How to get to Thailand from Kota Baru? Take the Yahya Petra bridge across the Kelantan River, follow the 12 o'clocks off a couple of roundabouts, and turn down a side road that quickly turns narrower than a single car width, dangerously pot-holed, and hemmed in by jungle on all sides. Soon you'll think you were in Malaysia's neighbor to the north: big-eared, ridge-backed dogs loll on shady patches of grass, a radio blares Thai pop, sun glints off the mirrored mosaic pieces adorning a wat. On route to the Thai temple you've passed Ban Kok and Pu Ket; just up the road is Cheng Mai. This is Kelantan's prime Thai restaurant row.
On our third night in Kota Baru, we made the journey to Wakuf Baru, in Tumpat District, for true-taste Thai food. Having lived for a period in Bangkok (admittedly, an all too short one), Dave and I are pretty picky about our Thai treats. Disappointing versions in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore have left us wary of any food claiming to be Thai dished up outside the country's borders. It seemed likely though that if good stuff were being dished up outside of Thailand it would probably be by Chinese Thais living less than two hours from the Malaysian-Thai border.
On a rainy night (they were nearly all rainy, in Kota Baru) Cheng Mai Restoran is the by far the most crowded of the bunch (which also includes Sawasdee, on the main road) even though it is also the most difficult to get to. Whole Chinese-Thai families and extended families, and groups of beer-guzzling men, occupy huge round tables. Which may be one reason the two of us are virtually ignored for about 10 minutes after we arrive. Eventually a waitress saunters over to our table with pad and pencil. A few words of the little Thai I retain elicit a grin and soon enough we are ordering way to much food (hey, that's our style): fish deep-fried and topped with chili sauce, squid salad, chicken in pandan leaves, BBQ'd pork, and stir-fried morning glory.
The fish is nothing less than a work of art, slashed vertically to ensure even cooking and expertly fried with a deliciously crispy layer that extends nearly half an inch deep into its flesh. Topped with a "salad" of thinly sliced lemongrass, chili, shallots, and scallions, slivered kaffir lime leaves, and chopped coriander that's been tossed with fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and tamarind, it's hot and cool at the same time, refreshing and spicy all at once. We asked for it phet phet (extra spicy) and Cheng Mai delivered. To me, the true mark of the dish's authenticity is that sour overwhelms sweet. This is puckeringly good stuff.
Squid salad arrives warm, and it's the classic version: tender squid rings and the odd tentacle cluster or two, chinese celery, shallot, coriander, chilies -- fish sauce-y and aggressively limey, laid out on a couple of lettuce leaves. Wonderful. The waitress has really taken our pleas for spiciness to heart; a few bites of this put me out of commission for a good five minutes, until white rice and cold water can tame the flame on my tongue.
I wish I could share an image of Cheng Mai's memorable grilled pork, notable for its incredible moistness and smoky char mixed with black pepper zing. Served with cucumber wedges, scallion stems, and coriander sprigs, it's not tongue-numbingly spicy, just delightfully zippy.
Ditto the chicken in pandan leaves. Unlike versions I've sampled in Thailand these are not boneless bite-sized pieces of chicken, but big, knobby whole chicken thighs about half the size of my fist, wrapped generously in pandan leaves. The whole package is deep-fried, producing a moist bird touched but not overwhelmed by oil, deeply flavored with a slightly sweet marinade.
Finally, what I would consider the ultimate test of any restaurant claiming to produce "real" Thai food: pak beung fai daeng, or morning glory (water spinach) stir-fried with chilies, garlic, yellow bean sauce, and fish sauce.
These digital camera pictures certainly aren't the best, but I think the photo above shows that Cheng Mai really gets this dish right. Leaves are wilted, stems are still a bit crispy. Garlic is in chunks. Chilies are copious (and darn hot, too!). Sauce is thin, not gloppy. What you can't tell from the picture is that the seasoning is spot-on, just salty enough, just fishy enough, just yellow beany enough. One of my favorites greens dishes of 2005.
Cheng Mai Restoran, Wakuf Baru. From Kota Baru, take the Jambatan Sultan Yahya Petra Bridge, and the 12 o'clock roads from both roundabouts. At the end of the road take a right and then, perhaps 100 meters later, a left at the sign for Pu Ket Restoran (there's also a sign for a wat, in English and Thai). Keep on that road as it twists and turns, past the wat, to the very end, where you'll find Cheng Mai. Closed for Chinese New Year's and major Thai holidays like Songkhran.