IF YOU SAW that this week's Last Supper was about another Thai place in Southeast Portland and immediately turned to the last page to read Dinosaur Comics, I forgive you. I understand. Unless the first line said Andy Ricker was personally going to come to my house and teach me to make fish-oil wings, I would probably do the same thing. There are about as many Thai restaurants in this city as there are conversations going on at this exact moment about whether Portlandia really "gets us," and most of them are just as boring.
But wait... hear me out. Chiang Mai is different, and not in the food-tastes-like-every-other-place-in-town-but-the-servers-are-all-drag-queens sort of way (I'm looking at you, Oasisba...though, okay, that's cool too).
Specializing in dishes from the Northern Thai city of its namesake, Chiang Mai digs deep into a style of cooking of which Portland has only scratched the surface. For fans of Pok Pok, Red Onion, and—to a lesser extent—Mee Sen, it's a must try.
The dining room is tiny—the nine or 10 two-tops are in a constant state of flux to accommodate various group sizes—but for a building that could just as easily be a bodega or a pawnshop, they've created a surprisingly pleasant ambiance. What should seem cramped instead feels cozy.
If the physical space is scaled back, the menu is the polar opposite. The dishes are numbered 1-63, and most require you to choose between a variety of meats (or tofu) and types of noodle. The primary menu is supplemented by a list of a dozen or so house specials, and a dry-erase board packs in a few last-minute additions. All of this is before you get to dessert, side dishes, beverages, etc. It can be a bit overwhelming—pre-dinner conversation will need to be kept to a minimum—but focus, you'll do fine.
If the parentheses say "famous Chiang Mai area dish," you're on the right track. Try the khao soi gai ($9.50)—two tender, fall-off-the-bone drumsticks of slow-cooked chicken in a soupy curry. A huge portion of soft egg noodles are below the surface, while a crispy variation is heaped on top. It's served with pickled mustard greens, lime, and shallots, which go a long way in cutting the sweetness of the curry's coconut milk.
I was equally impressed by the kuay tiew tom yum ($10)—this one is annotated with "popular lunch dish in Thailand" instead, but I still stand by it. The broth is rich in lemongrass and citrus flavors, and at a three or four on their spice scale, it was just enough to make my forehead sweat. We ordered wide rice noodles and ground chicken (pork is also an option), which were complemented by bean sprouts, green onion, and crushed peanuts. The soup is topped with fried wontons.
Either of these—or maybe anything—would pair well with the num tok ($8.50). I'm not sure I've ever ordered a pork salad before, but I certainly will again. Hearty greens, mint, shallots, green onion, roasted rice, and grilled pork all tossed in a spicy lime sauce unlike anything I've ever tasted—it's a wonderfully delicate balance of sweet, sour, and spicy. The plate is garnished with a wedge of cabbage, tomato, and cucumber.
If pad thai is at the outer limit of your date's sense of adventure, Chiang Mai isn't averse to the dishes most Americans are used to (maybe don't point out the special pig-blood cubes). It seems like a waste to bypass the tougher-to-find family recipes and street-food-style dishes that Chiang Mai's owners brought with them from their hometown, but you'll still have a great meal. Pad see-ew ($9.50) is my standby, so I tried theirs for comparison's sake. While it doesn't quite measure up to the above dishes, it's still among the better I've had in town. Nothing particularly exciting or different—wide-sized rice noodles, egg, Chinese broccoli, and (in my case) chicken, all dressed in a sweet soy sauce—but the noodles tasted fresh and the flavors were well executed.
I haven't been thrilled with the appetizers so far. We tried the moo satay with grilled bread ($8), and though I loved the turmeric flavor, the pork was a little gristly... frankly, I wasn't sure what to do with the little triangles of bread. Put cucumber sauce on them? The miang kam ($8)—chaphlu leaves served with small portions of ginger, roasted coconut, dried shrimp, Thai chili, and lime—looked better on paper. The leaves are tough and a bit leathery, and they masked the flavors of everything I was wrapping in them. Still, I'm holding out hope for the roti mataba. Next time.
Okay? Okay. You can get back to Dinosaur Comics now.