Like a dog at a bone, I am constantly worrying at my love for the northern Thai dish kanom jeen nam ngiew, watching it fray at the edges as I sample dish after watered-down dish, chasing after the What when I don’t have the Where, Who or How. Because, you see, I live in Bangkok, where street food is wonderful, but northern Thai street food sometimes less so.
The Bangkok attitude to the north appears to be how Northeastern Americans view people living in the Southern US. They may be “charming” and “quaint” at best, or characterized as “rural” or “backward” at not-best. Both regions might house poorer residents and nurse chips on their shoulders about being looked down upon by the “educated elite”. The people of both areas might speak more slowly, in voices that might sound like sticky drawls. And both places certainly have incredible food where meat plays a major role, yet their cuisines might be looked at askance by the less adventurous as “weird” (please Google “The Ravenous Guide to Eating Like Elvis”) or just plain bad for you (ditto).
But the stomach-minded — and there are many of us out there — may see this food as achingly exotic. That is the case for me when I’ve been in Bangkok for a while. And although there is plenty of tried-and-true Isaan food to be had (the real stuff, not the sugary red candy posing as grilled chicken or pork shoulder at some Bangkok stalls) thanks to the city’s many Isaan residents, for some reason (and no, I don’t really know why this is), northern Thai food here is not as well represented.
So when a northern Thai food stall turns up just around the corner from the end of my street, in a barren expanse of concrete next to what appears to be a government compound, it’s exciting to me, the way a barbecue place in New York might be exciting to someone else. And it might not really be the same as what you’d find in its home setting (think of that NY barbecue place), but it’s good enough. Meet khao lad gang (curry rice) stall Khao Soy Chiang Mai (71 Ajnarong Rd., 02-672-7711) and its collection of northern Thai specialties like gang hang lay (Burmese-style pork stew), gang ho (northern Thai-style goulash), sai oua (northern Thai sausages), nam prik ong (pork-and-tomato chili dip), excellent larb moo kua (minced pork salad), and of course, khao soy and kanom jeen nam ngiew, without which northern Thai street food would be irreparably hobbled. Competent renditions all, with some green curry and shredded fish curry to go with your kanom jeen when you’re just not feeling the northern Thai food at the mo.
It’s that little watering hole in the desert. The exit from a crowded dance floor. The guy who invites you out at 6:30pm on a Friday night. It’s not the end-all be-all. But it’s good enough for now.