Khon Kaen is a fine city for foodies. Vietnamese and Isaan fare are the highlights for many, and homesick travellers will find a fair share of Western food options near some of the large-scale nightclubs.
The city is stacked with coffee shops that seem to be in an ongoing competition to see which has the largest pink teddy bear. Virtually all of them will serve up a decent cup of fresh coffee along with a slice of cake or simple Thai rice plate. For something more special, make your way to Motet Cafe on Chata Phadung Road in the east of town, a short walk south of the Vietnamese consulate. Hand-brewing high-quality Northern Thai beans using the drip method, owner Mot lived in California for 12 years, speaks fluent English and is usually happy to give travellers advice on an area where English info is hard to come by. Also check out the gorgeous photographs on the walls; the cafe doubles as Mot’s professional photography studio.
For breakfast, you might skip the same-old hotel buffets and head to the northern stretch of Klang Mueang Road, where a pair of popular Vietnamese eateries satiates the morning masses. The signs are in Thai script only: Aem Od is on the left, in red, and Krua Ahaan Chao Vietnam stands to the right, in green. Both dish out nearly identical menus that include kai kata (skillet-fried eggs with Vietnamese and Chinese sausages), kuay chab yuan (mild rice noodle soup with pork ribs) and khanom pang yuan (mini baguette sandwiches with two types of sausage). Gun chee ang and naam neuang sausages are big business in Khon Kaen, and the latter is best enjoyed wrapped up with aromatic greens in do-it-yourself spring rolls.
Isaan food is available in several places around the city, including several shops overlooking Kaen Nakhon Lake, where pla plao (whole grilled freshwater fish stuffed with lemongrass) is barbecued along the footpaths. For more choices, the massive Bua Luang Restaurant serves a voluminous menu of Thai, Chinese-Thai and Isaan dishes on a wide terrace that stretches some distance out over the water. It’s a great sunset dinner option, though you do pay for the setting.
For downhome Isaan fare, we had good luck at a hole-in-the-wall next to the Sawasdee Hotel on Na Mueang Road, where an old man pounds up fiery Isaan-style som tam Lao with fermented fish sauce along the footpath, and a young man grills up gai yang (barbecued chicken) and pla plao out the back of a rusty pick-up truck. Enjoy these with a bursting basket of khao niao (sticky rice) and hot-and-savoury sauces for dipping.
Just west of the ordinary bus station on Thepharak Road, Gai Yang Rabeab is another place with a good reputation for Isaan fare, though we didn’t get around to trying it on our last visit. Across from the nearby National Museum, Tawantong operates a well-known all-vegetarian buffet for breakfast and lunch.
Khon Kaen has quite a few markets along with smaller clusters of street food vendors scattered around the city. The biggest and most atmospheric night market is probably the one that overtakes a closed-down section of Ruen Rom Road towards the south end of town, just west of Na Mueang Road. Here you’ll find two rows of carts slinging finger foods like sai grok (fermented Isaan sausage), fried chicken with sticky rice and pork satay. Many other vendors dish out noodle soup, som tam, khao man gai (chicken rice), mango sticky rice and other favourites to a large spread of tables set up in between.
Further north on the stretch of Klang Mueang Road just south of the Roma Hotel, a smaller congregation of street stalls sets up in the late afternoon and also begs to be reckoned with. In addition to most of the standard Thai and Isaan street dishes, a highlight here for sweet tooths is bua loi, mini balls of rice flour flavoured with mango, dragonfruit and pandan, among other ingredients, and served in warm and sweetened coconut milk.
If you’re looking to fill up for cheap during daylight hours, head to the massive day market squished between Klang Mueang and Na Mueang, just south of Sri Chant Road in the heart of town. The market mainly consists of fresh produce, meats and a jaw-dropping spread of seafood, but there’s also a fairly large roofed food court with tables for eating on site. Start by grabbing some Thai sweets, fresh fruit and other snacks from carts that set up on the pavement, then choose from any number of street dishes like khao ka muu (braised pork shanks with rice) and yen ta foe (noodle soup in a pink broth of fermented bean curd). Nothing is posted in English but a little pointing and nodding should convey your order just fine.
Most of Khon Kaen’s Western restaurants are found near the Pullman Hotel, on and around Soi Kosa. If you’re in the mood for a big, juicy burger, head to the sparsely decorated Yokothai Restaurant, which also serves a range of Thai dishes to go with a few more European/American options. Another standout is Pomodoro, an Italian-owned restaurant serving pricey but delicious pizza along with big and tasty portions of bruschetta, lasagna, fettuccine, gnocchi, tiramisu and more. A much cheaper option for Italian is Mickey’s Pizza, situated just west of Kaen Nakhon Lake on the southern stretch of Klang Mueang Road. The very talkative owner offers some good bundle deals on pizza, wings and appetisers.
Most of Khon Kaen’s nightlife is also clustered into a relatively small area stretching from the Pullman Hotel down to the train station. In the immediate vicinity of the Pullman you’ll find a few expat-run bars like Aussie Bar and Eric’s Bar, which are good places to chat up the local crew. Across from Pomodoro, U-Bar is a fairly large-scale nightclub featuring DJs and live music. Heading further south towards the train station on Pracha Samran Road, you’ll find several big and bumping bar/restaurants with wide outdoor terraces that are great for kicking back with a few beers or whiskeys and some Thai-style drinking food.
Aem Od and Krua Ahaan Chao Vietnam: Klang Mueang Rd (across from the Roma Hotel; open 07:00 - 14:00.
Bua Luang Restaurant: Off Nikon Samran Rd on the north bank of Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake; open daily 10:00-23:00.
Gai Yang Rabeab: Theparak Rd (just west of the Ordinary Bus Terminal); open 09:00-15:00.
Isaan food shop with pick-up truck grill: Na Mueang Rd (next to Sawasdee Hotel); open 17:00-21:00.
Mickey’s Pizza: 354/11 Klang Mueang Rd (just west of Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake’s northwestern bank); T: (083) 661 9061; open Tues-Sun 12:00-22:00.
Motet Cafe: Chata Phadung Rd (just south of the Vietnam consulate); T: (098) 104 5688; Open daily 09:00-19:00.
Pomodoro Italian Restaurant: Prachasamran Rd (across from the Pullman Hotel and a stone’s throw from Soi Kosa); open 17:00-11:00.
Tawantong: Lang Sunratchakan Rd (near the National Museum); open 06:30-14:00.
Yokothai Restaurant: Soi Kosa (next to 7-Eleven); open 17:00-22:00.