1938 w 4th Ave
Vancouver, BC V6J1M5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.