CHIENG MAI THAI CUISINE (147 Baldwin, at Spadina, 416-813-0550) Pint-sized eatery on the fringe of Kensington offers well-prepared and moderately spiced Thai-style dishes. Cheap lunch deals, too. Complete meals for $20 per person ($10 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and an iced Thai coffee. Open daily 10:30 am to midnight. Unlicensed. Cash only. Five steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Toronto just can't get enough Thai. While some food fads grow cold, the fiery cuisine of Southeast Asia continues to heat up. It feels like not a week goes by without yet another pad thai parlour opening somewhere in the GTA.A reader's tip sends me to the latest Bangkok boite. A very modest hole in the wall located where Chinatown collides with Kensington, Chieng Mai is already attracting chow hounds. And while most of its lineup is far from incendiary, it can still pack an unexpected wallop.
Begin with a daily lunch special of lemon chicken soup ($5.95) to experience the full effect. A fabulous, mouth-puckering, tamarind-laced broth thick with chicken goes off in several directions -- first, tart citrus teases the tongue, then chili oil and ground roasted red pepper flakes kick in and clear the sinuses. Adding slippery contrast to this intense soup, slurpable linguine-like rice stick noodles are garnished with crunchy bean sprouts, slivered scallion and crushed peanut. Think of it as faux pho.
Thai cold spring rolls ($4.95), unusually tasty rice paper and leaf lettuce wraps, come stuffed with mint leaves, crisp julienned carrot, cuke and red pepper, bits of scrambled egg and deep-fried tofu and cut on the diagonal à la Martha Stewart. Dunk them in a deceptive dip depth-charged with chilies. Less successful starters -- a pair of deep-fried vegetarian spring rolls and skewers of turmeric-tinted tofu satay (both $3.95) -- simply suffice.
Despite its resemblance to the bastardized Chinese dish named for the fictitious General Tso, addictive chicken with peanut sauce ($8.95) combines breaded chicken with stir-fried mango, pineapple, tomato, bell peppers and cucumber. It's so wrong, but it works.
Everything's right about curry pad thai ($8.95), a tangy Shanghai-style take on the culinary cliché that includes cauliflower, broccoli, peppers, pressed tofu, napa cabbage and wide wheat noodles, all in a mild curried gravy garnished with more peanut and coriander leaf.
Menu-advertised as only for the daring! -- that's us, right? -- Nua Phad Prik fails to deliver the goods. This meek beef stir-fry has little of the promised heat. But spicy beef salad (both $8.95) sees the same wimpy steak mix it up with firebrand Thai chilies, a splash of salty nam pla, a squeeze of orange, raw red onion rings and a toss of chopped garlic.