If there is anything this bright, big, beautiful city is known for, it’s the food. You can go anywhere else in Thailand and enjoy an abundance of local produce, noodle soup and curries, but they’re nowhere as good as the food you’ll find right here in this mountain town.
During the past few months I’ve been back in this city I now feel confident calling my home, I’ve returned to old food favourites, tried out new haunts, and perused many a market looking for ingredients to make my own unique renditions of favourite Thai dishes. I’m not a great cook though, so the mishmashes I thoughtfully toss together result in a somewhat lacklustre meal time experience.
So, I surrender to the food offerings here, because why not? They’re cheap as chips and always reliable, satisfying sustenance.
The trouble is that I like going out. Well, who doesn’t, right? Unfortunately, enjoying takeaway versions of a proper dining experience right now is the new normal for the foreseeable future. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time recreating the street food market experience in my apartment. The thing about the food here is that it goes hand-in-hand with the place that’s serving it.
The fresh brew from mountain-grown coffee beans just doesn’t deliver quite the same kick without it being sipped amid the backdrop of a sweet corner cafe dotted with hanging plants, funky decor, and a view of Suthep, the river, or the metallic flash of tuk tuks darting by. Khao soy doesn’t nurture the soul and please the palate quite the same way if not eaten from pop-up tin tables and flimsy plastic stools with the smoky hiss and sizzle of street meat on the barbeque.
Have you ever eaten mango sticky rice at home? I mean, I’ll take it in desperate times, but it lacks the vital complement of the place that produced it, be it market or diner. And pad Thai? I’ll welcome it anytime, anywhere, from any wok, whether it be propped up on a sidewalk or unseen in some restaurant kitchen. But it just tastes so much better in-house.
In Chiang Mai, I’m not just eating food, I’m chowing down on a food experience. Last weekend, just before the most recent lockdown, I visited a restaurant named Dash!. Have you heard of it? It’s surprisingly not well known given its inconspicuous location in the Old City’s southeast corner. Even its sign is a humble little one, just peeking out from teak rafters as though it were nothing special, on an otherwise darkened soi, save for the strings of festive, coloured lights brightening up the “pocket” bars.
You know, those tiny, tucked away, almost red-light bars with the odd pool table, retired expats, and pretty local ladies who stand out front flashing welcoming smiles, luring passersby in for a drink.
I was a lone wolf in the place that night, other than the staff and the owner, Dash (that’s right, the restaurant is eponymous). It was Saturday night, folks. If this seems a rather pathetic state of affairs given it’s one of the best restaurants in Chiang Mai, allow me to paint a picture for you of what Dash! is like during normal, pre- and hopefully post-Covid times.
The first time I had dinner at Dash! was a five-years-long lifetime ago. Arm-in-arm with two women I’d befriended in my massage training course, we happened upon the cool-vibes garden setting by chance and found it quite busy. But that’s an understatement. That’s like saying hamburger dumplings are sort of delicious. Dash! was packed like a veritable can of sardines, without the fishy smell (thankfully!), but with a beautiful, spacious, garden dining area amid candlelight and overhanging frangipani trees. Bingo. That was the ideal place for girly chats and wine. It was vibrant and lively, an obvious hot-spot in the Old City.
We wined and dined on luscious imported Malbec, succulent laab and sticky rice, slurpy khao soy, sea bass deep fried in red curry sauce (and it tastes even more delicious than it sounds) and mango cheesecake with sweet ‘n’ sticky mango drippings and divine ladyfinger crumb crust.
Of course, these were just a few of the many Thai-Chinese fusion options available. I knew I’d be back, so I confidently introduced myself to the owner as his shiny new loyal patron. I even sang with the band just to make my mark on the place (whether the singing made a good mark is up for debate!).
During those five footloose and fancy free months of studying, hiking, dating, and luxuriating in all the city has to offer, I brought a string of guests to Dash: girlfriends, yoga peeps, massage course buddies, dates and sometimes, I dined alone, by choice. Though I always preferred to invite someone to join me, not for the company necessarily (you know how those blind dates go), but for the opportunity to sample different dishes. That’s right, I (occasionally) used my dating life as a vehicle by which to sample every dish I could, oftentimes fibbing, in a most self-assured manner, about what menu items I’d tried before, as recommendations to my dinner date. One can only eat so much on her own, after all. Dash himself was the only one who was on to me though, thankfully, and kept it our little secret.
Dash! is the kind of place that always feels like a special treat, like when I was a child and my parents would take my sisters and me for fancy Mexican at a place called Chi-Chi’s and we’d sip ruby-red Shirley Temples through twisty straws, bedecked with a plump maraschino cherry. The only difference is that now, as an adult, it wasn’t sloppy Mexican but some of the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten, plus Western options for people who like house-made hamburgers and gourmet triple-stacked grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries and all that jazz. I gave good ‘ole Shirley Temple the boot and instead, chose crafty cocktails, imported beer, luscious bloods of the earth, and my personal favourite, scotch on the rocks––one rock, that is.
Now on a Saturday night in the midst of the latest 2021 lockdown, one can almost hear the faint chatter of the kitchen staff and the sibilant sound of noodles frying for all the delivery orders (and my pad Thai––I will never, ever tire of it). The place is ghostly. It’s not the only one, of course. But it’s a grand shame amongst many, you see, because Dash! is the kind of place where you either tuck yourself away in an
intimate candlelit corner with a juicy date, or book a table for 10 and celebrate whatever is up for celebration, which is to say you can either cuddle or carouse your way through an evening there.
With good live music, a vibrant buzz of activity, the clinking of glasses, and a gentle breeze sweeping through the garden, Dash!’s pre-virus status lives in my memory now, but also in the anticipation of it reopening soon, along with many, many other Chiang Mai eats.
But hey, when we can’t have our cake and eat it in a cool, buzzing garden scape, adorned with patio lights and high hopes for those blind dates, we can at least have the cake, hand-delivered, as fresh and tasty as the dine-in version. You just have to supply your own placemat, music, frangipani trees, and scotch.
Thankfully, Dash! Delivers. If you’re stuck on what to order, allow me to help you out. I beg you to please indulge in the hamburger dumplings, people, with homemade chipotle mayo for heaven’s sake. Does it get much better than a tidy, one-bite hamburger gyoza, or hot pocket, as I like to call it? And not just one, by the way.
Well, maybe it does get better than that for you. Maybe yam dok galam––deep-fried spicy cauliflower with tender bacon morsels is up your alley. Or phad ma kuea yao khun yai––a literal mouthful and also known as Grandma’s stir-fried eggplants (and let’s just say she was a groovy, gourmet kinda grandma). Or all the piquant curries your hunger can conjure up. Gosh, he’s even spreading his wings to the Deep South (of America, that is) and cooking up gumbo these days!
Don’t even get me started on the lusty cocktails––but, oh!––get me started and then cut me off! I guess that’s one good thing about delivery-only. How about the surreptitious New Normal?
Hopefully we’ll be saluting to that one soon, out on the cozy, tucked-away patio under a starry night’s sky.
If you want to order from Dash!, he welcomes orders directly on Facebook right now, today, tomorrow, and the day after that, and every day of the week but Monday, within a 5 km radius, or further for a small fee.
Facebook: Dash Restaurant & Bar
PHOTO CREDIT: Francesco Ruffoni (https://www.francescoruffoni.com/)