Have you ever eaten khao soi – Chiang Mai Thailand’s signature dish? Typically overshadowed by noodle dishes in Thai restaurants like pad thai, rad nar and pad kee mow, this is something I recommend to you for its beautiful colors and flavor profile. You’ve got tender chicken swimming in a rich and silky coconut curry with slippery egg nooodles, topped with Chinese pickled mustard greens and tear-inducing shallots to balance out everything. But what a lot of people don’t know that this dish isn’t originally from Thailand, but rather a surviving memory of centuries of migratory movement due to political turmoil, war and general commerce originating in the southern Chinese province, Yunnan. But enough of the history, which I’ll delve into a much longer posting.
The first time I had what I thought was khao soi, was in Luang Prabang, Laos back in 2009. I did not enjoy Lao food growing up because I was an Asian kid trying to assimilate with my pre-dominantly white and Latino classmates. It’s been a mission of my mine to see where my father grew up and ultimately, taste the food I had grown up with for a substantial part of my life. So I told myself I would trace back to my roots one dish at a time. One night, we were walking around a Lao/Hmong night market looking for food. I of course, gravitated towards the noodle stand. I was searching for a dish I had grown up with called khao poun, which is a delicious, spicy fish curry and rice noodle dish eaten lukewarm. This particular stand didn’t have it but instead offered something called khao soi (pictured above), which to me looked like Vietnamese pho with a nice scoop of fried garlic and shallots. The lady didn’t have to put a gun to my head to try this. But as I ate it, I knew it was definitely not pho – but a delicious soup noodle topped with a dollop of pork, tomato, chile, spices and red curry paste which had to be mixed in with the broth. Once mixed in, the broth looked brownish orange. The noodles to my surprise were not the standard rice noodles you’d see in pho, but a thin round noodle that is quite similar to Guilin, Yunnan or Vietnamese bun bo hue noodles. I learned that khao soi literally means “rice chopped” or “rice cut”, thus the usage of rice noodles. It was amazing – I ended up asking for another bowl.
When I got back to Los Angeles from Southeast Asia, I was hot on the Lao food trail and started asking various restaurants in Thaitown if they offered khao soi. A lot of people don’t know this but a good majority of the Thai restaurants are either owned by Laotians or have Lao chefs. And a lot of them have secret menus that are hidden from you if you don’t look Thai. The two countries are next to each other and the food and language share some sharp similarities. When I found a place that did offer khao soi, I was stoked. I saw the waitress come out of the kitchen with my bowl of khao soi and I got my chopsticks ready. To my disappointment, what I saw in front of me was a bowl of egg noodles in curry with crispy noodles on top. Wait, wait, wait! What is this? This is curry! Khao soi is supposed to be in clear broth right? Well I had to face the music and what was apparently the Thai version of khao soi – and it was delicious! Serendipitously, I had fallen for this comforting curry noodle dish called khao soi. Here is my version compiled with recipes found online and what I’ve tasted in restaurants. Use this as a starting ground as you may like it spicier or thicker.
Serves 4-6 people
1 pack chicken thigh (chopped into pieces) or drumsticks (skin-on)
1 pack Chinese pickled mustard greens (roughly chopped)
2 large cans of coconut milk
3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
3-4 heaping tablespoons curry powder
1/2 heaping tablespoon turmeric
5-10 dried red chiles
1 tablespoon Coriander seeds (mashed with mortar & pestle/food-processed)
4-5 1/4″ ginger slivers
3 smashed garlic cloves
Chopped red onion or shallots (thinly sliced) – garnish
Chicken broth or water
Wide egg noodles or Thai “ba mi” dried egg noodles
Wide egg noodles (a few strands for frying) or slivered wonton skin chips
Chinese hot chili oil (辣椒油)
(1) First thing I would do is cook your wide egg noodles, not skinny “chow mein” style. I prefer the fresh kind over the dry, but that’ll work too. In a boiling pot of water, add 5 pinches of kosher salt and a tiny bit of oil. Cook noodles super al dente (about 3-4 minutes), because you will need to shock it in ice water to stop the cooking. Strain, dry, mix in some oil and set aside. You will microwave this briefly upon service but note that this dish is not served piping hot dish, but also not at room temperature.
