But it appears that all I needed was a bit of pointing in the right direction, and recently I encountered two restaurants that do dishes traditionally associated with Bangkok, but, well, better.
Phat kaphrao, minced meat fried with chili, garlic and the eponymous holy basil, is available on just about every street corner in Bangkok. It's always cheap, salty and spicy, but almost never exceptional; in recent years I'd begun exclusively making it at home rather than getting it outside.
Unless I'm in Chiang Mai, that is. Raan Kraphrao Samrap Khon Chorp Phet translates as "Phat Kaphrao Restaurant for People Who Like Spicy":
a slightly misleading name, as part of the deal here is that the customer chooses his preferred level of spiciness. I went for the pork version, medium spicy (shown at the top of this post). Unconventionally, the cooks here marinate the meat beforehand, and the resulting seasoning is spot-in. And I like that the holy basil (the eponymous kaphrao) is tossed into the wok at the very last second, so that it doesn't wilt and disappear. Yet most of all, I was impressed by the texture of the dish, which emerges from the wok dry and concentrated, almost crumbly. This is an attribute I'd recognised in better versions of the dish, and something I'd always tried to recreate when making it at home.
Phat kaphrao is the obvious highlight, but they also do a daily selection of Chinese-Thai-style soups -- perfect mild counterpoints to the spicy food -- and full menu of central Thai dishes, including a really excellent phat khee mao.
Also putting Bangkok to shame is Pathom. This place specialises in khao tom, rice -- steamed or boiled -- served with various Chinese-influenced sides.
The menu here spans no more than a dozen dishes, which over Pathom's 30 years in business, they appear to have absolutely perfected. This isn't sexy cuisine: the dishes aren't exactly handsome, and you'll be hard-pressed to find presentation or garnish, but you'll also be hard-pressed to find better versions of these staples just about anywhere in Thailand.
On my most recent visit (shown above), I had eggplant, Thai basil and fermented soybeans expertly flash-fried until just milliseconds away from turning to mush; crispy, meaty deep-fried pork belly; jap chai, Chinese-style braised vegetables, which here includes lots of cabbage and pork skin; a really excellent tao huu phalo, firm tofu braised in five spice broth, where here is served with dip that's a near-perfect intersection of spicy and tart; and of course rice. I generally opt for steamed rice, but most customers go for the eponymous boiled rice, which allegedly is given extra gluten by the addition of a bit of sticky rice
Everything is made in advance and staff are efficient, so you'll be eating in seconds.
And like Raan Kraphrao Samrap Khon Chorp Phet, in addition to better-than-in-Bangkok Bangkok-style food, the other linking element is a dining room that has all the charm of airplane hangar:
Bringing home the fact that, no matter where you're eating Thailand, good food often involves a degree of compromise.
Raan Kraphrao Samrap Khon Chorp Phet/ร้านกระเพรา (สำหรับคนชอบเผ็ด) Rte 1001, Chiang Mai 081 530 0380 11.30am-1pm & 4-9.30pm
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Pathom/ข้าวต้มปฐม Th Chang Phuak, Chiang Mai 7am-2pm
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