Great Noodles, Hold the Poetry

Chiang Mai Thai
Calhoun Square, 3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; (612) 827-1606, Daily 11 a.m.-1 a.m., full menu served till 11 p.m., appetizers until midnight; Happy Hours Monday-Friday 4-6 p.m., Sunday-Thursday 11 p.m.-midnight; Closed on major holidays.

Charles Lodge doesn't waste any time getting to the point: "I'm going to pull the race card on you," he warns. "Being a white guy running a Thai restaurant, I'm always going to have people who are going to be questioning my legitimacy, just because of the color of my skin." It's an easy criticism, he elaborates, and one he feels hamstrung defending himself against. If Minnesota diners don't know that Thai food in Thailand is served with forks and spoons, what can he do about it? If critics want to label his northeastern Thai cuisine inauthentic, he can't just haul them to the city of Chiang Mai--where he lived during a year in college, and which he has visited eight times since--to prove otherwise.

The genetic-credibility issue is also an attractive red herring. In bringing it up, Lodge provides me with an initially more interesting topic than the quality of pad thai in Uptown. He passive-aggressively puts the critical/intellectual ball in my court, sending me off to ponder my own identity as someone who hasn't been to Chiang Mai and who has no inborn expertise in the realm of Thai food. And finally, he places me squarely in the category of critic/enemy.

But I persevere. I say to myself: Baby Snookums, we're going to review that restaurant because we are an American! And America is predicated on the idea that Hmong immigrants are able to tell the difference between a good pastrami sandwich and a cruddy one! Because America is built on the notion that Somali children can send back their crèmes brûlées if they don't like them! You can stop me from reviewing your fried rice-noodles with broccoli, Mr. Lodge--when you pry my keyboard from my cold, dead hands!

I tell you, with a setup like that, it pains me greatly to admit that before I ever called up Mr. Lodge I had already decided that I really do like Chiang Mai Thai. I ended up going there more often than I visit most restaurants, mainly because I was trying to get a handle on the vast number of offerings, but also because Chiang Mai Thai's pad thai is some of the best in town.

The pad thai, like all the dishes here, is the work of Joy Evans, the Vietnamese-born chef who learned to cook in Thailand and has worked in the kitchen at Minneapolis's Sawatdee Bar and Cafe for the past seven years. This pad thai is a flavorfully dressed version of the deceptively simple noodle dish, neither gummy from overcooking nor bland or acrid--just a big, rich-tasting, mellow pile of delicious noodles. (A note on Chiang Mai Thai's pricing: Many dishes, like the stir-fries, curries, and noodles have a base price and then go up depending on whether and what you add to them. For example, pad thai, fried rice noodles with broccoli, and fire noodles with Thai basil are all $7 for the vegetable version, $8 with tofu or chicken, $9 with pork or beef, or $11 with shrimp.)

My other favorite dishes at Chiang Mai Thai are the nam prigs. These are platters of steamed and raw vegetables served with a teacup-sized portion of dipping sauce and a soup cup's worth of sticky rice; it's up to you to use your fingers or your fork to assemble combinations of vegetable, rice, and dip. Since the portions are so large, and the vegetables so fresh and variable, the nam prigs make perfect appetizers to share. The pork-and-tomato-based nam prig ong ($6) resembles a thick, spicy pasta sauce and is served with a lot of steamed broccoli and cauliflower. The eggplant dip in the nam prig num ($6) is a bit like a Thai caponata and comes with a plate of seasonal vegetables, which on my visits included cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli.

I would also recommend the fire noodles, which are a bit like pad thai, but with a hotter, plainer sauce featuring stewed tomatoes, fried onions, and plenty of licoricelike Thai basil. The ginger catfish ($9), more than any other dish, reminded me of Sawatdee, which I've always prized for its easy grace with seafood. The fish was as tender as a perky flan, the salty mushroom-and-ginger sauce lively and harmonious. Another standout was the grilled fish with lime dressing ($13); the crisply-glazed salmon could have held its own with the salmon served at many a fine-dining spot in town.

Considering that Chiang Mai Thai's doors opened just this past November, the restaurant has quite a few of its ducks in a row. Service is fine, the liquor options nice enough and cheap enough, the darkly lit bamboo- and linen-accented room attractive; the all-day hours are perfect for the neighborhood, and the no-reservations policy never prevented me from being seated instantly.

The primary problem at the restaurant is the menu, specifically the fact that many dishes are inadequately described. Typically the name of a dish is followed by a mysterious phrase like "'In the water there are fish, in the fields there is rice'--Sukothai rune stone inscription"; next comes a list of key ingredients which sometimes includes all the dish's components and sometimes just the primary ones. For example, one entry in the "Rice & Noodles" section reads: "Khao Cadeukadeek/Chilied Beef with Rice/Being a tonal language, it is not difficult for the novice to call someone a horse/Key ingredients: beef, herbs and spices, pickled vegetables, chili." After much speculation (might it be a beef stew over rice? Chilies with beef in sauce? Chilled beef?) we queried our server, who informed us that the dish was "really good." Well, good enough. What finally arrived were OK but strange and very, very dry cubes of steak coated with a spice rub; imagine the texture of a smoked pork chop off the bone. The meat was served on a bed of fluffy curried rice with two dipping sauces. We noticed no pickled vegetables, though there were cooked tomato quarters.

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