Thursday, December 10, 2009

Exotic Adventures (in the Land of the Free)

In Hawaii, a single person can really effect our culinary landscape.   We have so many celebrity chefs and restauranteurs from Alan Wong, to Chai, to Eddie Flores.   But when it comes to Thai food, the one name that pioneered the genre is Keo Sananikone.    Prior to his arrival, we really didn't have much of a Thai scene.  Then, in the early 80's, the Vietnamese and Thai restaruants started opening up.  But the difference is, there were many little mom & pop Vietnamese restaurants.   With Thai food, there was Keo, and everyone else who followed him.

Keo was the chef, and his sister Nancy was the businesswoman.   They had a dream.   They wanted to bequeath each of their children one restaurant.  This is a great inheritance, because unlike a lump sum of money or a house, this continously provides for financial security so long as the restaurant does well.  So they began a restaurant empire, that included Mekong, Mekong II, Keoni's, and of course, Keo's.   I still remember the first time I visited the original Keo's on Kapahulu Avenue.   I was immediately struck with how beautiful the restaurant was.   Around every corner was a gilded Thai statue.  At every table, there was a virtual waterfall of cascading orchids.   On every wall, a striking black and gold Thai relief.   And of course, the food was as beautiful, as exotic, and as delicious as its surroundings.  They also had a second location in Ward Center.   But both of these locations have closed, to open their current location in Waikiki.  Now, most locals would never go to Waikiki to eat, because of the traffic and inflated tourist prices, but for Keo's I would gladly make an exception.

Keo's food was based on the Sananikone family recipies.  Virtually every Thai restaurant in Hawaii, has tried to emulate (with varying degrees of success), their dishes.   Because of this, Thai cuisine in Hawaii is really different from Thai cuisine anywhere else in the country (or the world for that matter).   When I was on the mainland for grad school, around half of my friends were Thai exchange students, and for dinner, we would frequent a little place in Pomona called Sanamluang Cafe.   It was a small, joint that was open til the wee hours of the morning (perfect for a late dinner after a night class), and late at night we would pretty much have the run of the joint.  The restaurant was also a pretty dirty hole in the wall, and didn't have the beautiful decor and ambiance of Keo's.  It was more like a cheap, Chinatown like, greasy spoon which was perfect for college kids.     Their menu was also so different from everything that I was used to at home.   The dishes I had there like pad ka paow, rahd nah, and larb weren't things I would find at home.  On the other hand they didn't have many of the dishes that we would get at home, which were all based on Keo's sensuous recipes which are as elegant as they are mouth watering.   The case in point, is his signature dish, the Evil Jungle Prince.   Based off of his own blend of Panang curry, the prince is very spicy, with a brilliant combination of herbs and coconut milk, which marries perfectly with the beef and vegetables.  There is no way to describe how good this dish is, if you haven't tasted it.   Almost all Thai restaurants in Hawaii try to emulate it in some way, with variations on the name like "evil prince" or "evil shrimp" or something like that.  You find it all over in Hawaii, but no where else on the mainland, demonstrating just how much Keo influenced our Thai cuisine here.

Evil Shrimp at Chiang Mai
While Keo's is the definitive Thai cuisine in Hawaii, their location in Waikiki is a little prohibitive to locals.   Although I would gladly go there on a special occasion, I would prefer to remain outside for an everyday dinner.  Which leaves, the Mekongs or one of Keo's many emulators.   My favorite of these is a little Thai place right next to Old Stadium Park on King St. called Chiang Mai.   The restaurant is just as beautiful as Keo's, replacing the guilded statues with wooden ones and some of the orchids with dangling Christmas lights, and adding those triangular reclining Thai pillows.  It is named after a beautiful city in Thailand, which I can tell you first hand is one of the most beautiful places one Earth.   Whereas Bangkok is a ultra-smoggy, congested mess, which left me literally unable to breathe, Chiang Mai was lush and tropical, with exotic fruits like rambutan and the infamous, pungent durian everywhere.   I adored their night market, which was a bustling hub of activity filled with trinkets and street snacks.  I even got to take an elephant ride into the deep jungle there, which is a complety, truly Indiana Jones experience.   Somehow, visiting the restaurant in Moiliili recaptures some of that exotic adventure for me.

