We pride ourselves in sniffing out great restaurants wherever we land. But Sorn Chai is one that we would never have found without a little help from a local friend.
It's not as if this little 4-table spot is hidden. Quite the contrary, in fact -- it sits on one of the city's most tourist-traversed streets, almost directly opposite Tha Phae Gate, the crumbling city wall's eastern entrance. Over the years we've probably walked or driven by the place a hundred or so times.
But, like another great little hard-to-miss spot on the same prominent street, Sorn Chai doesn't call attention to itself. It sits next to a drug store (owned by the family that runs the restaurant) and the signage above the shop is in Thai (where it reads 'Sorn Jan/Chan'; the English-language sign stuck to the display case reads 'Sorn Chai'; thanks Leela and W for the heads up). Laid out on a table out front are fixings for kanom jeen nam ngiaow and som tam, as well as fresh-squeezed orange juice in plastic bottles, nestled in a tub of ice. A limited range of northern Thai dishes are almost hidden from passerby in a larger display case set perpendicular to the shop's old wooden counter. just inside its entrance.
During our several meals at Sorn Chai we watched tourists stop and examine, and sometimes buy, the orange juice. But not a one gave more than a passing glance to that display case. The two sisters running the shop don't engage in the hard sell, or the soft sell, or any sell at all.
One day I'll write a post about how setting aside the mistaken notion that to stay healthy while traveling one should avoid any dish left to sit out is as liberating, in a foodie sense, as embracing the unfamiliar at breakfast time.
But for now, let me leave it at this: Yes, it's room temperature. Get over it.
Sorn Chai's dishes are prepared in the late morning and served till they close at 9pm. If they run out of something they whip up a new batch (unless it's quite late in the day). The dishes are kept in that closed glass case out front. (If you'd like they can be re-heated in a microwave, and the dishes don't suffer for it. So if this sort of thing concerns you do request a zap for your food.)
This is home cooking, quite literally. The family lives above its restaurant and drug store. The kitchen is directly behind both.
We came -- and were referred -- for our favorite northern dish, laab khua. This dish (khua refers to a method of cooking with little oil over low-to-medium heat, the opposite of pad or stir-frying) has little in common with its Isan cohort other than chopped meat. It has no lime juice, no nutty tasting ground toasted rice. Instead of fresh chilies it incorporates dried ones, which are bashed together with grilled garlic and shallots and spices more often associated with Indian than Thai food and then khua-ed into a brick red, smoky paste.
Isan-style laab jabs you between the eyes with its sharp, bright limey spiciness. A good northern laab khua draws you in with those warm spices and layers of flavor, then slowly builds to a satisfying crescendo of smoky heat taken a level higher by the tingle of northern Thai prickly ash.
(We've an excellent -- if I do say so myself -- laab khua recipe for you here.)
Sorn Chai's laab khua muu (pork) is all that. Bits of offal add only richness that balances the heady mixture of spices; there's no gutty funk here. The chili heat is subtle, until it's not. It's perfect eaten with a little knob of sticky rice and chased with a fresh mint leaf.
Other excellent eats here include the nam prik ong, Chiang Mai's signature tomato and pork-based dip. Nam prik ong is reminiscent of Bolognese ragu, and it's pretty difficult not to fall in love with this dish. Sorn Chai's is thick and porky, a touch sweet, and a little spicy. It would be wonderful over noodles but we enjoyed it dipped up with cucumber slices and sticky rice.
The som tam is good as well -- order som tam tai if you don't want fermented crab or bplaa raa pounded into your papaya -- but if green mangoes are in evidence on that front table order the fabulously sweet-sour-hot as hell dtam som mamuang with peanuts instead.
Sorn Chai, 23 Kochasarn Road (opposite Tha Phae Gate). Open till 9pm. Dishes start trickling out of the kitchen around 11am but the full array sometimes isn't available till 1pm or 130. Less than U$5 for two people.