(2) In a pot, add some oil and sauté the garlic cloves and dried chiles until fragrant over medium heat. Careful not to burn the garlic or chiles. Add 3 tablespoons of Thai red curry paste and using a spatula, really break apart the paste so that it’s smooth. Then add the curry powder, turmeric and mashed coriander seeds and stir everything together to form the base for khao soi curry. Stir for about 3-4 minutes to bring out the flavors.
(3) Add the chicken thigh or drumsticks in and sauté for another 3-4 minutes and lather up all the chicken with as much of the paste as possible.
(4) Add 1 full can of coconut milk and stir well. This is your sauce base. If you want to make it thicker, slowly add in another can. If you want it thinner, just stay with 1 can. I went ahead and did 1.5 cans and about 1/2 a can of chicken broth. It’s up to you.
(5) Add fish sauce for salinity, add sugar to balance out the salinity, for that signature sweetness of coconut curry. Also decide if you would like more curry powder, turmeric and coriander. And one last check with the thickness – I ended up adding chicken broth to dilute it. If the curry is too rich the noodles will be too moppy – it has to be just right. Not too goopy, not too watery. Let the curry boil over low-medium heat for about 20-30 minutes to really marry the flavors. Longer the better, as the chicken will become even more tender, especially if you’re using drumsticks.
(6) Fry up a few strands of the egg noodles (fresh or dry) until slightly brown and crispy. Lightly break a few pieces as this used for texture. If you prefer wonton skins, cut out 1.5″ x 0.75″ slivers and fry them until crispy. Set aside on a paper towel.
(7) Make a mound with your egg noodles, or more so an island for presentation. Sprinkle a tiny bit of water over your egg noodles and heat it up in the microwave for about 30 seconds. Ladle in some curry around the noodles, creating a curry moat – adding the chicken on top of the noodle island. Garnish with shallot slices, cilantro, Chinese pickled mustard greens and your crispy noodles/wontons. Serve with Chinese hot chili oil (辣椒油) on the side. Enjoy.
Here are a few Thai restaurants in Los Angeles that serve khao soi. I’ve ranked them from favorite to least favorite. In all, most are pretty damn good and I’ve had to use price as a way to differentiate.
(1) O-Chai Restaurant ($6.95)
820 N Western Ave #101
Los Angeles, CA 90029
O-Chai really offers a beautifully balanced bowl of khao soi. But I wouldn’t recommend anything else here as they seem to focus on selling a lot of the bastardized Thai dishes to the pre-dominantly non-Thai clientele. They get a huge plus for offering drumsticks in their khao soi though, when other places are either giving you super dry chicken breast or slightly tough chicken thigh.
(2) Pailin Thai Cuisine ($6.75)
5621 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Pailin also serves a solid bowl of khao soi, but I give the edge to O-Chai for the braised drumstick. And at $6.75, it is the cheapest out of the bunch! The food overall here is excellent and would recommend this place for an overall lunch/dining experience. Owners are super nice as well.
(3) Spicy BBQ Restaurant ($8.95)
5101 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90029
I think most people will go here because it is the only place for khao soi. But as my #3 pick, it’s clear that I have found other places I like more. Spicy BBQ is very good, but I feel the curry is way too thick and rich. But in all fairness, I have come here when the Aunt/owner wasn’t cooking. Her nephew actually made a much lighter curry and it was great. But at $8.95, go to O-Chai or Pailin.
(4) Jitlada Restaurant ($7.95)
5233 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Jitlada has consistently served good food over the years but I’m afraid that khao soi is not their specialty. I think you’ll have better luck with their other 2,189 items on the menu. The curry has the flavor, but the egg noodles were soggy and the portion was dismal. There was simply no love put in this dish.
(5) Wat Dong Moon Lek ($8.49)
4356 Fountain Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90029
This is a hangout for young Thais, but I really never enjoyed their noodles that much. The khao soi here is watery, soggy noodles and just not presented nicely. They have some rice dishes here that are decent though. I wouldn’t bother with WDML.
(*) Bulan Thai Vegetarian Kitchen
4114 Santa Monica Blvd
Silver Lake, CA 90029
There is hope for vegans that want to try this dish. Give it a shot. When you decided to eat meat, go to O-Chai or Pailin.
Thanks for reading. Hope you get to enjoy this amazing dish sooner than later.