Eater NY critic Robert Sietsema gives a Red Hook Thai newcomer a first try.
Romance and restaurants often go hand in hand, not only among patrons, but among staff, too. Thus it was that the co-owners of Red Hook wildfire hit Kao Soy, chef Kanlaya Supachana and partner Carlos Padillo were already in a relationship when they opened their restaurant. But like a seasonal menu, it was not to last and Supachana left both restaurant and boyfriend a few weeks ago to establish her own place just down the block, called Chiang Mai. Red Hook is all the luckier, because along with PDX import Pok Pok, it now has three great Thai restaurants, each concentrating on regional dishes seldom seen in New York, and each offering some that are unique to the restaurant.
Chiang Mai Restaurant is squatting for six months at home/made, a small café in a home goods store specializing in vegetable-heavy fare. Most of the home furnishings seem to be cleared out, and the place has a lovely backyard that recalls Pok Pok’s in the early days. The menu concentrates on the food of the city of Chiang Mai and other northern Thai dishes, which contrast with those of the currently popular Isan region in the country’s northeast. Three friends and I enjoyed a first meal there around sunset last weekend; the restaurant was half full on a Saturday night. It offers a selection of Southeast Asian and American craft beers, and a nice wine list heavy on the whites, roses, and sparklers, but also with an interesting selection of light to medium-weight reds.
The signature soup of the 13th-century city of Chiang Mai, located near Thailand’s northern border in close proximity to Laos, Burma, and China, is kao soy, namesake of Supachana’s previous restaurant. It’s a centerpiece here, too, now spelled kao soi ($12, another common spelling is khao soi). Said to be based on a Burmese model, it boasts a rich curried coconut broth in which two chicken drumsticks cavort. Wobbly rice noodles are found in its depths, with fried wheat noodles, Chinese-style, on top. There are plenty of vegetables in the soup, too, and a small saucer of condiments that include pickled mustard greens and lime wedges. The bowl is a circus of flavors, lively and voluminous enough to be your entire meal.
In contrast to its predecessor Kao Soy, Chiang Mai concentrates more on small dishes. Some are very small, but it doesn’t matter because they’re so rich. Nam prik ong ($8), a Laotian-style dip of ground pork and tomatoes, comes in a tiny receptacle with lettuce, chayote, and a single, round, raw Thai eggplant as dipping implements. The flavor is pungent and fiery, so strong you’ll wish you had more crudité. The variation on the classic green papaya salad here features pounded green mango; it was the hottest thing we had all evening, so that even my Texas friends fanned their mouths in pain. Which was a pleasure. Hey, this is the age of 50 Shades of Grey.
While such green fruit tropical salads have become a Thai commonplace, there are far weirder things available, such as jin som mok, a tiny Thai tamale of pig skin and ear fermented and then steamed in a banana leaf. It was crunchy (from the ear) and delicious. Another banana leaf concoction involves ground pork and pig blood — thankfully, Chiang Mai is not pulling its culinary punches.
The Northern Thai sausage sai ua ($15) is big and homemade, somewhat gritty and dry inside, which is how it presumably is supposed to be. As with several of its menu companions, a strong taste of lemongrass pervades. Consistent with its bar snack status, other things come alongside to make nibbling more pleasurable: a Vietnamese-style pate, summer squash, okra, cukes, sticky rice, and crushed green chiles. Would this dish suffice as a main course? Not really. Chiang Mai is somewhere you should always go with a crowd and treat dinner as one long snack.
We finished out our meal with some grilled beef balls, bouncy and rubbery, some jackfruit mashed with ground pork, and, one of the best things of all, kang hung leh ($15). It, too, came in a rather small bowl, but this dense curry of pork belly and shoulder strongly flavored with ginger (and probably its cousin, galangal), was so rich we could barely finish it. We left the restaurant to look elsewhere for ice cream, having spent around $50 apiece for eight dishes and an ample quantity of beer to stanch the burn, and looking forward to our next visit.