Expect to be delighted by the cuisine at this modest Thai restaurant in Conshohocken
by Brian Freedman


Prior to visiting Chiangmai in Conshohocken, I had long ago convinced myself that my cynicism regarding the majority of suburban Thai and Vietnamese restaurant was justified. Like most of us, I had sat through far too many platefuls of desultory pad Thai, the use of sweetness a depressing stand-in for anything more interesting. Like most of us, I’d gnawed my way through overcooked and mealy shrimp bobbing up and down in bowls of acrid tom yum soup. Like most of us, I’d gotten back into the car to drive home bloated and full and thoroughly unsatisfied.


But let me reiterate: That was all prior to Chiangmai.


At first glance, it looks familiar enough: the sunset-colored walls, the decor pleasantly evocative of Southeast Asia, the warm-toned glasses of Thai iced tea making their way to tables scattered throughout the narrow dining room.


But to assume that Chiangmai is in any way like so many of its less-inspired peers would be grossly incorrect.


The tom yum soup was constructed on a scaffolding more complex than most, an almost roasted heft anchoring the high-toned lemongrass and lime juice in a wholly unexpected way. As for the shrimp, they were cooked perfectly, snappy against the teeth and having absorbed plenty of the broth themselves. Lovely.


Crying tiger salad also demonstrated the kitchen’s acumen with tricky proteins. Not that beef should pose any problems, but I’ve lost count of the number of Asian salads I’ve suffered through that were crisscrossed with thin sliced of steak cooked to the texture of shoe leather. These, however, remained tender, and the combination of toasted rice powder and high heat brought them an almost chocolatey character—perfect against the fresh vegetables and chili-tingling dressing they were served with.


Crispy rolls were an example of addictive truth in advertising: Shatteringly fried shells were filled with a clean, nicely detailed combination of vegetables, earthy pork and glass noodles. The sweet and sour sauce was almost unnecessary.


Not everything was executed perfectly. Unfortunately, cooking time was what marred the pad Thai. Still, I was willing to forgive undercooked and slightly tough noodles—my guest and I finished them nonetheless—because the flavor here was so appealing. Indeed, pad Thai usually goes wrong not just with too much sweetness, but also by overcooking the noodles until they reach the consistency of tapioca pudding. So al dente, in this case, was at least erring on the right side of caution.


As for the flavor, it was more concentrated than usual, the tamarind lending the shimmering noodles an almost maple-like character. Brightened up with a squeeze of citrus and a scattering of sprouts, this pad Thai is easily among the best in the burbs.


Mussaman curry also sang, and took full advantage of the peanut sauce and coconut milk the red curry had been reinforced with. Indeed, the roundness of those flavors, combined with the starch that had cooked out of the potatoes, rendered this curry uniquely hearty, uniquely rich. It’s rude on a date or at a business meeting, but don’t fight the urge to just start slurping the curry right from the bowl: It’s that good.


The menu is huge here, which means that you’ll have to come back multiple times to work your way through it. Fortunately, prices are fair, and there’s always the lunchtime option: The lunch special is one of the best deals in the area, an under-$10 treat that includes soup, an appetizer, and an entree from a smaller list of choices. No wonder a recent mid-week lunch was so crowded.


The question I ask myself whenever I visit a restaurant for work is this: Would I return when I’m off the clock? As a critic and writer of wine and food, I spend most of my professional time in restaurants, so on my nights off I generally prefer to sit on the couch and turn off my taste buds. With Chiangmai, however, I’d be more than happy to pack up the family and head over for lunch or dinner. For the price, and for the food, it’s a seriously good option.


Thanks to this modest place in Conshohocken, then, my faith in suburban restaurants that specialize in Southeast Asian food has been restored. It’s about time.


Chiangmai Authentic Thai Cuisine

180 Fayette Street, Conshohocken

Phone: 610-397-1757



Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer based in Philadelphia.