Eating at Chiang Mai Diner: Modern Thai Food in a Pretty Restaurant Plays Things Safe

By on Thursday, June 15th, 2023 at 4:28 pm

Thai entrees at Chiang Mai Diner

Brooklyn is suddenly awash with restaurants serving Thai cuisine. I recently ate dinner at one of the newest ones to open, Chiang Mai Diner. It was fun, tasty, but could have tried taking more risks.

The Thai population in America has grown rapidly during the last fifteen years. The number of Thai restaurants has grown faster. Mark Padoongpatt, author of Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America, explains that this isn’t exactly a coincidence in an interview at the Splendid Table. Since the 2000s, the Thai government has been involved in training chefs and sending them abroad as an economic development program.

Padoongpatt’s book looks at Thai cuisine in America since the 1980s. While there has been a more recent surge in restaurants, Thai immigration to the United States can be closely traced to the Cold War era when the U.S. military arrived in Thailand creating an intermix of culinary ideas, and migration from Thailand to the West Coast, especially in Los Angeles.

Over at Food & Wine, Alexandra Domrongchai writes how the rapid expansion of Thai cuisine has often happened without consideration to Thai identity. The government program has created more than 10,000 restaurants around the world, but created a kind of standardization that detaches the food from the place, and ignores the connections to people.

Pad thai, rice noodles, and curry dishes have long been a mainstay of Thai American cuisine. These are the dishes Americans have come to expect with restaurants. But like many immigrant foods, Thai cuisine is experiencing a revival introducing new dishes and flavors.

This shift isn’t a new phenomenon. Italian food went through this shift beginning in the 1980s with “northern” and “authentic”. Likewise, keyword indicators like “authentic” and “street foods” have become popular delineators. For Thai American food, that means offering dishes other than items like Pad Thai.

Earlier this year, Eater published a list of 25 Thai restaurants. Many new locations didn’t make the cut, including the recently opened Forever Thai or our neighbor, Hungry Bowl. Late last month I noticed a new restaurant coming to Flushing Avenue, Chiang Mai Diner. With last minute baby-sitting arranged from our in-laws, we decided to check out the newest Thai restaurant.

Thai entrees at Chiang Mai Diner

Chiang Mai Diner occupies a large corner spot at the crossroads of Bushwick and East Williamsburg at the edge of an unpleasant section of Flushing Ave where warehouses and industrial buildings line the street. It’s a few blocks from Roberta’s, the Neapolitan pizzeria that helped transform the industrial area around Morgan Avenue, and Eyval, the hot Iranian restaurant that’s impossible to get into (We will get there eventually).

The restaurant had a soft open about two weeks ago. Since then it’s fully opened with a liquor license. It was surprisingly busy on a Wednesday night, but not so much to feel crowded. We were seated right away in a corner by the bar.

Thai entrees at Chiang Mai Diner

The interior is bright and colorful with many plants and neon lights. It felt festival, fun, like we were about to go to a disco. The decor is really running with what seems like the new Brooklyn aesthetic, lighter, more colorful, and organic – places like Nowadays or Carthage Must Be Destroyed. The dark industrial chic with exposed bricks, pipes-as-furniture, and heavy, reclaimed wood is well on its way out.

Cocktails as  at Chiang Mai

We started with cocktails. They had a beautiful presentation. The glassware was great too and the colors of the drinks a pretty shade. The citrus vodka drink I had was a lot like a hard lemonade. And that was sort of the problem.

They were fine, the sort of gourmet cocktail you would expect in Brooklyn but not all that adventurous. There was no new flavors, just a complicated combination of ingredients to get to essentially a slightly less sweet Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I realize not every restaurant can offer the equivalent of the Mission Chinese Phil Khallins, but they could try.

The menu was big. We only had one between us, which slowed down the whole examination of it. The more interesting menu items were in the first two sections, Chef Signature and Chef Recommended. I’m not entirely sure why they were divided this way. Shouldn’t the chef recommend his signature dishes? There was also a section for Side Street Noodle and rice dishes, another for soups, and finally, the classic Thai menu with curry and Pad Thai.

Appetizer platter at Chiang Mai

We ordered an appetizer platter which was perfect for two people since it had two of each item. These were playing it safe. But the curry puffs were standouts. Unlike the many other curry puffs I’ve eaten, I could taste and feel the individual vegetables in each puff. The flavor has complex, not just a singular note.

The crab Rangoon was also especially flavorful, but I do wonder why this Chinese American food invention is on the menu. It was popularized in the midcentury by American Tiki culture, although it’s origins are probably more tied to Chinese American restaurants in places like New York. Apparently, TikTok strikes again, and Crab Rangoon is making the rounds thanks to some viral videos. I don’t want to seem like I am complaining, the flavor was surprisingly delicate, and quite a good example.

Appetizer dumplings at Chiang Mai

One standout item was the Khao Kriab Pak Mor. The dumpling batter is made from tapioca starch and rice flour and had a translucent appearance. The sweet filling had a hint of peanut. All around this was a tasty little appetizer.

Beers at Chiang Mai

We ordered beers before the main entrees. The bottles were two light lagers, both I’ve had elsewhere and taste remarkably like any other rice beer.

The main dishes we ordered came at the same time, which is on some level refreshing given how many restaurants these days are into sharing meals, dropping dishes whenever the kitchen feels up to the task. We had the Gaeng Awm Nur, a dark beef stew with a beef shank and Gaeng Hoh, described as a dry curry over rice noodles.

Chiang Mai noodles

The noodles had a nice flavor, the vegetables were cooked and fermented well, but even though the menu warned these dishes were spicy, they were not. But if the chef was being cautious, he errored too far mild.

Chiang Mai

The Gaeng Awm Nur had a bit more spice and I did eat one of the dried chili peppers. However, the heat of the pepper somehow didn’t transfer to the sauce. Nevertheless it was a rich broth and went well with the sticky rice. The beef fell off the bone and the fat and sinew had been properly rendered, a mistake that does often plague cheaper meals.

Overall, the flavors on the dishes were good, but the spice level was made for midwestern white people. The portions, and the prices, were bigger than I wanted. There was no way to really enjoy more than one entree a person, and with only two of us, we had plenty to bring home when what we wanted was more variety. Maybe the trend of small plates has simply ruined my ability to order for myself, but it was a bit too much all around.

I would go back, I’m sure. I’m willing to concede two mains is simply not enough of a sample size, but there are plenty of more adventurous, more exciting places to eat, even in the neighborhood. I was hoping that adding “diner” to the name would indicate Chiang Mai might differentiate itself with more creativity, more out of the home kitchen feel. It doesn’t. It’s fine. It’s maybe even better than fine. I’m willing to forgive a newly opened restaurant for mistakes, but less so for making safe choices.

Chiang Mai Diner
Bushwick, Brooklyn
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