In both Bangkok and Boise, I've answered one question a couple of times: "Have you been to Chiang Mai yet?"
If Bangkok is Thailand's central command center and the country's island clusters are her ethereal assets, then the northern city of Chiang Mai embodies the kingdom's grace. Foreign visitors dust off the beach sand and replant themselves in Chiang Mai to visit the city's several hundred gilded Buddhist temples or to trek off into the surrounding jungle for a few days. One of the biggest draws to Chiang Mai, however, is Thai cooking classes. In a country renowned for its culinary tradition, the city of Chiang Mai has a glowing reputation for food.
In Boise, the restaurant Chiang Mai Thai holds a similar distinction among its competition. Set back between a curmudgeonly bar and an Oriental food market in a dated strip mall, Boise's Chiang Mai isn't much of a looker. The restaurant may lack the luster of shinier joints in town, but for several years now, it has been quietly establishing its own glowing reputation for food.
I've only been hip to Chiang Mai for the last year, and during that time, a remodel has smoothed out the decor's wrinkles and tightened up the whole operation. My first Chiang Mai experience was a diner-created buffet romp through the menu with tureens of tom ka gai and tom yum koong, chaffing dishes of massamun and panang curries, various noodle dishes, starters of springs rolls and crab rangoon and a plate of sizzling happy family.
Recently, I've shown more restraint in ordering. Last week, I ventured in solo for a nostalgic dinner of massamun curry ($9.75) and a bottle of Singha ($3.75). It's a meal that serves as both an old standby and a litmus for local Thai restaurants, and while none rise noticeably above the others, Chiang Mai gets my vote for its choose-your-own-spice adventure: one to five Thai peppers depending on how badly you want to punish your body while rewarding your tastebuds.
To a palate raised on American meat and potatoes, massamun is a counterintuitive dish of sweet and spicy and bland. Boiled potatoes, peanuts and a choice of meat don't make for compelling additives; the fight of coconut milk, galangal, lemongrass and Thai chilies delivers all the action. Having neglected to spice up my last bowl of Chiang Mai massamun, I can assure you heat-wimps that the dish is entirely palatable without a hint of spice. Absent a couple of peppers, you won't sweat your way through the dish, but beware, coconut beats every other flavor into submission.
Thai food, however, should be "sweat through." One day last week, lunch was the distinctly Thai tom yum koong ($6.75), spicy please, and a helping of pad kee mao, aka spicy noodles, aka drunken noodles ($9.75). On the first bite of both, I said aloud, "Should have asked for it spicier." But Thai peppers are creepers, and by bites four and five, I conceded that maybe it was spicy enough for a midday, beerless repast. No sweat, no tears, but, after all, I had a desk and work to get back to.
Fresh slices of button mushrooms and a sprig of cilantro floated to the top of the tom yum's bright red broth, while shrimp and chunks of galangal took to the bottom of the bowl. With big, fresh flavors, Chiang Mai's version is a good intro to Thai food for those gringos who find themselves ordering from the restaurant's more familiar Chinese-leaning selections.
Pad kee mao, however, is an entree better left to those who like a good tongue lashing followed by a pepper-induced nasal drip. It's a simple dish of fried flat noodles with sprouts, chicken, green onion, peppers and a hint of basil, but with one curious North American addition—jalapenos. What of the Mexican-Thai mashup? Excellente, ka poon ka. (Translation: Excellent, thank you.)
—Rachael Daigle is all spice and none of the sweet.
Though subtlety is a trait often overlooked in strip-mall Asian dives, some have the kitsch-o-meter cranked to a comfortable 70 degrees. With its high dark wood booths, proliferation of gold sequined wall tapestries and large-plastic-fruit-bearing decorative trees, Chiang Mai Thai manages to strike a perfect balance between bling and boring.
The same thing can also be said of the restaurant's mind-blowing tom ka gai ($6.75). While the coconut-based soup is packed full of pungent cilantro, chives, kaffir lime leaves, galangal (a hard, piney ginger-like root) and red chilies, no one ingredient ever becomes the fat kid on the teeter totter. On a recent visit, we asked the kitchen to sub fried tofu for the soup's traditional chicken and let the fluffy nuggets wring the dish's rich and perplexingly balanced flavors out like tiny sponges in our mouths. The bowl was plenty for my date and I to share as a palate-stimulating appetizer and continued giving as we snuck spoonfuls throughout the rest of the meal.
Our server was a charming blend of professional attentiveness and arm-nudging, "here you go friend" camaraderie. She dropped off my date's bottled Singha ($3.75) with a frosty glass and my equally chilled Cab Sav ($3.55) and let us linger indecisively over the half Thai and half Chinese menu. Between glances at columns packed with varied fried rices, noodle dishes and meat-laden salads, we let the chatter of the nearly full restaurant and the thump of the adjacent Navajo Room's karaoke echo around us. With a wide assortment of families, young and old couples, and what looked like a drunk Bunko after-party, Chiang Mai offered enough eavesdropping potential to keep us thoroughly distracted.
As a bit of a spring roll snob, I knew the shrimp-and-pork stuffed fresh roll ($6.75) would be gracing our elephant-covered table top. Long of the opinion that the spring roll—with its innocuous rubbery wrapper and snappy bland cabbage—is merely a refreshing vehicle for the delivery of peanut sauce, I was nearly heartbroken when I saw Chiang Mai's wimpy accoutrement. The hardly-coats-your-finger-runny sweet and sour sauce came with only a sprinkle of buoyant peanut chunks and was a far cry from satisfying. Though the shrimp was fresh and the rolls expertly wrapped, we decided the only way the dish might make the honor roll is if the sauce starts copying homework from its more delicious, dark-and-viscous peers.
With the creamy back taste of tom ka gai still nuzzling our taste buds, selecting an equally appealing entree became a difficult task. We vacillated between the menu's more traditional Thai dishes—like the noodle-y pad see ew or the kaffir-topped panang curry—and the abundant assortment of run-of-the-mill Chinese classics. While we were ultimately wooed by the cashew nut ($9.75), a multi-colored ball pit of diced celery, carrots, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, cashews and tofu dripping with a boring cornstarch-y brown sauce, we agreed that the dish would've been much more satisfying with some esophagus-punching heat. This, I later found out, you must explicitly ask for when ordering at Chiang Mai. Good to know.
With enough cashew nut left over to be churched up with a few squirts of sriracha and turned into a proper lunch, I boxed up the remainder. Our server set down a gold and emerald-green chalice containing our two fortune cookies, which we tore open to the familiar wail of "Summer Lovin" being drunkenly crooned through the adjacent wall. Chiang Mai, you kitschy-classy, bland-flavorful anomaly, this will not be the last you see of me.
—Tara Morgan has hearts shooting out her eyes for tom ka gai.