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.
In such a Dada sea of unhelpful poetry, there is no reason to assume that an unpleasant dish labeled "Thailand's answer to grandmother's meatloaf" would have any relationship to meatloaf--after all, does the dish subtitled "Second Noble Truth: Suffering has a cause and effect," arrive on a crispy bed of flash-fried suffering? I don't actually mind the non sequiturs, but this menu made me appreciate as never before the words "with," "beside," "sautéed," and "tossed" that constitute the foundation of menu linguistics.
In other construction news, anyone I invited to Chiang Mai Thai invariably asked some version of the question: "What was there before?" With characteristic forthrightness, Lodge reveals the answer: "Nothing. A brick wall. Now there's a hole in that brick wall." Lodge had the spot carved from underused storage areas. What about the restaurant-ready space on the second floor of Calhoun Square? "That Good Earth space has bad karma," Lodge says. "Nope, I just mortgaged everything I've got for a hole in the wall."
SCHOOLMARMS IN THE MACHINE: Careful readers of this year's schedule for the fifth annual Twin Cities Food and Wine Experience will have noted that, as the catalog puts it, "State laws governing temporary liquor-license permits require a mandatory 30-minute break during a tasting that exceeds the four-hour limit provision." And thus attendees will notice dry holes in the schedule, from 3 to 5 p.m. on Friday, and between 1:30 and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Why? Why should people wending their way between more than 250 vendors showcasing food, wine, and tongue treats of every dimension be so deprived? I put the question to Laura Boyd, a very nice license inspector for the city of Minneapolis, who explained that in 1994 the state Legislature passed a special statute governing wine tastings held in places that don't have liquor licenses: "Prior to that, [tastings] did take place, but no one had any good feel for when they were lawful and when they weren't," said Boyd. I guess I'm turning into a full-blooded Minnesotan, because that answer made some sort of sense to me: After all, we'd hate to have unregulated activities just happening. Willy-nilly. All over the place. I mean, do we want to live in the kind of place where men and women taste wine for five hours and good citizens cower in their beds? No, no, a thousand times no!
So I was perplexed when Boyd volunteered that she and her colleagues all expected Minnesota Monthly--which produces the Food and Wine Experience to benefit Minnesota Public Radio--to lobby for a change in the law. Evidently, Monthly publisher Steve Fox feels as I do: He calls the statute "quirky," but says he has no intention of trying to change it. "We decided that we found some sort of middle-ground compromise," he says--namely, holding breaks so that no one is drinking wine for more than four consecutive hours.
To recap, we've got a law which no one seems to endorse, but which is simultaneously not annoying enough for anyone to fight it. Why?
With nowhere left to turn, I called the people who know everything, the big guns at Wine Spectator. Vice president of event planning Lynn Rittenband, who coordinates the mammoth New York and California Wine Experiences, offered this pearl of wisdom before hanging up on me: "I really don't know why it would be like that, honey. There are a lot of foolish rules on the books for a lot of foolish reasons. That's life." Click. Ah, that's life. Arbitrary, unsupported, yet scrupulously enforced. Of course.
Tickets for the fifth annual Twin Cities Food and Wine Experience can be had for $35 at the doors of this year's venue, the Convention Center; (612) 371-5857. The event runs Friday, February 12 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, February 13 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, February 14 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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