Memorable food in unexpected locations -- this is something that Thailand seems to specialize in. Stalls by the side of the highway or tucked in the bowels of a market, dull looking shops with dour-faced staff, restaurants that appear to entertain rarely more than a table of customers at a time -- here, all of these are potential sources of darned good dining.
Case in point: Khao Soi Mae Jam Bpaa, an out-of-the-way (but not unreachable, from the city) spot off Chiang Mai's Mahidon Road.
We stopped here nine days ago on the way out of town with friends. The taxi driver turned off an ugly stretch of road at an unattractive yellowish concrete building into a vast, dusty parking lot. We got out of the car, squinted in the sun. Our friend pointed and there it was, as if conjured out of nothing -- a squat little wooden restaurant hunkered in a patch of greenery beside a trickle of a klong.
It's a pleasant place to while away an hour or so. The decor is classic Thai country-casual: open-air, lots of timber, bench and stool seating around family- sized wooden tables. Across the street, a sundries store but not much else. A little oasis of deliciousness in an unlikely location -- but on a Sunday around noon nearly every table was occupied.
The specialty here -- no surprise -- is Chiang Mai's mascot dish khao soi (read about the dish's history, or one version of it, in this post from last year). I chose chicken, and it rivals the version served at my favorite spot in the city, Lamduan Khao Soi. Mae Jam Bpaa's soup boasts the perfect ratio of meat broth to coconut milk; it's satisfyingly rich but not enough so to leave you wanting.
Each sip of soup is a firecracker burst of chili heat soothed by sweet coconut milk augmented with warm dry spices -- cinammon and star anise especially. Together the ingredients set a fine stage for the squeeze of lime, tart pickled mustard, and sliced shallots you'll add from your condiment dish.
In addition to chicken, the restaurant serves pork and fish khao soi as well. Purists will no doubt label the latter blasphemy, but it's wonderful: meaty fillets swimming with noodles in a piscene coconuty-spicy soup that's rather lighter, but no less satisfying, than that served with the meat versions.
Come to Mae Jam Bpaa not for a snack but for a meal (and preferably with friends) because the place does much more than khao soi. There's somtam (green papaya salad) which, if you order it with crab (bpuu), arrives crowned with a gorgeous cooked-to-order crustacean.
I wasn't up to tackling the claws but the meat was deemed sweet and fresh by our fellow eaters. The salad itself was -- in the northern (as opposed to Isaan) style -- spicy and salty, a welcome counterpoint to our opulently soothing coconut milk-based mains.
Also recommended: yam khaw muu, or pork neck 'salad', a medley of pounded tomato and snake beans tossed with sliced shallots, phak kanaa (gailan or Chinese broccoli) leaves, and fatty crackly-skinned strips of grilled pork neck in a tart, fish saucey dressing. The sprinkling of crisp-fried tiny fish on top of the dish is a nice touch, and a wisp of shallot, a strip of fire-kissed pork, and a crispy fish together make for an inspired mouthful.
Mae Jam Bpaa is probably 15 or 20 minutes by tuk-tuk from Wat Ket (across the footbridge from Warorot Market) -- well worth the effort if you're a serious khao soi connoisseur.
Khao Soi Mae Jam Bpaa, Mahidon Road near intersection with Nong Hoi Road. There's a big parking lot behind Waree Chiang Mai School -- the restaurant is right across the small road. Daytime only.