Review: Chiang Mai in Webster Groves
You’ve likely eaten Thai food here before, back when it was Tei Too, the compact pan-Asian eatery in Webster Groves that dished out satay and noodles along with Thai favorites. What you may not have known was that when owner Ann Bognar sold the restaurant to her sister, Su Hill of Cape Girardeau, she was continuing its connection to one of St. Louis’ most successful family dynasties of restaurateurs.
Hill still lives in Cape, where she has owned and operated the thriving Bistro Saffron for 20-plus years. When she re-opened the Tei Too space as Chiang Mai in 2020, smack in the middle of the pandemic, she knew she didn’t want to do another Thai restaurant like everybody else, meaning Thai cuisine associated with Bangkok and further south. “I thought, ‘Let’s introduce something small, like the food we grew up with, like mom made us,’” Hill said. Naming the restaurant after the city where she grew up, Hill narrowed the menu, thus filling a void in the local Thai cuisine scene. Dishes here use less sugar, salt and cream, instead leaning into the aromatic herbs and produce (cilantro, green onion, toasted garlic), complex broths and sauces, and hearty grilled meats indicative of the region.
Of her family’s recipes, Hill explained, “You have to narrow down to what you are so proud of and make it fresh. Don’t just throw everything into the same sauce.” (Of the 10 Best New Restaurants this magazine ranked in 2020, Chiang Mai came in at No. 4; a remarkable achievement given what a hellish year it was for dining out.)
Hill is particularly proud of her sai oua, a northern Thai sausage specialty consisting of fatty pork blended with lots of aromatic herbs and spices, particularly lemongrass but also garlic, turmeric, chiles, galangal and Hill’s own curry paste. The result is a fragrant, fiery sausage unlike any you have ever had. Hill not only has it especially made for the restaurant by Reis Meat, a family-owned meat processing plant in Jackson, Missouri, but is on site to blend the spices and ensure quality. It’s so labor intensive that when Hill first started making it for Chiang Mai during the pandemic, she had second thoughts. “Then I thought about my mom [who] spent all this time making it when we were young. There’s a history,” she said. History, and a process: All in all, these fat, juicy, Robusto cigar-sized beauties take two days to make. Served with sticky rice and cold, crunchy cabbage, this is a must-have if you must limit yourself to just one pork dish.
For the first couple of years, Hill was constantly running between her two restaurants, training Chiang Mai staff in the intricacies of the family recipes and monitoring quality while keeping Bistro Saffron in the black. Through it all, Hill, her sisters and their families supported each other, often helping out and sharing staff between their restaurants: Ann Bognar’s Nippon Tei; Bognar’s son Nick’s Indo; Whitney Yoon’s Sushi Koi; and Nina Prapaisilpa’s Rice Thai Bistro.
As the second oldest child in her large family, the plan was for Hill to attend university in the U.S. to study business and return home to help with her father’s import-export business; but just as she was graduating from Memphis State, her father died unexpectedly after having one of the first heart valve replacement surgeries in Thailand. That’s when she decided to stay here, because her father had told her, “I needed to think ahead and think of ways to do different things. Because you never know what will happen next, and I don’t know when I will see you again. Never settle for what you have today.”
Over time, other siblings followed her to study and work in the U.S., including her younger brother, who opened a noodle shop in Cape. After he and his family moved to St. Louis, Hill bought his shop, eventually evolving it into Bistro Saffron and moving to a larger space. Her mother’s death a few years ago prompted Hill to decide she needed to continue her heritage, seeding the idea behind Chiang Mai.
Much of Thai food culture revolves around sharing, Hill noted, and the small plates portion of Chiang Mai’s menu is perfect for either communal or solo snacking. In addition to those revelatory pork sausages, nua sawaan brings strips of crispy, flash-fried beef speckled with coriander seed, balanced with accents of palm sugar and sea salt.
The rest of the menu comprises larger plates, some noodle dishes (perfect for those stopping in for a quick lunch), and a section of familiar curry dishes. Fall-off-the-bone gra dook moo (roasted baby back ribs) marinated in honey, garlic and pepper, came with a side of nam pla, an umami bomb condiment made with fish sauce, lime juice and scallions for a punch. The tangy, complex northern Thai curry used in Hill’s gaeng hung lay (braised pork curry) is delicate but with hidden depths of pungency emanating from herb paste, turmeric, curry powder and other spices.
Diners can’t get enough of the khao soi, a hearty chicken and coconut curry soup with roots in India; it then traveled to Myanmar, along the northern Thai border. In Hill’s version, two chicken legs are the centerpiece in a big bowl of creamy, shimmering burnt orange curry broth that defines its sweet-hot delicacy, chock-a-block with red onion, shredded cabbage and Thai mustard greens, crowned with a tangle of fried egg noodles. Many words have been written extolling the transcendent nature of this signature dish, but they all fade when you submerge the noodles into the broth to soften and start picking away at the chicken legs while slurping that soul-satisfying broth. While paying, I noticed, next to the cash register, the chalkboard advertising a variety of Chiang Mai’s dishes. Its headline, “Simple Thai,” rang true.
Chiang Mai, 8158 Big Bend Blvd., Webster Groves, 314.961.8889, chiangmaistl.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Sai oua, gaeng hung lay, khao soi, gra dook moo
Simple aesthetic that fills up fast and empties out just as quickly on a weekend night.
$14 to $20
Tue. – Thu. noon to 8 p.m.; Fri. – Sat. 2 to 9 p.m.