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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, December 20, 2002

Chiang Mai excels at classic Thai dishes, service

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Lily Bujoli, manager of Chiang Mai restaurant in Mo'ili'ili, serves diners Leslie Roach-Laing, left, and Martha Taylor-Roach. The restaurant serves up excellent spring rolls, a variety of curries and tasty pad Thai with friendly and attentive service.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Chiang Mai
2239 S. King St.
Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays
Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. daily

Another rainy night on King Street, slippin' and a-slidin' from the car to the front entrance of Chiang Mai. We hadn't been there in quite some time, and it seemed like a good night to see how its reputation was holding up.

As we sloshed through the door, we could see into the open kitchen — not exactly an exhibition area, but bright and airy, and most importantly, a place where we could look over the dishes being prepared for their one-way trip to the table.

The mee krob (crispy Thai noodles, $6) definitely caught our eye with its pinkish hue and towering you're-gonna-need-a-stepladder height. This dish is very popular — sticky-sweet crispy noodles, even if it is served with chicken, bean sprouts and tofu chunks.

The dining room is well-appointed, with touches of artwork and potted plants, although the room would be more comfortable with slightly fewer tables.

The spring rolls (poh pia, $7.50) are still among the best in town: hot, crunchy and stuffed with mushroom, carrot, long rice and ground pork, garnished with cucumber, mint leaves and lettuce, with a piquant dipping sauce. These are also available vegetarian-style.

Thai places love their curries, and Chiang Mai is no different. The red curry (kaeng ped deng, $8.50 with choice of meat, or $10.50 with shrimp) was creamy and rich, and authentic in its inclusion of bamboo shoots, sweet basil and other flavorings. Yellow curry here includes potato and carrots, and the green curry has eggplant and basil. It's always interesting to order different styles of curry — with red, green, or yellow curry base.

Slightly different from the red, green or yellow curries is the beef masaman ($8.50), beef chunks in coconut milk, potato, and carrots, with a peanutty curry sauce. Another curry variant is panang ($8.50 with chicken or beef), a red-curry base but flavored a bit differently, sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts.

Normally, the measure of a Thai place is its pad Thai (stir-fried rice noodles, $8.50 with beef or chicken; $10.50 with shrimp; $13.50 with assorted seafood), a snack which has become the national dish of Thailand. These are rice noodles stir-fried with fish sauce, bits of egg, palm sugar, bean sprouts and green onion, and topped with crushed peanuts. It can be the best thing on Earth when all the elements are perfectly combined. This one was pretty good.

The pad siew noodles ($8.50 with beef or chicken, $10.50 with shrimp) were even better, though. For this dish, thick rice noodles are sauteed with dark soy sauce, broccoli and eggs, and topped with fried bits of garlic. These noodles feel good in the mouth; they're chewy, and their flat surface picks up a lot of flavor with each bite.

The Evil Shrimp (pra ram kung, $10.50) was luscious. It's a blend of perfectly cooked shrimp, julienned bamboo shoots, basil leaves and shreds of hot red chiles in a creamy red curry sauce. The flavor of the shrimp came across even through the spiciness, and the dish had a nice clean finish.

Try the sticky rice if you've not had it before. It's served in a bamboo basket and is a great complement to all Thai sauces, staying firm and chewy throughout your meal.

Chiang Mai's service is friendly and attentive. I noticed significant overall improvement since my last visit five years ago. Both meat-eaters and vegetarians can enjoy very pleasing Thai repasts for both lunch and dinner without sacrificing variety or flavor.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.