If you've ever spent a week, a month, or if you're lucky a few months in Thailand, then you'll know that the fresh and incredibly spiced food served in beach shantys, hawker stalls and makeshift propane-tank-on-the-back-of-a-scooter 'restaurants' is almost irreplaceable. Somehow, a guy with a tarp over his scooter, one wok and burner, a lazy-eye and an engine-grease stained wifebeater is able to purvey such delicious offerings that you're tempted, if not compelled, to ask to be married, adopted or both by this man just to have this food every day for the rest of your life.
And I do mean rest of your life. Laying on a brightly covered stuffed pillow in Koh Lanta while drinking a large Chang and petting a distinctly mangy cat, I patted my distended belly and mused that the contents of which could sufficiently make me eternally happy. If push came to shove, and I found myself in some sort of distopian realm where one can only choose three dishes for the rest of their life, I think there is a good chance mine would be Beef Larb, Morning Glory Stems and proper spicy Papaya Salad.
There are of course a number of other dishes in contention with these three, but let's just say for simplicity's sake, these three are very much up there on my list.
If eternal happiness is indeed linked to Beef Larb et al, then I have been in a most cruel a purgatory for nearly a decade. Since the Chili Club on Beach Avenue closed down in the early 2000s, I could not find the kind of Thai food that truly tasted like the deliciousness of Thailand. There are plenty of tasty places in Vancouver that serve 'nice' Thai dishes, however, there is a strange sweetness to almost all of their dishes and a lack of the sharp freshness and spice that makes real Thai food unbeatable. Purgatory is a good analogy as it implies that you're definitely not in hell, but that there's still an awfully long way to heaven.
As of late, things have improved markedly. Maenam was the first place in Vancouver that offered me a glimpse of the flavours I had been missing. If you haven't tried it yet, it is wonderful place that offers incredibly authentic Thai flavours in unique and delicious new contexts. That being said, it's not cheap, and it's menu is small, deliberate and capricious - wonderful for trying new things, awful for trying to get the things you crave. In short, you are at the mercy of their chef - a kind, talented, delicious fermented sausage making chef - but nonetheless the dictator of choice.
Lanna Thai on the other hand offers a dependable selection of what I crave, whenever I crave it. The owner and chef is a wonderful woman from Chiang Mai who timidly and kindly cooks incredible food off of her electric stove in a 7 square foot kitchen. Seriously, this kitchen is a cupboard, and a badly equipped cupboard at that. When I become rich, I am going to buy her a gas stove and an additional 7 square feet. I may as get it out of the way now - the food ain't quick. It can be if it's not busy, but if it is, well, good things come to those who wait. Sometimes, it seriously is a bit of a wait. I've almost been angry a number of times, but once the food and prolific apologies arrive, it all dissipates.
Now before you go rushing in, you should know what to order. I love green curry, but for whatever reason, Lanna Thai's green curry is a bit different and is worth skipping. Their Massaman and Northern style curry, Gaeng Hang Lay, are excellent. The latter is very unique and resembles a stew more than your usual curry. The fish cakes are authentic and wonderful - if you've never had them before, they can be an acquired taste, but you ought to try them.
If you can handle real Thai spice, order everything hot. Believe me it's hot, but if you've been missing the strangely euphoric burn this is the ticket.
The papaya salad, as it should be, is one of the spiciest dishes, so be warned. Order it medium if you are unsure of your tolerance. The Beef Larb is absolutely perfect! Toasted rice, mint, basil, shallots and chili, limey goodness. This is worth having two or three orders of. What's more all the herbs and many of the vegetables such as the sweet cherry tomatoes, and zucchini are grown in the chef's garden. If you're looking for local sustainability, this is it. She showed me pictures of what looks like a small jungle on a definitely urban apartment patio.
Finally, and in truth a major instigator for this blog, is the Pad Pak Boone or Tong Choi or Morning Glory Stems. These are not on the menu, but will be made if the chef has them in stock or if you phone in advance. If you close you eyes when shoving a greedy forkful into your mouth, you might just for a moment forget that you're in cold, drizzly, miserable Vancouver and mistake yourself to be reclining on a quiet beach on a stuffed pillow, petting a rather mangy little cat.