Home > Sister Cities > Article

Tracing his menus back to Chiang Mai

By : The New York Times|Updated: 2011-11-18

At the busy Muang Mai market.

TO drive around Chiang Mai, Thailand, with the chef and restaurateur Andy Ricker is to experience a particular sort of hungry man’s torment. That place, he said, pointing at a storefront or street stall, is known for stir-fried noodles, that other one for fish-head soup. We would pass right by. Elsewhere, he nodded toward a busy restaurant that he called the most famous place in town to get khao soi, a Chiang Mai specialty. Again, we drove past. By this point in his career, his standards are set. “Too sweet,” he said.

Mr. Ricker, a 47-year-old, six-foot-tall native Vermonter now based in Portland, Ore., has become an unlikely ambassador for Thai food in the United States. Your only visual clue that he is someone who knows his nahm phrik noom from his nahm phrik ong is a glimpse at his right arm, which is tattooed with a mortar and pestle, bird’s eye chiles, and the holy trinity of northern Thai herbs — cilantro, green onion and phak chi farang (the last often known in the West as sawtooth).

I have followed Pok Pok, his first Portland venture, since it opened in 2005, tracing its transformation from a takeout shack in his garage to a sprawling, perpetually packed restaurant. I was struck by his refusal to pander to Western tastes. Instead of pushing pad thai and peanut sauce, he serves hoy thawt, an egg-and-mussel crepe found at Thai night markets, and northern-Thai-style laap. Rather than the tart, spicy minced-meat “salad” from the northeast that most adventurous American eaters recognize, this version is spiked with blood and offal, and fragrant dried spices that give it a beguilingly bitter edge. Mr. Ricker now presides over a mini-empire in Portland with four restaurants (including Ping and Whiskey Soda Lounge) that serve food you rarely see outside of Southeast Asia. (By early 2012, he plans to open two restaurants in New York City, one on the Lower East Side and one in Brooklyn.)

Eager to learn more about Thai cuisine, I arranged to meet him during a trip to Portland to discuss the possibility of writing a cookbook. He had already been considering it, so we agreed to collaborate. Our first order of business, he insisted, was a trip to Chiang Mai to eat at the places that inspired the food at Pok Pok. While he makes food from all over Thailand, he is especially enamored of the food of the north.

It was there that he first encountered a bowl of curry — devoid of coconut milk, but full of local wild mushrooms — that convinced him there was an entire universe of Thai food unknown to Westerners. And it is where he has returned most often during the past two decades to meticulously research the dishes that end up on his menus. So in May we made the trip, hitting a few of the dining spots that provided some of his earliest revelations. I discovered dishes that were staggeringly tasty, but also humbling reminders of how little even a self-appointed Thai food fanatic like me actually knows about the country’s cuisine. And none of our meals cost more than 200 baht (about $6 at about 29 baht to the dollar) for two people.

SP Chicken

In Chiang Mai, there is food everywhere: rows of vendors selling bowls of noodles or coils of sausage, bustling outdoor markets where inscrutable soups and stews are set out in trays and in plastic to-go bags, and street stalls where treats hidden inside banana leaf packages are grilled over charcoal. “In the beginning, you have no idea what any of this stuff is,” Mr. Ricker said as we ogled dozens of bowls of chile relishes at a covered market. “And you can’t ask anyone because you don’t know more than a few words of Thai.”

It was good fortune, then, that early in his adventures, he met Chavalit Van, known as Mr. Lit. Now in his early 60s, Mr. Lit opened SP Chicken in 1977 on the moat road that surrounds the old city. He recently retired, leaving the daily operation of the restaurant to his wife and daughter, but Mr. Ricker almost always spots him out back, entertaining his grandson.

The first thing you see at SP Chicken — and the items that first caught Mr. Ricker’s attention — are the lemongrass- and garlic-stuffed chickens rotating out front on a vertical spit beside a wall of glowing charcoal. “When I finally approached him to figure out how he did it,” said Mr. Ricker, of Mr. Lit’s poultry, “I said something in halting Thai and he responded in near-perfect English.” They struck up a friendship, and later Mr. Lit taught him how he modified the cheap rotisseries you find in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

During a brief but furious Thai rainstorm, we sat beneath the restaurant’s aluminum awning on plastic chairs while the two old friends caught up. As we ate sticky rice, papaya salad and those flavor-packed birds, hacked into pieces and served with a sweet, spicy dipping sauce, they discussed the toils of running restaurants. The food is incredibly good, but it’s not just the flavors at SP Chicken that inspired Mr. Ricker. “I love that he has been making more or less the same food for more than 30 years,” he said.

SP Chicken, 31/1 Sri Phum Road; no phone.

Krua Phech Doi Ngam

SP Chicken serves food mainly from Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand. But the area west of Isaan, often referred to as northern Thailand, explained Mr. Ricker, has its own distinctive cuisine, and he was eager to replicate the happy bewilderment he felt when he first discovered the distinction. So we headed toward Krua Phech Doi Ngam, a restaurant with an encyclopedic menu of local dishes. We sampled several that have counterparts at Pok Pok, including jin hoom (a beef stew seasoned with turmeric), yam kai meuang (an intensely flavored chicken soup) and yam samun phrai (an herb-heavy salad).

1 2 Next