That's how people in Chiang Rai kept describing Laap Sanaam Keelaa to me. They were right: it's indeed popular and the parking lot was full every time I stopped by. But for whatever reason, nobody mentioned how absolutely delicious the food was.
Perhaps this was because for the people of Chiang Rai, Laap Sanaam Keelaa is really nothing special. On the surface, it's your typical northern Thai-style laap shack: open-air, tin roof, dirt floor, an almost unanimously meaty menu, and on one visit, a mischievous goat wandering through the restaurant. Unassuming, humble and consistent, I suppose that it's the kind of place that locals have been eating at for so long they gradually round down their impressions of the restaurant to "good" or in this case, "busy".
But the food blew me away, and after several visits, I'd gladly cite Laap Sanaam Keelaa as one of my favourite restaurants serving northern-style meat dishes.
On my first visit, I ordered laap muu suk (ลาบหมูสุก), northern Thai-style pork laap (pictured at the top of this post). Here, the dish is served with just barely-cooked meat (most diners appeared to opt for the raw version) and relatively little blood and offal, but quite a bit of chili and dried spice heat, not to mention an exceedingly generous garnish of crispy deep fried garlic and shallots. A immensely satisfying, balanced take on the dish.
The fish version, consumed on another visit, was pretty similar:
although drier, and with a bit more dried spice punch, ostensibly, by Thai culinary reckoning, to cover up any unpleasant fishy smells.
An order of laap arrives with an almost comically large platter of herbs and vegetables:
Now I've eaten northern-style laap a lot, and at this point am familiar with quite a few of the herby sides, but this had me stumped. There were at least eight different kinds of herbs here -- some sweet, some bitter/sweet, some bitter/bitter, some spicy/bitter -- only half of which I could identify by name.
On my first visit I also ordered kaeng om neua (แกงอ่อมเนื้อ), a laap shack staple of beef offal served in a meaty stew-like broth:
The dish was deliciously rich and spicy, and mixed in among the unidentifiable organs were some tender, almost corned beef-like, joints of beef.
Another visit saw an order of neua neung (เน้ือนึ่ง), beef steamed over herbs and served with a dry, spicy dip made from galangal:
The beef was relatively tender, and the dip was spicy, smokey and garlicky, and unusually, included thin strips of citrusy fragrant Kaffir lime leaf.
On my final visit, and in an effort to try something non-meat-based, I ordered a salad of shredded mango:
I should have known better; the salad was mediocre -- limp and far too sweet.
Lesson learned: only order meat. And when seeking out restaurants in the future, look for lots of cars.
Laap Sanaam Keelaa 123 Muu 22, Th Naa Sanaam Keelaa, Chiang Rai 087 173 2498 10am-9pm
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