Monday, December 10, 2012

Seeking Curry Coconut Noodles

Yai and Sarah in Yai's tuk tuk
Photo by Madeline Horn
Khao Soi in Chiang Mai:
After a tour of temple ruins in Chiang Mai Sarah and I asked our cute tuk tuk driver Yai to bring us to the spot with the best Khao Soi in the city. When he tried to deliver us to a tourist restaurant we refused to get out of his tuk tuk and insisted he take us to a spot where locals eat. Yai laughed and brought us to Lam Duan Fan Ham, a colorful busy restaurant with very basic decorations, assuring us it was,"the best." We ordered Khao Soi, their specialty - thick yellow crinkly noodles in a rich yellow curry coconut broth, with chicken, cilantro, lime, red onion, and crispy noodles on top. We had juicy pork skewers with peanut sauce and cucumbers on the side. The meal was divine!

Lam Duan Fan Ham - Chiang Mai
Photo by Madeline Horn
Khao Soi is typically a lunch food. I am always entertained by food customs regarding time of day certain foods should be eaten. In Peru it is considered "wrong" to eat their beloved pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken served with fries and salad) for lunch, as it is considered to be strictly a dinner food. My Peruvian roommate told me that restaurants serve last night's chicken at lunch. I didn't necessarily believe her (she tended to be paranoid), but I never ate chicken for lunch again in Peru.

Thais eat foods Americans would consider lunch or dinner foods for breakfast. I will never forget a breakfast of fried chicken and sticky rice with my host family in high school in Chiang Mai. On our recent trip, Sarah and I ate chicken soup with rice for breakfast at the hotel cafe.

As soon as the dish of Khao Soi arrived on our table in Thailand I realized that I had eaten a very similar dish many times in San Francisco at Yamo, a Burmese restaurant on 18th Street in the Mission District. Yamo calls it "Chicken Noodle Soup." I've also tried a Trader Joe's version of Khao Soi, but it was not very good. I loved the Khao Soi we tasted in Chiang Mai, so I was tickled to find "Chiang Mai" noodles on the menu at Charlie Hong Kong in Santa Cruz.
Charle Hong Kong at night
Photo by Madeline Horn
Charlie Hong Kong:
Charlie Hong Kong is a cute and casual organic Asian street food restaurant in Santa Cruz. I've been going to yoga regularly half a block away for months, but had refrained from eating at Charlie's because I didn't want to enter an eating establishment in my yoga clothes. Last week something snapped in me - I could no longer resist the delicious smells coming from Charlie's. I walked in and ordered food while wearing yoga pants. No one stared. I forget that this is normal behavior in Santa Cruz. The floodgates have opened and I have been there for dinner three times this week!

The tiny building was once an ice cream stand. They've transformed the patio into an inviting space that feels more "indoors" than "patio." Tables are covered in floral oil cloth, the ceiling is green and there are heat lamps to cut the chill factor.

Charlie Hong Kong's menu starts with "signature bowls" (all vegan) which customers add a protein of their choice to. On my first visit I chose Chiang Mai Noodles (Khao Soi) with Teriyaki Salmon. The meal was large enough to eat for dinner, then lunch the next day. The generous portion of salmon was slightly undercooked, but so fresh that it did not bother me. The chow mein noodles were chewy and satisfying, but not crinkly like in Thailand. Although not nearly as rich, the broth's flavor brought me back to Lam Duan Fan Ham in Chiang Mai. On a return visit I tasted the same dish and the salmon was cooked perfectly, with more teriyaki flavor. I shared with my mom and grandma and we could not shut up about the deliciousness of the fish.

I also tried Laughing Phoenix Red Curry with Green Curry Chicken on top, with fresh-tasting yams, greens, carrots, and broccoli. The chicken had the juicy pull-apart texture and flavor of rotisserie with a green curry sauce much richer and spicier than the red curry on the vegetables. I would have been disappointed in the very mellow red curry had I not added the green on top. Together, they made a very satisfying meal.

On my third visit I tried Charlie's Pad Thai, which had a strong tamarind flavor that I loved. However, if you expect it to taste like your typical Thai restaurant's Pad Thai you will be disappointed.

In one week I've become a super fan of Charlie Hong Kong. I'm not the only one. They've won awards for the yumminess, sustainability, and healthiness of their food. Whether you are in Santa Cruz, Thailand, or San Francisco, try a bowl of Khao Soi by whatever name it goes in your town. It is a taste sensation not to be missed!

Charlie Hong Kong - 1141 Soquel Avenue, Santa Cruz CA
Open 11am - 11pm daily
website -

Yamo - 3406 18th Street, San Francisco, CA

Lam Duan Fan Ham - 352/22 Charoenraj Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand
New York Times Article on Chiang Mai food which mentions Lam Duan Fan Ham - features a fun slideshow with audio


  1. I had so much fun in Thailand! The food was amazingly delicious and I absolutely enjoy eating "lunch/dinner" food for breakfast! I've been to Yamo (with you, too) many times and have to vouch for the food. But do you think it has MSG? I seem to always get a headache after I leave....I'll have to go to Santa Cruz and visit so I can try this other delightful-sounding restaurant: Charlie Hong Kong - bring it on.

  2. Thailand was incredible and I always dream about going back for longer and exploring more. Yamo could have MSG. I don't get headaches from MSG, so I don't have good radar for it. Charlie Hong Kong definitely doesn't have MSG. They are all about being healthy and natural. We'll go there when you come down!