Been dreaming about this place for years since I first tried it in 2007. Huen Phen (Just tell the driver “Rachamongka”) was directed to us by Sompon’s Office inside the walled city. Total foodies, we like places where no one looks like a foreigner, and a place where it’s constantly packed. It’s just like a hole-in-the-wall hunting in Manila, but a bit more challenging because of the language barrier. You must absolutely go to this place when you’re in Chiang Mai!!! On our first time here, we didn’t even see an English sign.
This year though, we found an expansion area and an English sign.
Northern Thai food is not as spicy as it’s counterparts like Bangkok and especially my dream food destination, E-san, in the south of Thailand. But it’s still packed with flavor and makes use of the oddest greens in it’s herb plates. Like the Vietnamese “rau thom” which is basically an all purpose vegetable and herb platter served with most of it’s meals, Chiang mai too has a few greens, buds and herbs in a platter along with some if its courses. The best time to eat in Huen Puen is lunch or early lunch, since you’ll see all the lovely food being cooked and prepared in the food station. Their open kitchen is a small efficient space full of ingredients and all the food on display for the day.
Here are the absolute best things we had in Huen Puen, including the new ones we discovered during last December’s trip:
Baby Eggplant Salad – sweet sour and saltiness of the lime and fish sauce dressing is a great complement to the crunchiness from the eggplant and crispy pork skin. But what makes this even more delicious is that you should eat this with the different herbs presented on that day’s herb plate which can consist of vietnamese mint, baby acacia leaves, swamp cabbage and other odd greens.
Sai-oua or Chiang Mai sausage – my brother loves this. The sausage is studded with kaffir lime & lemongrass leaves which give it a very aromatic flavor. You dip it in this wet chilli sauce made with a little tomato and onions, and typically eat this with a raw cabbage, ginger and herbs.
Beef Larp with Kaffir Lime Leaves – This fabulous salad is cooked with kaffir lime leaves for this version which creates an intense flavor, you can even munch on the leaves! Larp is a thai salad, and usually the meat is cooked and marinated in toasted rice. The sauce is made of lime juice, fish sauce, chili, coriander, lemongrass and other herbs.
Khao Soi – Khao Soi is a slowly braised chicken curry. This is totally to-die-for especially when they do it properly. The khao soi here in Huen Puen is not as thick as the soup as what Sompon taught us (which is my benchmark for great khao soi), but it is still the best in flavor. Khao soi is served with fried egg noodles, which give it a totally different dimension because of the contrasts between the soup and the soft chicken that is in the soup. Also, it is supposed to be topped with lime juice, mustard leaf pickles and shallots which create the ultimate flavor dimension that makes it sooo to die for.
Pork Fibre Cubes (resembles gelatinous “rillettes”) – it’s funny how you will always come across food that you will explain in culinary school terms. I think one of the best reasons why I remember this dish is because of the first thing that entered my head when they served it “RILLETTES”. Except this is not used as a spread, but something you pop into your mouth. What is interesting is that it is very gelatinous, and it’s kind of surprising that they would have something like this in Thailand considering that this is something that feels so French!
Fried Som Tam – when I first encountered fried Som tam in a Bangkok restaurant a few years back, I thought it was so revolutionary. But finding it in Huen Puen, done even better was eye-opening. You realize that the Thai really have a knack for flavor AND textures! The fried papaya tastes so nutty and gives your typical salad a new life. It’s almost like an entirely different dish from the typical som tam! Frying the papaya caramelizes the sugars in the fruit and therefore creates a nutty & brown sugar taste in the fruit…aside from the great added crunch.
Naem Sausage Salad – i am the biggest fan of fermented sausages! There are some here in the Philippines and for Thailand, this is my favorite! The naem is a fermented thai sausage which ferments because it contains sticky rice! These sausages are garlicky and soft, and it is just the best as a salad. Usually the salad would have gooseberries if in season which gives it different gradations of “sourness”. I love this, and i can’t explain it so well but it’s a must-try!
Pork Blood Soup – this supposed fiery soup is a little toned down in this place. There’s a really spicy Pork Blood Soup served by an elderly couple in the Walking Street but this only comes as a close second. Though if you want the authentic fix, i think this is pretty good. The soup has roasted spices and has a bit of curry paste. The soft pork blood is something for the adventurous, but has such a heavenly texture that cannot compare to anything else. Dump lots of cilantro on it and it’s bursting with flavor.
and of course, to wash all that down with a mug of Cha-Yenn, Thailand’s cold milk tea!