist’ on Chinese steamboats). Suki restaurants are very popular in Thailand. MK claim to have been the first suki chain to use electric suki pots at every table (a safety consideration over gas). However, I remember a marvellous entrepreneur with a sole restaurant in Prachuap Khiri Khan (southern Thailand) who solved the problem using Sunbeam electric frypans for steamboats, though the extension cords snaking everywhere across the dining room were dangerous in more ways than one.
The menu (see below) is extensive but is mostly suki. In March 2016, we had a wonderful mix of mushrooms, greens, baby corn and tofu, with prawns, fish, fish balls, sliced raw meat and egg for the steamboat. We also had a large duck with gravy and skipped the dimsum. This was just for the three of us (the 3yo grandson had KFC chips). In 2013 we had basically the same meal, but with the dim sum as a face saving device.
You can also have wet and dry noodle soups, so I suppose if you go alone the dim sum and the noodles would make a decent meal. There are also smaller dishes of duck and pork and basic Chinese green vegetables on offer.
Phennapha and Phing Phing’s family love coming to MK, including Phennapha’s mother who refuses to go out to restaurants otherwise. As a family, they fight over who gets the last of the duck gravy. They also don’t believe in being fussy about putting in the ingredients into the steamboat but put everything in at once. I suspect this has more to do with being a large family where if you don’t fight for your food you miss out, rather than being an Akha custom. We certainly demolished the duck and the steamboat quite quickly and got down to the best bit, the wonderfully flavoured and rendered soup. The soup residue was very sweet and delightful on this occasion, Phing Phing says it was because they began with the perfect amount of soup base to start with.
I’ve eaten steamboats and Swiss meat fondues both ways in my time and can see advantages to each. Certainly, as a couple, particularly over a romantic meal, the slow way is best. But, at this stage in my life dumping everything in at once in a group is very attractive.
MK Restaurant is a great place to go with a group.
4 The Kad Luang Lanna Food Hall (ground level)
Kad Luang, which means Great Market in the Northern Thai dialect, is the oldest and most well-known market in Chiang Mai also called Wararot near the Narawat Bridge. There are literally hundreds of markets scattered everywhere around Chiang Mai. I discovered Muang Mai market which is meant to be a wholesale market behind the US Consulate and the fire station through the help of friends this trip. I am amazed that I’d never seen it before (Chiang Mai still has surprises), as I was aware of the true wholesale fruit and vegetable places further along the river. Muang Mai is a supposed Mecca for fruit and is really a retail market, that is, wholesale to small dealers from other markets.
Why the ground floor food hall at Airport Plaza is called Kad Luang, I have no idea. It may have something to do with the fact that the food hall and the small market stalls at the entrance were originally part of the Northern Thai Village handicrafts on the two floors above. Sadly, this has all changed now there is only one-floor of Northern clothes and handicrafts on the first level (above the food hall in the basement, called the Ground Floor). The escalators remain the only sign of the original linkage. There is also a quite peaceful DoiChaang coffee shop here as well (though there are plenty of nice coffee places in the Plaza).
The entrance to the Kad Luang Food Hall has some small market stalls containing prepared foods, meat, vegetables, fruit and sweets to take home. The food hall itself has been tarted up but it has not destroyed its charm. It is a microcosm of Lanna street food not the best but the middle of the road taste of authentic northern Thai Street Food in air-conditioned comfort.
The Kad Luang Food Hall has a great atmosphere. Not a great deal of English is spoken but everyone both staff and fellow customers tend to be friendly and helpful. Teenagers gather here after school. The place has a buzz. It is a fun place for people watching and for watching the passing parade and trying to work out what is going on.
I had an epiphany while I was here in Chiang Mai related to three things:
- A warning from Phennapha and Phing Phing not to eat seafood in non air-conditioned places, because of the hot weather (39° C).
- My recent trip to India
- My chronic gut problems outlined in Giulia Enders, Gut.
In India one can’t sadly trust any food outside of the home (including some 5-star hotels) because the culture of hygiene is so poor (for complicated reasons). In Thailand the standards are higher but small places without air-con can cause problems. I’ve even gotten sick from food in large malls in Bangkok (not MBK fortunately).
I used to think that at least a month in India was necessary to adjust to the food when travelling and one needed to be very careful in that month. Similarly, in Thailand one needed time to adjust. Unfortunately, in this different era of travel with fast options to anywhere, one rarely gets the time. Many Europeans for example can’t get more than two weeks holiday and trek in Nepal despite the obvious dangers of altitude sickness.
