Northern Thai cuisine at Huen Phen

By Elle Faraday

My first ever visit to Chiang Mai was four years ago and I was lucky enough to meet some locals who took me out to one of their favourite restaurants. It was here that I was first introduced to northern Thai cuisine and it was also where I ate some of the finest Thai dishes that I had ever eaten. Unfortunately, I had no idea what this restaurant was called or even where it was located. I never thought I would find it again and after numerous failed searches, I put it out of my mind and their delicious khao soy became a distant memory.
Last week, some friends of mine arrived from England and wanted to visit a restaurant called Huen Phen. They had heard about it in the UK as it had been on TV. World class author and top chef, Anthony Bourdain, claimed that their papaya salad is in fact the best salad he has ever eaten. My friends were intrigued, so we set off on a mission to find this famous restaurant. We soon found it and I was amazed to find that it was the same restaurant that I had eaten at four years ago!
The food was as good, if not better, than I remembered and the staff friendly and helpful to foreigners looking at unfamiliar dishes. We were seated at a giant table, which we soon realised was needed for the amount of food we ordered. The menus were all in English and my friends voiced their surprise at how inexpensive everything was. Noodle dishes began at just 20 baht and one of my favourites, khao soy, was just 40 baht. We ordered a variety of dishes including khao soy, papaya salad, spicy minced pork, grilled chicken and mixed vegetables, along with generous helpings of sticky rice.
The papaya salad was simply divine. It is not a dish I would usually try, due to the fact that I am not so good with spicy food, but this was so tasty and the spice complimented the flavour so well without burning my mouth. Anthony Bourdain was right; this was easily the best salad I had ever tasted. It was so good in fact that we ordered a second helping, which we managed to devour in record time.
The khao soy was just as I remembered it, full of flavour with succulent chicken and crispy noodles. The sticky rice was perfect for mopping up the last bits of sauce. The minced pork and chicken were the perfect way to finish the meal and the dipping sauces were the ideal accompaniments. The plate of mixed vegetables was delicious and the freshness could be tasted in every bite.
We demolished everything we had ordered and were feeling very content but there was still room left for one of their tempting desserts. We decided to take a small break to let our food go down so I decided to have a wander around.
There is an open kitchen at the front of the restaurant where the papaya is ground down to for the salad. The sight of the chefs pummelling the papaya is worth the trip to restaurant alone. They spend hours grounding the fruit for this extremely popular dish. Only fresh ingredients are used and the smells coming from the kitchen are sure to whip your senses into a frenzy.
It wasn’t long before I felt ready to order dessert. I went for the traditional banana with coconut milk which was well worth the wait. It’s a typical northern Thai dessert that is unlike anything else I have ever tasted. It was a perfect end to a wonderful lunch.
Huen Phen is certainly an experience like no other. It is famous for its excellent food and every lunch time is full of local Thais, which says a lot for the food. There are tables inside, in an air-conditioned room, or you can sit outside and enjoy the scenery.
It can be found inside the moat, very close to Wat Phra Sing on Rachamanka Road - perfect for enjoying a spot of lunch while exploring the local temples. If you are looking for somewhere to enjoy traditional northern cuisine at a very reasonable rate, you should not miss a trip to Huen Phen. A famous chef, local Thais and numerous farangs can’t all be wrong - eating here is truly an experience to remember.