The Food Network used to have a show called something like “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” I don’t know if it’s still being aired, but the premise was simple: famous chefs and Food Network personalities would discuss the best food they had ever eaten.
The chef gushes about this or that dish and where to find it, and at the end of the show the chef inevitably ends up with whatever meal he or she was talking about. Then the chef gushes some more as he or she indulges in whatever meal was just described. That was always my least favorite part of the show, when the chef or TV personality got to eat the best thing again. Whether it’s food, a place, or love, the actualization is never as good as the memory.
Now that I’m in Chiang Mai, often considered the food capital of Thailand, I’ve wondered what I would say my favorite meal has been if I were to appear on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” The best thing you’ve ever eaten isn’t just the food, it’s the company or the story that goes along with the meal. So far, the best thing I’ve eaten in Chiang Mai has been the pork from the famous pork stand run by the lady in the cowboy hat.
It was our first full day in Chiang Mai. Wearied from traveling for the last twenty hours, we slept late into the morning, missing a respectable breakfast hour altogether. Groggy, and grateful we didn’t get food poisoning from the previous night’s meal, we went out to say hello to our host and to see if he didn’t have a recommendation for a late breakfast. Being the excellent local that he is, our host recommend a place that was only a ten minute walk away. We set out immediately and began to see the streets of Chiang Mai by daylight.
The smell reminded Billy of Sorrento, Italy: “Street food and cat shit,” he said. There was indeed a healthy mix of both. Near our Airbnb there weren’t any street vendors, just small Thai restaurants, but the smell coming from these places is so good it makes you slow down to try and decipher the different aromas.
The recommended restaurant was closed. There was a sign out front, but being written in Thai, we will never know what it said. For all we know it might have read “Business closed for a week—owners abducted by aliens.” In any case, we got the message: no cheap and tasty Thai food available here.
We’re always looking to save cash, so we decided to skip breakfast and just have lunch after we had been picked up by our Workaway host at two o’clock.
Well, two o’clock rolled around and we checked out of our Airbnb to wait on the street for the pick up. We waited for half an hour, just two foreigners out on the street, constantly being asked if we needed a lift by the local red trucks which drive people around for thirty baht. It was half-past two when we slinked back to outside the Airbnb, just enough for me to get WiFi so I could check my messages from the Workaway host. No new messages, so we walked back out to the street corner to wait some more.
We repeated this back and forth for WiFi for about an hour. At half-past three, we knew something was wrong. I messaged the Workaway host asking if they had gotten lost. Within ten minutes I noticed I had a Facebook friend request from someone unfamiliar. It turned out, of course, to be our Workaway host, who called me through Facebook’s messenger app. The address I had provided somehow didn’t have the house number, so when they went to type in the address the GPS couldn’t specify where to go so it just highlighted the whole neighborhood.
It was now four o’clock and we hadn’t eaten since the previous night. We eventually figured out how to give the host our proper address, and in the meantime Billy had the great instinct to grab a small meal from a little shack nearby. It was good, but not nearly enough, and as we waited for our ride I could sense that we would both need a proper meal soon.
The theme of that day was waiting, for after more than two hours of back and forth confusion, our ride was delayed in traffic. Not for long, just fifteen minutes, but fifteen minutes can feel like an eternity when you’re exhausted and starving.
After finally arriving at the Workaway place, we sat through two hours of going over rules and duties, which was fine, but again, we were both tired and delirious from hunger, a hunger we set out to satisfy right after that two hour training period.
Restaurants seemed very open to foreigners, so when we set out we figured we would just go to whatever place felt right. We walked around and nothing really caught our attention, so we double backed to a place we had passed near the Workaway location. As soon as we walked in, the owner shook his head, said something in Thai, and made an X with his crossed arms. For whatever reason, we were not welcome there, so we again trudged back to the old city, looking for a meal.
Prior to coming to Chiang Mai, we both had watched an episode of one of Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows wherein he visits Chiang Mai, and one of the stops he makes in the city is at the legendary pork stand run by a lady in a cowboy hat. She’s something of a celebrity here in Chiang Mai, and having both watched the episode, Billy and I knew who she was. We in no way were expecting to find her so soon, though.
After wandering around the old city for half an hour, we lay eyes upon the Mecca of street food: perhaps a quarter of a mile along one street lined with just food stalls, their innumerable lights dazzling against the dark night sky.
We stumbled our way onto that street like men who have just found water in the middle of the desert. Speechless, we weaved through the vendors, all slinging delicious looking food for miniscule prices.
Just as we were deciding we didn’t know where to start, we saw her. The unmistakable cowboy hat, the crowd of Chinese tourists, and the irresistible scent of pork all told us we had found the famous pork stand.
How we ended up with a plate of food in front of us is a blur. All I know is one minute I was standing there salivating like a mad man, and the next I was shoveling mouthfuls of flavorful pork into my mouth.
I finished in what seemed like a moment, and sat there for a while, absorbing the atmosphere and enjoying the sensation of a full stomach.
If you were to give me that pork again it would no doubt be delicious, but the best thing I ever ate? No. That pork earns it’s place as the best thing I’ve ever eaten in Chiang Mai so far because of the circumstances surrounding its consumption. It made me feel normal again, and served as a unique introduction to Chiang Mai.