Maenam – Vancouver, BC


Maenam Thai
1938 w 4th Ave
Vancouver, BC V6J1M5
(604) 730-5579

I have high hopes for Maenam. The chef here is Angus An who used to run the late, lamented Gastropod at this location. He was known for inventive dishes that bordered on molecular. Gastropod was critically acclaimed, but I speculate that it didn’t resonate with the much of Vancouver dining public.

Sometime in the past year, the Gastropod team decided to cut their losses and switch to a new format: high-value (not necessarily “budget”) “authentic” Thai food. Finally, I thought, real Thai food in Vancouver –  a city desperately lacking in this great cuisine. Knowing that Angus An worked at London’s Nahm under Australian Thai cuisine expert David Thompson and also knowing that he is married to a Thai, the promise of authenticity should be easy to keep. Angus An (from my own experiences dining at Gastropod) is an exacting, fastidious chef and would go to great lengths to procure the right ingredients and use the proper techniques.

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The first time I visited Maenam, I was less than wowed. The menu looked very ordinary – listing only the usual suspects. On sampling the food, I thought that the Thai flavours were muted and compromised. (I am, however, happy to note that things are trending up as of late.)

Pad Thai seems to be everyone’s litmus test for Thai food. This version was a good one. The noodles were sourced from a small LA-based producer of fresh and authentic Thai rice noodles. It had a good pleasant chewiness, stretch and tangle – just like the Pad Thai back in Thailand’s street stalls. All other Thai places in Vancouver use either Chinese or Vietnamese dried rice noodles often resulting in a grainy or mushy texture….it would also completely lack that elastic chewiness.

The flavours, I thought, were not quite right. It was close, but I thought that the seasoning could have been more bold and bright. It certainly used the proper tamarind base….but it definitely needed more saltiness and pungency from fermented fish sauce (nam pla) – a common compromise in the West.

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The Thai Fermented Sour Sausages were great – they didn’t have that requisite funkiness of the real stuff – but they had a nice heat, a mild pungency and a good tartness. The acidity of authentic Thai Sour Sausages comes from action of lactic acid bacteria in fermentation process. This acidity also acts as a preservative to mitigate spoilage while enhancing the sausage’s flavour. In Thailand, the sausages are left to ferment raw at room temperature with the naturally occurring bacteria acting as the fermentation agent – a scary proposition for most Western health authorities. I suspect that Maenam’s kitchen uses techniques similar to the production of charcuterie and salumi where  commercial cultures of lactic acid bacteria are introduced to the meat — or they just might have just bypassed true fermentation and instead added a souring agent like lime juice. In either case, they have managed to create a nice dish.

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Where Maenam really excels is in their curries. The ones I have had were well balanced – and each have been very distinct and different from each other. The curries didn’t suffer from the “sameness” I often encounter at other Thai joints. My two favourites are the Muslim Curry with Longan and their Green Curries (Chicken, Halibut or some other meat protien). The Muslim Curry is nice, deep and sweet – perhaps a bit too sweet. It has an addicting quality especially when paired with white rice. The Green Curries often contain Pea Eggplant that lends a contrasting crunchy, bitterness to the dish. David Thompson’s signature Three Flavour Fish makes an appearance on the menu – I have not yet tried this here ( I recall having it at Darley Street Thai in Sydney some years ago now). They were out the one time I attempted to order it. One thing I would pass on is the roti which is more a dense pancake rather than the gossamer thin, flakey thing it should be.

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Like at Gastropod, Maenam’s menu seems to change regularly. Over my last few visits, I have noted that their menu was  more varied than at my first visit. After opening with some trepidation – they seem to be expanding their selections and are experimenting with some unfamiliar items (for example Sour Orange Curries and some different types of Thai warm salads).

Some in the food media have called it one of the best Thai restaurants in North America – (if not the best). As of right now, I am reluctant to give it that designation. One just has to visit the Thai enclaves around the Los Angeles area, San Francisco, or in NYC to find excellent Thai restaurants that are frequented by Thais instead of farang. Or drive down south to Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok in Portland – where I have found an extensive menu with of  authentic and authentically innovative Thai dishes. However, to offer balance and to further contextualize Maenam’s place in North American Thai scene – Maenam isn’t trying to be a Thai home-style joint, or a Pok Pok…it is actually attempting a more upscale experience similar to the Nahm – but much lower prices. I think that they are managing to succeed despite such lofty ideals.

Overall, I really like Maenam and I will continue to support it. The food is very good, the prices are quite reasonable and the service is excellent. It is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal Thai scene in Vancouver (which used to have a quite a good one). The flavours are “authentic” enough – with acceptable (to me) compromises. They have a pretty decent wine list….but I just can’t wrap my mind around Thai food and wine…give me a Thai or Lao beer instead.

Maenam on Urbanspoon

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8 thoughts on “Maenam – Vancouver, BC

  1. Gastropod was a true gem in my books, had great meals there. But with the huge void of outstanding Thai food in the city as you mention, I suppose its not a total loss as Maenam is filling a vital gap.

    Thanks for taking us through your journey so far, exploring the shifting menu. I can totally understand the safe route they took upon opening, and glad to hear they are branching out more and more.

    The tempered approach you are taking is welcomed as well, I shudder when I hear claims like “the best in _____”, and it makes me wonder the range and breadth of such a reviewer/commentator’s exploration to come up with that bold title.

    Lastly, I’m with you on the matchup with Thai beer, nothing goes better with a spicy dish!

  2. I went there with my husband and my friend… probably my expectation was too high for tihs restaurant… because he used to work at Nahm, Micheline 3 star. We ate chicken satays, Pad Thai, Green Papaya Salad, Stir-fried chicken thighs with green pepper corn, and Aromatic Duck Curry. All taste OK, but not “Wow!” I just ate good Thai food in Orland Florida(surprisingly,it was very good)…so I believed Chef Angus An would make even better, but Michelin 3 star doesn’t mean much, I guess…. I know price is not Michelin either, but I am talking about flavour! How they cook Pad Thai’s noodle was great, but flavour was….in my oppinion, a little bit too sweet and need fish sauce…Curry was super sweet for me! I love Thai curry, but I was expecting more runny, saucy curry with coconut…
    Disapointing…that’s all I can say…

  3. Many of their curries are IMO too sweet too and I share your opinion of the sauce in the Pad Thai (I mentioned it above). Give Maenam another shot and ask for nam pla on the side. Also, Thais use sugar to sweeten their meals at the table. In Thailand, you would often see nam pla, vinegar, pickled chilies, dried chilies, and sugar as condiments at the table so you can personalize the dishes – perhaps this is the approach they can take.

  4. I pretty much concur with your assessment on the pad thai and curries. It was far too sweet. The two big shocks of lime helped, but Nam pla would be better. Perhaps the emphasis on service and atmosphere lead them away from a “customize yourself” type of plating.

    On the flip side, the dessert was quite good.

    PS I have photos of the interior if you think that would add some value. Just let me know if you want me to add them to the post.

  5. At Maenam, the most well-balanced curries are the Green Curries. The red curries and the Muslim curries are a tad sweet. However, I have had a perfectly balanced Red Curries there – where the sweetness was just right.

    The more I think of it, and the further we discuss this, I definitely now think they need a condiment set at the table. They had a set at Darley Street in Sydney where I had a first hand sampling of Thompson’s food many years ago (10-15?). It didn’t take away from the approach. Here at Maenam, they dash some dried chili powder on the rim of the plate so you can adjust the heat. A small ceramic bottle of nam pla would have made the Pad Thai just perfect.

    Please post your photos foodosopher (I have some of the interior as well).

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