Consequently, my epiphany relates to wanting to eat local Lanna gourmet food in Chiang Mai. Unless, you are young and healthy with a really stolid digestive system there are consequences to really diving in.
What I am talking about is not food poisoning, per se, but one’s guts reaction to unfamiliar food and ingredients, including chilli, fermented foods, and to unfamiliar but not particularly harmful bacteria. The taste sensation and overcoming relatively strong and unfamiliar tastes contributes too. I’ve suddenly understood my negative reaction to some marvellous Chiang Mai gourmet delights, street food and places such as the Heuan Pen (both lunch and dinner restaurants), and the Hong Tauw Inn Inn (see Khao Soy article). I still don’t think either place is that good. Things such as, Chiang Mai sausage, pastes and such from the markets, fermented meats and various spices are also examples of what I mean. All the wonderful things you can buy at the markets.
The Akha food I eat at Phennapha’s is quite different because it is home cooked, not overly spicy or strange. The vegetables and fruit are straight from her organic garden and also a good example of the converse.
What I am trying to say in a roundabout way is that the Kad Luang Food Hall at Airport Plaza is a relatively safe place to try Lanna food but it is definitely not gourmet. There are much better places.
The variety of food at the Kad Luang Food Hall is extensive including Khao Soy, stir fries, curries etc. much of which is Lanna food but not all. There is also normal Thai, Yunan Chinese, basic Japanese, salad, fruits, desserts, drinks etc. Then at the entry and beginning of the Food Hall are pre-prepared foods, meats, some vegetables and fruits ready to take home. It is an interesting place to explore.
Comment on prices
A friend I mentioned eating to was surprised when I said my duck breast at La Fourchette and a glass of wine cost me AUD $20. He thought Chiang Mai was cheaper. La Fourchette is a very superior restaurant and I think it is cheap. Similarly, the huge meal for three at MK Restaurants cost me 1200 B (or AUD $46, $15 each).
When I mention general prices for restaurants in Chiang Mai I’m usually thinking of three course meals and not what it costs me when alone. I usually only have one course and maybe a beer or wine for dinner.
In researching food in Chiang Mai, I usually have a light lunch but it fills me and I’m not ravenous at dinner.
You can eat in Chiang Mai for 35B a meal (AUD $1.30), if you bring your own water. I usually pay for lunch between 80 and 130B (AUD $3-$5) but sometimes I eat more expensively. For dinner I mostly go more upmarket but if I eat cheaply it may only cost me AUD $6. However, on average I’d usually spend $15 on dinner often more (usually including a glass of wine for $4-5 dollars). I don’t economise at all, but I’m also not extravagant.
On this trip on the monthly rate at Sakorn Residence it cost me about AUD $38 per night including $5 per night for electricity, water and cleaning, most for air-con which I over-used (but this is a pleasant boutique hotel experience with large rooms) had I stayed the month the total would have been AUD $27 per night. But there are much cheaper places to stay in Chiang Mai.
In comparison with Australia, these prices are very cheap.
I have now written six articles on food and restaurants in Chiang Mai and have barely scratched the surface. The articles are, respectively: 1 Akha Tribal Food, 2 Pho Vieng Chane, 3 Khao Soy, 4 French & Italian Restaurants, 5 Airport Plaza, 6 2017 Update.
Although my latest visit to was in 2018, I maintain contact and to date all the information contained is current. Places do change and shut down in Chiang Mai but not as frequently as in Bangkok. To my knowledge all the articles are current. The main change in Chiang Mai since 2015 has been growth and the massive impact of Chinese tourism.
Key words: Airport Plaza, Chiang Mai, Fuji Restaurant, Oishi Japanese Buffet, MK Restaurants, Kad Luang Food Hall, City Life, Bangkok, MBK, Tokyu Department Store, Phennapha and Phing Phing Tribal Textiles, Anusarn Market
Airport Plaza Chiang Mai
Wikipedia has a basic entry
Airport Plaza Directory (no longer available, try searching other sites)
Oishi Japanese Buffet
Oishi says that its prices are 789 B for 3 hours at Oishi Grand and 379 B for 1h 45 min in provincial locations. (It was 499 B on promotion in Chiang Mai in March 2016).
Wikipedia notes that Suki is a shortening of Sukiyaki but Thai Suki doesn’t resemble Sukiyaki at all and as mentioned is closer to shabu shabu and Chinese hotpot or steamboat.