Aroon Rai

I cannot go into Aroon Rai Restaurant without images of the movie Air America entering my consciousness. Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. are flying clandestine operations in Southeast Asia. It’s dangerous work and the music makes it intense. But suddenly they’ve saved the world from the bad guys and are safely back at the airstrip, a small cloud of testosterone floating above them in this 1974 adventure movie. They swagger into town for a relaxing beer at – Aroon Rai? Yes, part of that very forgettable piece of Hollywood fiction was indeed filmed in the restaurant. You can enjoy the mementoes while you wait for your order to be filled.

Phitichit, age 74, and her husband opened the first Aroon Rai 48 years ago, apparently a good year for new restaurants in Chiang Mai since several that were opened that year continue to thrive. Her daughters both work with her in the restaurant, as does her 68-year-old sister. The food can best be described as casual home cooking, northern Thai style. The menu is a comfortable size, not so many items that it’s difficult to decide but enough to have a good selection. Most items are described in English as well as Thai. If the menu doesn’t appeal to you, then walk up to the counter and look over the choices that are ready for the locals, take-out customers who crowd the sidewalks and double park as offices close around town.

Menu items such as soups and fried rice begin at 35 baht per dish. Most curries start at 40 baht and the most expensive item on the menu is the large size tom yam at 90 baht. Beer, soft drinks, and Thai iced tea are also available. Beer starts at 40 baht.

The dining out team settled into its seats, and I thought of all of the spying I’ve done at this very restaurant, gun drawn, with decidedly evil intent. The police fear me, as do small children and dogs. I’ve had several hits here, but, embarrassingly, a naked two-year-old drenched me just last year. This is my favorite place to drip dry during the wet festivities of Songkran. The floors are terrazzo, the chairs folding metal, but my water gun is ever filled and ready to defend my territory.

With my imagination under control and my appetite tweaked by the sights and smells of this open-air, casual restaurant, we ordered the favorite foods of locals and tourists alike: sticky rice, fried pork with garlic, a little bowl of naam chim saam rot (sauce with three flavors) to dip both the rice and pork into. This is one of the best sauces in town, made fresh on request, spicy, the perfect condiment for meats and fish. Som tom, some of the best in town, and a flavorful naam prick ong with lightly steamed dipping vegetables came next. If, like me, you do not care for the taste of dried shrimp, order your som tom “jay”, vegetarian, and experience a real treat.

We ordered the fried fish, partially de-boned, which serves two. Although deep-fried, it is light and crisp with no tell tale puddle of oil on the plate below it. My favorite naam prink ong arrived, a spicy tomato and meat sauce served with steamed veggies to dip it out of the bowl. Sticky rice works well here, too. Always a delight is the chicken curry. It’s not too mild, not too spicy, and has won rave reviews from locals and tourists alike. Dessert is always mango and sticky rice, although one of our diners has a close rapport with Phitichit’s daughter, a baker of extraordinary talent who is likely to have rum cake and chocolate brownie bars prepared and tucked neatly in the freezer. A frozen brownie on a stick is a delight on a hot summer day.

A good test of a restaurant is not only whether you would return, but whether you would take guests. Yes and definitely yes. Casual and relaxing with tasty Thai food.

Aroon Rai Restaurant, 43 Kotchasarn Road, Muang, Chiang Mai, telephone 053-276-947. Open seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. Parking available behind the restaurant.