About 30 years ago, I went to Chiang Mai for the first time. I was just a kid, and I don’t remember much about the trip, but someone took us to a restaurant that made a great impression on me. I remember the name was a bit unusual “Baan Suan” which literally means “House Garden”. It was apt though, the restaurant was like a home in a garden setting. (It turns out ‘baan suan‘ is a common type of establishment, Baan Manovejchapan is also a ‘baan suan‘)
There was a simple salad that was the most delicious one I’ve ever had in my life, and I don’t mean salad as in a Thai-style ‘yum’, it was a proper farang salad with slices of tomatoes, lettuce and thousand island dressing, like what you’d find in the US, which in that context, was the ne plus ultra. Today ‘salat’ are quite a fad in Thailand: you can get take-out boxes in all the Royal Project produce shops with lettuce, shredded carrots, tomatoes and a side of ‘naam salat’ (salad dressing), but the reverse snob in me now thinks they pale in comparison to a good Thai yum, which has more substance.
There were other dishes that were also very tasty at that western-style meal at Baan Suan, but the specifics have faded from my memory into the mists of time. Possibly a roast chicken or a pork chop.
I’d been to Chiang Mai since, but never had the opportunity to go back to try and track down the restaurant until now. Poring over the Nancy Chandler map, I came across the Baan Suan restaurant in the outskirts of town on the Mae Nam Ping, but I couldn’t find the listing or phone number, so I googled it and found only a review with contact info. They didn’t seem to have their own website. I called them up and asked how long they’d been in business. “Well we’ve been here at this location for about 10 years. Before that we had shut down for 2 years. We were originally located closer to town, where” he named some hotel ”now stands.” I infer that the site they were located on got taken over and redeveloped into a hotel. Then it took them two years to find a new location.
“How long were you located at the original site” Pause. “I wasn’t with this restaurant back then, but I think it was 10 or 20 years.” I was excited. It sounded like it could be the same Baan Suan with the mythically unsurpassble salad of my childhood dreams.
Since it was a Monday, I asked if it was necessary to make a reservation. ‘Well, it’s better if you do, because sometimes we get booked up entire for parties.’ I didn’t know what we were doing that day, and what time we’d be eating dinner, so I said 7 PM, but would it be OK if we came earlier or later. Sure, he said in that ever-accommodating manner of the Thais.
I forgot to ask what kind of food they served.
Because they were so far out of the way, I had to book a taxi that would take us there, wait for us while we ate dinner, and then bring us back. For 500 baht! (I think the taxis in Chiang Mai are second to Phuket island in the rip-off levels, in part because there’s no convenient bus service). Then again, we were going somewhere relatively far, and fancy, compared to all the meals we’d been having in Chiang Mai. My cousin and his mom were visiting Chiang Mai for the first time, and I was taking them around. This was a last-night, splurge meal, might as well go all out!
We arrived after a drive that was longer than even I expected. There was a wooden Baan Suan sign with a logo of a plate set with a fork and spoon that looked vaguely familiar. Maybe it was the same restaurant from my childhood.
There was a waiter waiting for us when we got there. “Celia for 7 PM”, I said, but that turned out to be superfluous. “Go ahead,” he said.
Uh, which way? It was very dark. The set-up was a little weird. Right at the entrance, there were two narrow passageways, I couldn’t tell which way led to the dining area, as opposed to the kitchen. He pointed us in the right direction, we walked through and then suddenly found ourselves in an expansive space enclosed by a tall pavilion that was completely open on two sides to the river bend. There was a long tree trunk conference table, a few lounge chairs, and an eloquently giant flower arrangement. In the dim lighting, it felt like a hotel lobby. The vibe felt odd. We were the only ones there. I started to wonder if coming here had been a mistake.
They led us to one of several finely appointed tables at the edge of the deck. There was a strip of lawn between us and the Ping. The inevitable stray/kitchen cat strolled by, the inevitable soundtrack of chirping played on, eventually becoming white noise. You could see the tall reedy wild grasses across the water, since the land on that side was undeveloped. At this point, the river Ping was more of a creek.
