In almost three weeks in northern Thailand last spring, I ate pad Thai maybe three times. And green curry chicken no more than that. We spent most of our time in Chiang Mai, where three of us often lunched for under five bucks (beer included!), and it was never short of dazzling.
So why is Thai food is translating so poorly to Toronto? We have the cooks, we have the global ingredient-supply chain, we have the eager diners. And yet it seems every Thai restaurant I try is slinging sugary pad Thai, goopy green curries, and both stir-fried and deep-fried banality. Or worse, they're doing that Asian fusion thing that is the worst of several worlds. Where, oh where, are the big bold flavours of Chiang Mai?
They're at Khao San Road! Chef Nuit Regular, who is from Chiang Mai, had been operating Sukhothai, a tiny spot in Regent Park, to great local acclaim. She and her partner/husband, Jeff Regular, left Sukhothai in the hands of Jeff's parents and a month ago they opened Khao San Road, a bigger, prettier place with an expanded menu.
Nuit Regular does not cook like she's in Toronto. The servers ask how hot you want everything, but even mild-to-medium (my preferred heat) draws fire from Nuit's stove. Friendly fire. Her flavours are so big and bold and boisterous that it's impossible to stop eating. I do not normally fall for Asian deep-fried appies, but Nuit Regular has me hog-tied with her deep-fried squash fritters. Using pureed Thai squash (a.k.a. pumpkin), which is more intense and richer than ours, she zings them with red curry and shrimp paste and the citric fragrance of lemongrass. The fry is perfect - they're crispy, crunchy sin, delightful dipped in Nuit's barely sweet tamarind sauce.
Her soups also rise far above local standards: Tom kha gai is velvety with coconut milk, fragrant with lime leaves, galangal and lemongrass. Her tom yum is hot with chilis, sour with lemongrass and lime leaves and punch-drunk on shrimp paste.
Other Toronto Thai restos do bland salad rolls with shrimp and rice noodles and too-sweet red dipping sauce. Nuit's cold rolls are stuffed with house-made garlicky chicken sausage and scented with mint, for a multi-layered taste thrill when you dip them in her spicy, slightly sweet tamarind sauce topped with toasted peanut fragments.
And forget green-curry chicken. Nuit's gaeng massaman is smooth, rich peanut-and-tamarind sauce studded with toasted peanuts, on tender chicken and big chunks of potato. Pad gra prao is minced meat (chicken or beef, I prefer the beef) zinged with holy basil and lime leaves, topped with a deep-fried egg, lacy with crisp gold at the edges, its yolk still runny. Pad phed pha, best done with pork pounded into tenderness, combines the meat with almost-raw Chinese long beans. Big exuberant flavour comes from holy basil, red curry paste, lime leaves and wild Thai ginger. Khao soi is a textural fun fair somewhere between soup and stew, super-rich coconut cream spiked with red curry and lime, with a three-layered confection of savouries: Superbly tender chicken, al dente thin noodles and on top, a roof of crunchy, ungreasy deep-fried thin noodles. Even the pad Thai thrills, thanks to being not too sweet and the blessing of each element being carefully fried. Most of Nuit's opus, and especially the pad Thai, is takeout-friendly.
One might wish for better service: It ranges from confused to barely there. On a cold night, it's easy to be upset about the Arctic draft every time the door opens. And when it's busy, you often get stuck at one of the two high-top communal tables, making new friends you didn't know you wanted. This ain't the Ritz. But close your eyes and you could be in Chiang Mai.