From Chiang Mai, I decided to go back home the long way: over to Chiang Rai, then back to Bangkok along Thailand's length of the Mekong River. The vast majority of this trip took place in isaan, Thailand's rural northeast, which food-wise, normally inspires thoughts of sticky rice, som tam and grilled chicken. However the residents of the Mekong region love their Vietnamese food. I had heard this before, but was not prepared for just how completely ubiquitous and utterly delicious Vietnamese food was. In Nakhorn Phnom, for example, there were three Vietnamese restaurants within walking distance of each other, but not a sticky rice steamer or mortar and pestle to be seen. I'm going to profile some of these dishes and restaurants in the next couple blogs, beginning with this amazing restaurant in Nong Khai.
Mae Ut told me her mother was originally from Hanoi. She learned her recipes from her when she was young, and has making them in the same location for more than 40 years:
Her son, pictured above, lends a hand, and they're both extremely kind and enthusiastic about their food, taking the time to describe to me the dishes I wasn't familiar with. This didn't take a great deal of time, as Mae Ut only makes about four different things. Naturally I decided to have three of them.
I started with khanom paak mor (pictured at the top of this post), known elsewhere in Thailand as khaao kriap paak mor, and in its country of origin as bánh cuốn. It's a freshly-steamed noodle, filled with a ground pork mixture, topped with deep-fried crispy shallots and served with sides of muu yor, a Vietnamese-style pork sausage, a sweet/sour dipping sauce, and a vast plate of fresh veggies and herbs. This dish is sometimes available at Vietnamese restaurants in Bangkok, but Mae Ut's version was heads and shoulders above anything I've ever had here, and might even be tastier than the bánh cuốn I had in Hanoi. The noodle was soft and almost egg-like, and the filling was deliciously savoury and peppery. The muu yor was among the better I've had, and the dipping sauce was balanced, unlike versions in Bangkok which tend to be sweet, or versions in Hanoi, which I often found varyingly too sweet or too sour. My only complaint would be Mae Ut's herbs, which although diverse, weren't as fresh as they could possibly be.
I followed this with deep-fried spring rolls, known in this part of Thailand as miang thot:
Unlike pawpia, typical Thai spring rolls, miang thot wrappers are clear and shatteringly crispy, and the ground pork and veggie filling nearly spicy from the copious white pepper, and if I'm not mistaken, a very slight cumin flavour. The dipping sauce for this dish was slightly different than that of the previous dish and included ground peanuts, but was still balanced and delicious.
My final dish, ban baew (from, I believe, the Vietnamese bánh bèo), was the most unusual:
It took thick, coin-sized rounds of noodle and topped them with pork floss, crumbled pork rinds, crispy deep-fried shallots, and a sweet/sour dipping sauce, slightly different than the one accompanying the other dishes. I'm not a big fan of the sweet flavour of pork floss, so this was my least favourite dish.
Friendly proprietors, simple but excellent food and great old-school atmosphere; hands down one of the best meals I've had in Thailand in a long time. Unfortunately I'll probably never be able to eat Vietnamese in Bangkok again...
Mae Ut (Google Maps link) Th Meechai, Nong Khai 042 461 04