“You can actually see the stars here,” marveled my cousin as he looked up at the dark sky draped over us. He lives in Hong Kong now, where there’s too much urban nightlight pollution to see any stars. Actually, if you looked towards the city center of Chiang Mai to the southwest, the sky was a paler shade of grey, rather than the inky black of directly above.
Other aspects of Thailand not to be found in Hong Kong that my cousin was not so fond of were the jing-joks (lizards). They were hanging out high on the columns of the pavilion, each near a sconce.
Once we opened the menu, I perked up a bit. There was no salad, but a page full of yum listings. The food was mostly Thai, with some fusion/western elements; and some dishes that were local and unfamiliar and therefore intrigued us. One was a soup with local vegetables and miniature river shrimp, freshwater ha-mi as it were. The most unusual thing on the menu was “Hanging pork or beef”. The waiter explained it to me in Thai. But it was complicated, and I couldn’t grasp the concept except that it came with four dipping sauces. We ordered it anyway, to be adventurous. “Unfortunately, tonight we only have pork, no beef”. That actually, was fortunate. Beef in Thailand tends to be very chewy.
“There’s also a couple of specials tonight. One is poh piah gaeng kiew waan kai.” Literally ‘green chicken curry spring rolls’. Again I couldn’t fathom what it would be like, so we ordered it to see. After all, curry is a very saucy ingredient to be contained in a fried wrapper. “And for tonight’s yum, we have yod maprow on, and another yum of a local vegetable.” Oh good. I thought it would be neat for my visitors to try coconut shoots, something they probably never had before. Just to cover our bases, we also ordered ribs in barbeque sauce (the sort of American version) from the menu. After all, if everything else turned out to be disappointing, well, how could anyone mess up BBQ ribs?
The food came almost all at once. The green curry spring rolls were a hit. Small pieces of chicken are marinated in green curry paste and then encased in long flat skinny egg roll wrappers, fried until perfectly crunchy, and not too spicy. They were served in a wineglass, so we picked them up with our fingers like oversized grissini.
The soup came, a clear broth with veggies and lots of little pink shrimp the size of a thumbnail, complete with bead black eyes. The Anthony Bourdain adage about not ordering seafood on a Monday, especially at a restaurant with seemingly sluggish turnover was moot here. The shrimp were fresh, my GI tract had no complaints. The shells gave a little chew of calcium goodness. The herb/spice that was used to flavor the soup is the same peppery-sour one that I recognize from poh-taek soup. But I have to admit, I don’t know what it is. In the cool night air, the soup, served in a large bowl, cooled a little too quickly. It would have been better to serve it in a hotpot (moh ron), but then the shrimp might be overcooked if you let it sit too long. Perhaps a tea candle would work.
The two yum came together on the same plate; the flavors were well balanced. “What is this?” asked my aunt, pointing to the coconut shoots which are white slivers of tender crunchiness, mixed in with cashews, and other usual suspects you find in a yum. Since my culinary Cantonese is very limited when it comes to describing non-Cantonese food, I said “Well, you know, if you have a baby coconut plant that’s just beginning to grow and the stems are just coming out of the ground, well that’s what this is.”
“Oh, yeh miu!” Yeh means coconut.
“Say that again, the second word.”
Flash. “Oh the miu in “Miu Kiu Wai (苗僑偉)” I exclaimed. He’s a Hong Kong actor who was prominent in the 80’s, also known as Michael Miu. Come to think of it, he became famous about the time of my first visit to Baan Suan.
“You know who Miu Kiu Wai is?” My aunt was mockingly impressed.
I vaguely recalled seeing his name in print in tabloid magazines. Miu is rather rare for a last name. But I remembered it incorporated the radical for grass on top, and paddy on the bottom. Actually it made sense, grass coming out from the paddy beneath it would be ‘shoots’. Agricultural etymology.
The steamed rice came in green banana leaf cones (like they did at Heuan Pen), like an up-ended Cornetto ice cream. I guess it’s a Lanna/northern Thai thing.
The bbq ribs were pretty tasty, but plain jane, in presentation when compared to the drama of the hanging pork (moo khwaen).
