Chiang Mai's Thai Food Honors Chef Su Hill's Mom

Chef Su Hill keeps her mother's memory alive through her cooking at Chiang Mai.
Chef Su Hill keeps her mother's memory alive through her cooking at Chiang Mai. MABEL SUEN

Chiang Mai

8158 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-961-8889. Tues.-Thurs. noon-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. noon-9 p.m. (Closed Sunday and Monday.)
Sai oua $12 Gaeng hung lay $14 Gra dook moo $18• Carryout, indoor dining, outdoor dining

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Hill's sai oua shows the glaring difference between housemade and mass-produced sausage. Here, rustic cut hunks of pork are mixed with fresh herbs and searing spices, then stuffed into a snappy casing; each bite coats the tongue in lemongrass, chiles and sweet pork fat. It's electrifying.

Saikoo sai moo, or tapioca dumplings, are delightfully sticky balls of minced pork and peanut, spiked with just enough chili heat to make the mouth tingle, but not burn. Even the straightforward pho piah todd are dazzling. The flaky, cigar-shaped cheese rolls evoke crab Rangoon and are especially noteworthy thanks to the accompanying sauce, a delicate sweet and sour condiment deepened with funky fish sauce.

The above-noted small plates set the tone for an epic feast of entrée-sized dishes, like the gra dook moo. These tender baby back ribs are roasted with honey and garlic that forms a sweet and earthy glaze that tastes like a beautifully funky caramel. A beef massaman curry paired cubes of fork-tender meat with anise-scented sauce; slivers of cashews accented the dish, providing a pleasant crunch.

Hill may be unafraid to use spice, but her mild dishes prove that she does not have to rely on such firepower to coax deep flavor from her ingredients. A simple platter of crab and shrimp fried rice is warm, fluffy and scented throughout with the gentle flavor of shellfish. Chicken noodle soup is a bowl of pure comfort; the subtly sweet broth, tender chicken, noodles and bean sprouts make you feel as if you are being enveloped in a hug.

click to enlarge Gaeng hung lay with braised curry pork, garlic and ginger alongside nua sawaan, or marinated, flash fried coriander beef strips with sea salt and palm sugar. - MABEL SUEN
MABEL SUEN
Gaeng hung lay with braised curry pork, garlic and ginger alongside nua sawaan, or marinated, flash fried coriander beef strips with sea salt and palm sugar.

Though all the dishes are special to Hill, the gaeng hung lay stands out because of how much it reminds her of her mother. Using the exact same technique to create the exact same flavors, the dish pairs braised pork that is so tender you could spread it on bread with garlic and ginger-forward curry. The result is an absolute masterpiece that is the most stunning tribute Hill could ever make to her mother.

When you order that pork — or really anything at Chiang Mai — you are experiencing more than just outrageously good flavor. You feel as if you are witnessing an intimate conversation with a mother and daughter that, no matter what separates them, is just as real as if they were cooking alongside each other in the restaurant's kitchen. It's a powerful feeling that makes Chiang Mai more than just an exceptional restaurant; it makes it a meaningful experience that we are privileged to witness.

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About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the dining editor and restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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