My day job is writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet. I enjoy what I do, but writing about holiday destinations can, at times, feel a bit frivolous. It can also be rather frustrating.
Specifically, if you’re as interested in local food as I am, slogging through the eating selections of Thailand’s more popular tourist destinations can be a pretty discouraging experience. Pai, in Mae Hong Son, northern Thailand, is a good example of this. Despite being located in a province that’s home to a very unique and delicious cuisine, the restaurants in town serve very few local dishes, instead proffering a bland melange meant to appeal to food-wary western backpackers and urban middle class Thais alike. In doing research for the current edition of Lonely Planet Thailand, I subjected myself to bad burgers, poor pastries, sub-par Vietnamese, heavy-handed (and overpriced) southern Thai and bland central Thai, among other things. I eventually found a couple local places serving local dishes, but the bulk of Pai’s food had little or nothing to do with Mae Hong Son or northern Thailand.
In the end, the only genuinely recommendable restaurant that stood out in my mind was Larp Khom Huay Poo, a place just outside town serving excellent northern-style laap and other largely meaty, local dishes. At the time, I was fully aware that it’s not the type of place that is going to appeal to everybody (offal and blood feature in just about every dish, and there’s no English-language menu). But partially out of frustration, and partially out of a desire to encourage people to try local food (not to mention the fact that it’s a very good restaurant), I decided to give it top billing in my writeup, sticking it with an ‘Our Choice’ icon and describing it as “…the best meal in Pai.”
Fast-forward a year and I’m back in Pai, investigating new places, but really I’m just waiting for the chance to eat at Larp Khom Huay Poo. Two days and several mediocre meals later (why must all meals in Pai come served with ‘French fried’?), I can’t stand it any longer and decide to go to the restaurant. Upon arriving, I am struck by a new sign, gloriously illuminated (with glowing Coke logo) and sporting Roman script. Inside, the dining room has been upgraded and re-arranged, leaving it much more open and approachable than previously. And perhaps most conspicuously, there is a large, English-language menu posted on the wall. I can’t imagine that the descriptions, derived from heavy-handed transliterations such as ‘yang room’ (actually yaang ruam: mixed grilled meat) and ‘rince’ (pork rinds), would be of too much help for foreign diners, but at least there are pictures to fall back on.
Reassuringly, I was greeted by the same friendly owner, who recognised me from my many previous visits, but I remained a bit bewildered by and sceptical of the changes. Could I have gentrified or perhaps even spoiled a good restaurant by recommending it? While I was thinking about this, a young, backpackery, European couple arrived. “We read about this place in the Lonely Planet,” they informed us. I was suddenly face to face with the cumulative effect of what I’d done: foreign tourists were actually, literally eating at this local laap shack because of my recommendation, and this appears to have had a significant impact on the restaurant.
I was beginning to reconsider my original intentions, but any fears I held vanished as soon as dinner arrived. For me at least, Larp Khom Huay Poo continues to serve what are the archetypal versions of the northern-style laap and kaeng om (both pictured at the top of this post). The former is rich, fragrant and spicy, and the latter is meaty, herbal, thick and warming. Coupled with sticky rice, pork rinds, bitter greens and a bottle of Singha, it was easily one of the most delicious and satisfying meals I’ve ever eaten.
Before leaving, I asked the owner if she’d noticed more foreign diners over the last year. She said that she had — “every day” — and that she’d noticed many of them carrying the same book. I told her that I was the one who wrote the listing, and asked if she was comfortable with being included. “Of course,” she glowed, “I like foreign customers, they’re much easier to deal with than Thais,” referring to visitors from Chiang Mai and Bangkok, who according to her, sometimes sent back food that they weren’t familiar with. She explained that business had been good, and that she’d used the profits to improve the restaurant. She was obviously happy with the situation, and asked if I had any suggestions for her. I thought for a second, and requested that she not change her dishes to suit foreign diners; reducing the chili heat a bit was OK, I offered, but I urged her not to compromise her recipes or ingredients.
Her friend — incidentally, the man who’d translated the menu into English — thanked me for supporting the restaurant, and generously paid for my meal, and I left Larp Khom Huay Poo feeling honoured, satisfied, and perhaps most importantly, distinctly un-frivolous.