Thursday, June 27, 2013

where the locals eat

The internet is undoubtedly a great tool, but for extremely popular destinations like Chiang Mai, sometimes there's just too much information out there and it takes a lot of effort to sift through it all in order to find what's credible. Sometimes it's better to forget about research and planning, and just hit the ground running. If you keep your eyes, ears and nose open, eventually they will lead you to where the good eats are.

1. Right after we checked in at Funky Monkey Guesthouse, the owner Nuy gave us a map and pointed out The Moat Restaurant & Bar (82/2 Chaiyapoom Road), one of her favorite restaurants and just a stone's throw away. She said that it's usually full during peak hours and the service can get spotty when there are too many customers, so when we passed by on our first night in Chiang Mai and saw that it was empty, we figured that we might as well go in and sit down.

Chiang Mai sausage, 60 baht.

Spring rolls, 40 baht.

Tom yam with shrimp and seafood, 70 baht.

Verdict: Did not live up to the hype, sadly. The Moat's spring rolls and tom yam soup were perfectly edible, but nothing special. As for the sausage, I'd been dreaming about Chiang Mai sausage ever since I first ate it over a year ago, here. This was a far cry. Still, The Moat is a sufficiently nice place and the prices are reasonable. Plus they have AC.

2. Baan Hom Stew Beef (Kotchasarn Soi 2) is another of Nuy's recommendations. Actually, she couldn't remember the name and told us to just look for the wooden door. This tiny eatery with only half a dozen tables is open from 11AM to 5PM. We went at 1:30PM on a Wednesday and grabbed the last available table.

Beef noodle soup, 40 baht.

Stir-fried pork with holy basil, 35 baht.

Verdict: I was expecting a great big wooden door, but it turned out to be just the width of an average-sized man. It took a while to find it, but it was oh-so worth it. The noodle soup had a rich, dark broth which was very comforting, and the beef chunks were tender and aromatic. Stir-fried minced pork is one of those Thai dishes that I find so amazing-- has just a few ingredients, seemingly easy to make, but takes an expert to cook exactly right. This version was scrumptious and cheaper than most. I would go back to Baan Hom in a flash.

3. The owner of Funky Dog Café (Yes, our guesthouse in Chiang Mai was Funky Monkey and my favorite café was Funky Dog-- no relation) told us to go to Huen Phen (12 Rachamankha Road) if we wanted to try some home cooking. It's on a quiet street corner within the old city walls, surrounded by a school, a temple and a police station. We dropped in at 9:30AM and I was only supposed to check if they had mushrooms on the menu, but the freshly prepared food on display made me hungry.

Pork sausage northern style, 50 baht.

Fried chicken, 50 baht.

Grilled pork curry, 50 baht.

Steamed rice, 10 baht.

Lemongrass juice, 20 baht.

Verdict: There are some pretty scathing reviews of Huen Phen on tripadvisor, but honestly, our experience was completely pleasant. Maybe because it was early in the day and they were just getting ready for the lunch rush? The food wasn't exactly cheap, but in terms of taste, quality and portion-size, Huen Phen is pretty decent-- comparable to The Moat. I just had to try the sausage again, but it was still not as good as the one I had in 2012. The fried chicken was ordinary, but the solidified pork curry (like a strange tamale) was unique and delicious. The steamed rice, molded into a shape I can only describe as kooky, was disappointingly dry. The lemongrass juice was a pretty good deal for 20 baht, though.

4. We were on a rented motorbike, driving around the old city walls, looking for a place to have lunch. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a whole bunch of people sitting on some plastic chairs under rickety ceiling fans. Their tables were full of food and they all looked happy. The clientele at Aroon Rai Restaurant (45 Kotchasarn Road) was an interesting mix of local people, Caucasian backpackers and Chinese adventure-seekers.

Chiang Mai pork curry with ginger, 55 baht.

Spring rolls, 55 baht.

Thai iced tea, 30 baht.

Homemade ice cream, 45 baht.

Verdict: One of the dishes that I had to eat on this trip was gang hang lae. That's pork curry, Chiang Mai style. Aroon Rai's was excellent-- gingery but not too pungent, and the meat was practically falling apart. Not sure if it's really "the best curry in town" as it says on the signboard, but I was impressed enough to buy their ready-to-cook spice packs. The spring rolls here were much better than The Moat's. The iced tea was strong and lively, but the ice cream wasn't smooth and creamy. It was dotted with ice crystals, perhaps from not being stored properly. Despite the unsatisfactory dessert, I wouldn't mind eating at Aroon Rai again.

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