I have talked often of my love for very spicy food. I like to eat things so chili-hot that my eyes water and I get a sort of sparkly endorphin rush. I don’t like heat for heat’s sake, though, so the dish itself has to be delicious and well made, and the chilies need to enhance rather than obscure the flavors within. You aren’t going to see me judging jalapeno eating contests any time soon. I’d much rather be slurping up Thai noodles and curries at Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is tucked away in a plain Jane strip mall on a careworn part of South Hillside. Don’t let the exterior deter you, for you will be rewarded with some of the best Thai cooking in Wichita once you step inside. I have a hard time not ordering Pad Thai every time I go. It is perfectly seasoned, not too sweet, with springy rice noodles, crushed peanuts, and crunchy mung bean sprouts. The dish is also flavored with the essence of the hot wok it is cooked in (or “wok hei”, as it is known), that lends a caramelized, smoky note. The green and red curries are flavorful, rich with coconut milk and herbs, and can be ordered as incendiary as you like. All of the fried food I have ever had at Chiang Mai was crisp and greaseless. The spring rolls are perfectly fried and full of bits of vegetables and meat, and the fresh rice paper rolls are stuffed with fresh ingredients. Vegetarians: be aware that fish sauce is used in nearly everything, even if no meat is listed.
If you go for lunch, they offer a generous combination plate that includes soup, whatever entrée you like, with your choice of meat (or none, at all), and a funny little marvelous dessert of fried dough puffs with condensed milk syrup. Everything is served on classic blue and white porcelain plates. The décor is slightly off and very pink, but who cares when the food is this good? The service is friendly, although some things can be lost in translation. Be warned: “Thai Hot” is really hot. Not just average hot, but hallucination-type hot. Take that into account when you are asked.