Picture a suspended cast iron bell the size of softball, with a profusion of little nails protruding like vicious thorns. It could have been a medieval torture device for the jing joks my cousin loathed. The bell is preheated, and chunks of pork are spiked on those nails. The waiter pours a little brandy over it, flicks his lighter and the meat is flambéed with a flourish. Underneath the bell is pile of French fries, although there really aren’t any juices for the fries to soak up (and get soggy from). (The waitress told me later that the bell concept was not Thai, but imported.)
To remove the pieces of pork from the bell, you use your fork and knife to pry it off from the nails. The pork was a little too lean and overcooked to the point of chewiness. It was pretty plain also: I don’t think it was marinated in much. (The BBQ ribs were better in that respect, they weren’t as dry.) The several different dipping sauces did help slightly: thousand island dressing; mayonnaise; ‘Café de Paris’ which is actually a garlic butter, and the only Thai one: jaeow. It’s usually like a murky black sour and spicy chipotle sauce (if you are familiar with Mexican food). This one was spicy and sour, but it didn’t taste like regular jaeow. Maybe it was Lanna style.
We took in our surroundings. The informal and spare layout of the pavilion seems well suited for anyone wanting to host large party in casually elegant manner. (It turns out that the place is designed by Chulathat Kitibutr, an architect who focuses on Lanna architecture. He also designed the reknowned Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, which we didn’t have a chance to visit). My cousin and I wondered out loud if we could persuade any of our younger nieces or nephews to hold their wedding here. Or failing that, perhaps he could come back with a client to use the location for a photo shoot!
The service was fairly attentive throughout the meal, even through ordering of dessert. Their house speciality was a mango granite with St. Emilion wine, but we ordered the buay kaew. I didn’t know what a buay kaew was exactly. It turned out to be red fruit, like a miniature plum with a textured skin and a single seed inside, like a hawthorn. It was sweet-sour and perfectly delicious, served with shaved ice and simple syrup.
Two hours had passed by so leisurely and agreeably that we’d hardly noticed it. But it was getting late, and time to leave before we could be turned into pumpkins. We walked to the hostess stand where we had come in and called out “Check please.” There was no response. It was as if the place had been abandoned, the staff melted into thin air. I think the thought crossed all our minds that we could simply walk out without paying! With due diligence we walked towards the back. On the kitchen porch, various black clad wait-staff were sleeping around a table, heads resting on elbows. One of them woke up with a start, and led us to the other side of the restaurant, past a quirky little Olde Curiosity Shoppe with dusty paintings. That’s where the cashier’s desk was tucked away.
The bill came out to a reasonable 1,500 baht (US $45) We hadn’t had any alcohol. The hanging pork was the most expensive dish at 500 baht. I had been a little apprehensive, since we had ordered a few of the daily specials, and I didn’t know what the prices were for those dishes.
One word of advice: Depending on your proclivities, you must check out the toilets . . . or avoid them completely. (They are located ‘downstairs’, in what would be the open space of the stilts of a traditional Thai house).
On the door of each stall facing you as you are conducting your business, there is a painting in traditional Thai style, of a man and a woman embracing. The woman is bare-chested, but that was not unusual back then, until Victorian prudishness was imported to Thailand. Scrutinizing the painting a little more, you realize that they are beyond a PG embrace; they are very erotically engaged. What looks like blue and white bike shorts on the man is actually an elaborately patterned tattoo, modesty in camouflage. I don’t know if my aunt noticed. I don’t want to know if my aunt noticed.
(I have to admit, I checked behind the doors of the other stalls in the ladies’ room, and they all had similar artwork. Since there was no one else around, I checked out the men’s bathroom too! Same same!)
I don’t know for sure if this incarnation of Baan Suan restaurant is a direct descendant of the one I went to when I was a ten-year old. The menu has definitely evolved since then, in its new location. The food is creative, more hit than miss. The surroundings are pleasant and tasteful, if somewhat a little eerie on a quiet weekday night. Seeing the place in daylight would be nice. And if you have kids, you might have them use the toilet before you get to the restaurant.
Baan Suan Restaurant, 25 Moo 3, San Phi Sua, Chiang Mai
Telephone 053 854 169