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$20 Dinner

Your Big, Fantastic Northern Thai Spot in Bushwick Has Arrived

Chiang Mai Diner and Bar is a huge win for the neighborhood.

2:00 PM EDT on June 21, 2023

A bunch of Northern Thai dishes laid out on the table.

Look at this bounty! (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

"Where can I roll up with three or six friends at 8:00 p.m. and get seated right away for many drinks and a great dinner?" is, to be honest, not a dilemma I'm faced with all that much anymore. Ah, lost youth! 

But when a legit $20 Dinner spot opens a few blocks from my apartment? And it's got lots of stuff on the menu I've never had before? Also it's a pleasant place to hang out, with good energy and, so far, plenty of space to accommodate both me (solo, or with a trusted companion) and your crew looking to eat and party? That's worth a column.

Enter Chiang Mai Diner and Bar, which opened last month on the unlovely corner of Flushing and Central Avenues, with lots of plants and flowers outside and a huge menu of northern Thai specialties within.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The chef and owner is Rathakate "Kenny" Khuankaow, who grew up in Phayao, in northern Thailand, which he said is close to the city of Chiang Mai. This is his second restaurant; the first, Lan Larb Chiang Mai, is located in Soho, in a much smaller space, and seems to have the same menu as the new Bushwick spot.       

"I came to America in 2006 but I remember when I was young I loved my grandmom's food, I loved my mom's food, I loved my dad's food," Khuankaow told Hell Gate. "I would recommend people try northern Thai food. I know that not many Thai restaurants have it like this. I need to present this local food, this authentic food, my hometown food, my family's recipes, to everyone."  

The menu is one of those sprawling, twelve-page jobs, complete with photographs, so I asked my server to suggest a few signature dishes. She obliged with four total bangers, all priced below twenty bucks, and all definitely entree-sized, especially when you add the little baskets of sticky rice that come with everything.

Short rib hung lay, $34 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Chef Khuankaow, who entered the conversation later, insisted I also order his short rib hung lay which, at $34, was way over budget but also proved to be an exceptional mountain of meat: lovely, tender, and sticky with a ginger and garlic sauce. Worth it if you got it.

Zha jein, $18 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Back in more affordable territory, the funky zha jein gets you a pile of thin-sliced flank steak, seasoned with lemon grass, mint, and saw tooth, and given considerable zing by an abundance of spicy pro larb. Use the lettuce to create little beef-and-rice wraps and feel pleased with your life choices. Knuankaow told us that in Chiang Mai, the city, the meat is usually served raw, but either way this was my favorite dish on the table.

Sai oua nam prik num (fiery sausage with pounded chile), $19 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Also great was the sai oua nam prik num, a porky, fiery sausage (the sai oua, a northern Thai favorite) served with a bowl of pounded chile (the nam prik num), a mess of crackling-fried pork rinds, and a bouquet of raw vegetables.

Gaeng hoh (glass noodles with pork belly and shrimp), $20 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Or get a noodle dish or two, like the superb gaeng hoh, a tangle of glass noodles strewn with pork belly, shrimp, eggplant, fermented bamboo shoot, and enough red curry paste to get your attention. Even the calmer dishes at Chiang Mai exhibit plenty of presence, like the wholly satisfying kuoy teaw kua kai, or wide noodles with chicken and squid.

Kuoy teaw kua kai (wide noodles with chicken and squid) $18 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

And there's so much more to try! I'm definitely getting the boat noodles next time, which promise "strong and very rich flavor," and the gaeng hung lay, a fatty pig dish that the menu claims is "one of the most iconic of northern Thailand." 

The cocktails pay homage to various aspects of the city of Chiang Mai, with drinks like the lin-ping, "inspired by our celebrity panda," and the doi-chang, "the origin of one of the best coffees in the world." There's also mocktails, juices, and various iced coffees and teas.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Knuankaow said it only took about a month to pull the sprawling space together, which keeps the same basic layout of its former tenant, the short-lived Tiltz Sports Bar and Arcade, but looks completely different. There's a bit of neon, some traditional Thai iconography, lots of greenery, and a large back dining room decked out to feel like a field twinkling with starlight and fireflies.

It's a big win for the neighborhood.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Chiang Mai Diner and Bar is located at 942 Flushing Avenue, at the corner of Central Avenue, and is currently open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and for dinner from 4:30 to 10:00 (718-673-8848) 

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