Maenam and the Quest for “Authentic” Thai Cuisine in Vancouver

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Maenam Thai SausageMaenam Panaeng Beef
Maenam Donuts

left to right, top to bottom: Thai sausages, Panaeng Beef, Rice Donuts with Tea Ice Cream

I’ve gone to Maenam more than 4 times now, and over the months I’ve taken a special interest in its development: the seasonal changes in the menu, the growth of its operations, and especially the food reviews pouring in. I’m finding that the interest on Maenam tends to focus on one question: Is Maenam “authentic” Thai cuisine in Vancouver?

When Maenam opened in May 2009, there was already much hype surrounding it, partly because people wanted to compare it with its precursor, Gastropod. The rest of the buzz stemmed from the expectations that Menam will finally grant Vancouver’s Thai cuisine scene a degree of sophistication that was missing from the existing chain restaurants and family-run stores.

Maenam is almost turning one year old, and it’s safe to say that the shift from high-priced Gastropod has been one of the most successful and publicized turnovers so far. During the Olympics, Maenam was featured by The New York Times, no less.  Our very own Kitsilano.ca readers also voted Maenam as the best new restaurant. And just last week, The Georgia Straight featured Chef Angus An on the front page of their 2010 Golden Plates issue — Maenam wins the best new restaurant vote in Vancouver.

Some reviewers go so far as to argue that Maenam is the best Thai restaurant in North America. And yes, claims of authenticity helps Maenam’s cause: in an interview with The Georgia Straight, a Maenam spokesman points out that Chef Angus An plans “to offer Thai authenticity, rather than bend to the so-called western palette.” It also helps that Chef An just came back from a food tour in Thailand, and he has now incorporated some overlooked regional dishes in Maenam’s spring menu.

Thai cuisine is famous for its blend of flavours: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy– ideally all four at the same time. Maenam captures this taste spectrum quite well. For instance, I appreciate the fact that whenever I order their Pad Thai ($13), I not only get the expected rice noodle dish but also slices of lime, chives, and chilies so I can season it according to my tastes. These tiny details go a long way in providing a flavourful balance. The Thai sausages or naam ($8) are made up of seasoned pork left to ferment with a pleasing sour flavour, and to balance out the sourness, sweet and spicy chili sauce and cucumber slices are served too.

Maenam Muslim Oxtail SoupMaenam Ice Cream

Muslim Oxtail Soup and Housemade Ice Cream

I’ve read some complaints over at Yelp on the curry dishes: too much leafy and woodsy ingredients, one argued. Actually, this complaint is to An’s credit. Compared to other Asian curries, Thai dishes use a lot of herbs, grasses, and roots instead of strong spices. So when my Muslim Oxtail Soup ($14) arrived at my table with many herbs, I coudn’t be more pleased, because it means that Chef An doesn’t skimp on cardamom, galangal, lemongrass, sweet basil, mint, and other classic Thai fundamentals. Also herb-laden is the Panaeng Beef ($13), which I highly recommend for its combination of sweet and salty and rich with nutmegs and peanuts.

My only compaint with Maenam is the dessert selection. I’ve noticed that most of the diners choose the dark chocolate pot de creme, with its combination of sea salt, chocolate, and tamarind semifreddo– somewhat pleasing but lacking the richness I’m looking for. I also wasn’t wowed by their ice cream selections; tamarind and mascarpone ice cream reminded me too much of palate cleansers rather than dessert. The only dessert that I like is the Rice Donuts with Thai Tea Ice Cream ($7). The rice donuts are a luxurious version of  pa tong ko or fried flour, and the tea ice cream really do taste like cha yen or Thai tea. Just recently, Maenam started serving mango with sticky rice and fried bananas, and those seem like better deals too.

I acknowedge that not everyone will agree on Maenam’s authenticity. While some dishes are spicy enough, I doubt that they’re as spicy as you can them in Bangkok. Not to mention that the West Coast influences are obvious (Sloping Hills Pork Curry and Green Curry Halibut, hello). One food reviewer, Victoria Chemko, is Thai and she found the dishes lacking. But for those of us with no Thai moms or Bangkok plane tickets to turn to, Maenam will do.

photos courtesy of Jeremy Lim

Last modified: April 7, 2010

2 Responses to " Maenam and the Quest for “Authentic” Thai Cuisine in Vancouver "

  1. PJ says:

    Not spicy enough? I ate the green curry there a few months ago it nearly blew my head off. It was decent, but it doen’t touch Khai Thai’s green curry. Now that is special.

  2. Frances says:

    I had the Halibut Green Curry, and I agree that it’s their spiciest entree. Their winter menu incorporates some hot dishes from Southern Thailand but now that they’ve shifted to spring, the dishes have become milder and more northern.