Green Papaya Salad at Chiang Mai
Like Keo's, you must start out with the green papaya salad at Chiang Mai.   Green papaya, isn't anything like it's ripe counterpart.  It is tart, but contrasted with a sweet dressing.   It's crunchy as an apple.  But most of all it's perhaps one of the most refreshing salads in the world.   The tanginess just opens your appetite for the rest of the meal.

Pad Thai at Chiang Mai
Also like Keo's, or any other Thai restaurant for that matter, having the pad thai noodles, is an absolute must.   I remember when I first tried this dish in the real Chiang Mai.   We were visiting a jewelry factory (or something like that), and while my mom was shopping, our tour guide was out back having his own lunch, bought from a little vendor who catered to the factory workers.   Curious, and frankly bored with shopping, I wandered around back to hang out with him.   He was planning on taking us to some fancy hotel for lunch, but I was curious as to what he was eating, so he ordered me up a bowl.   The noodles were unlike anything I had ever tasted.  They had a totally different texture from Chinese, or Japanese, or Italian noodles.  They were a bit chewier and slightly stickier than Chinese look fun.  The sauce had a peanuty, satay kind of taste.   I was enthralled, and my family eschewed the hotel lunch entirely, for this common street food.   Every time, I have a plate of pad thai from Keo's or Chiang Mai, I'm brought back to that little street vendor, feeding the workers like a thai lunchwagon.

Pineapple Fried Rice at Chiang Mai
Something that Keo's doesn't have, which I really adore at Chiang Mai is their pineapple fried rice.   I have been very vocal about how I dislike cooked pineapple, and how anything on the mainland called "Hawaiian" because it's got pineapple in it, instantly throws up alarms.   But the pineapple in this fried rice, imbues so much aroma to the rice, it elevates it to a whole other level.  It isn't simply a garnish, but the basis of the blend of herbs. It also blends so well with the chicken flavor, contrasting sweet with savory.  It is such a harmonious dish, and the pineapple shell presentation is so beautiful and exotic.

Yellow Curry at Chiang Mai
Of course you can't talk about Thai food without talking about curry.   They've got 3 basic types, a red curry, a green curry, and a yellow curry, each with a different blend of spices with very different flavors.  I personally like the green curry the best, but my dad likes the yellow curry so we always get that for him.   He's perfectly happy with a basket of sticky rice (mochi rice that is so sticky you can pull off cohesive pieces and dip in your curry), and a bowl of yellow curry to pour over the rice, and none of the other dishes will matter.  The spices are just brilliant over the coconut milk background. 

Soft-Shell Crab in Panang Curry at Chiang Mai
My absolute favorite dish at Chiang Mai however, is another dish you can't get at Keo's.   In fact, it's not even on their menu, but seems to have permanent residence on their list of specials.   It is their awesome softshell crab in panang curry.   I love softshell crab.   But most places tend to deep fry softshell crab (like in your spider roll sushi), so it loses some of its crab flavor, and tastes fried (like everything else that is deep fried).   My favorite place for sauteed softshell crab was in New Orleans, in a little restaurant across the street from the French Market, simply called the French Market Restaurant.   It's instantly recognizable by the enormous army pot of crawfish boiling in the window, luring in customers with its enticing scent of cajun spices and savory crawfish.  They made the softshell crab crispy, but with a creamy remoulade sauce that perfectly blends with the crab roux in the shell. It was awesome.  But the softshell crab at Chiang Mai is just as good if not better.   Its difficult to compare, as one is a creamy French sauce, while the other is a spicy Thai curry.   But they both bring out the strong crab flavor, rather than burying it deep fried batter.   The softshell crab at Chiang Mai however, has the advantage of very crisp, very green, peas and lettuce and Chinese parsley, all of which sit there and absorb the curry and the crab taste.   It is a truly awesome dish, and I have had it no where else in the world.

Eating Thai food is always a sensual and exotic adventure, and thanks to places like Keo's and Chiang Mai, we have a uniquely local style and flavor.   It is a fantastic addition to our alluring, tropical mystique.

1 comment:

  1. you got the pad thai story wrong. we were at a jade factory and I was tired/cranky/hot/hungry and 8 years old. so i was whining, and dad saw the factory workers making their own lunch in the back over a big wok. so he asked the factory worker if he could have a plate for his fussy daughter. it was really good, so dad got more.