Drag Nirvana

A new world-class restaurant on Guadalupe

Kao Soi Chicken
Kao Soi Chicken (Photo By John Anderson)

It's an unusual occurrence in today's market when restaurateurs open a new establishment and make a concerted effort to cook food as authentically and traditionally as possible and are devoted to using the proper ingredients with no shortcuts or sacrifices. When they combine this effort with reasonable prices, substantial portions, and good service right out of the gate, it's an anomaly of great dimension. Madam Mam's is such a restaurant, and their success doesn't come by accident -- in fact it was foretold astrologically.

Most Austin foodies know Sapachai "Sap" Apisaksiri from his days as the manager of Fresh Plus Market on West Lynn, or as Foo Swasdee's partner at Satay Restaurant and Food Products. When he hosted a chef visiting from Thailand who was also proficient in astrology, Sap agreed to a reading. The chef told Sap that his chart was "really weird," indicating that he would meet his true love about every 30 years.

Shortly after returning to Thailand in 1999 to care for a sick relative, Sap renewed contact with the woman who would soon become his bride, Chatfung (better known as "Mam"). They had first met in high school in 1968 in Bangkok when Mam transferred to Sap's school. She was a year younger, and although her girlfriends would giggle every time Sap passed Mam in the halls, he could never muster the courage to introduce himself.

Sap left for college, and three years of letter writing between the two ensued, but Mam couldn't induce Sap to ever ask her out, so she gave up on him and married a medical student. In 1992 he tracked her down while on a family visit to Bangkok, and found her still married to her husband. When he visited again in 1999 she was separated from the doctor (as the stars had predicted) and after a short courtship, the two were wed.

The union serendipitously matched a man who had been intimately involved for years with food and the restaurant business with a woman who had grown up learning to cook at the side of her grandmother (known far and wide in Thailand as an incredible cook). Mam had also had a cooking and recipe column in a Bangkok newspaper for some time, had taught cooking classes, and was considered a master chef in her own right.

They were able to obtain a lease on the failed Thai Menu Restaurant at the intersection of Guadalupe and 26th St. and opened Madam Mam's quietly this summer, specializing in Thai homestyle food, interspersed with many street-vendor noodle dishes. The recipes, as Sap is very quick to point out, all originate with Mam and her grandmother. There are a few Thai standards found on the menu, but Madam Mam's introduces Austin Thai food aficionados to a whole new world of delights, with simple yet elegantly refined flavor.

The space is clean and brightly lit, with soothing Thai music piped over the speakers. Parking, which for a university-area location can be a nightmare, is easily found at a pay parking lot (a half block to the south) during the day, and at night is generally less of a problem. Service is unobtrusive and efficient, and a new, much more descriptive menu will be unveiled later this month.

Our first visit at Mam's found us starting with the Tom Khah coconut soup with chicken ($5.95). The first spoonful was nirvana, with the aroma and flavor of galangal and makroot blending perfectly with the richness of the coconut cream, the sharpness of lime juice and zest, and the pungency of Thai chiles. We have never tasted a finer version of this soup, in Austin or anywhere else.

An appetizer called Kao Tung ($3.95) intrigued us enough to request the small platter of crispy rice cakes accompanied by a sauce of fresh shrimp and pork blended with coconut milk, shallot, cilantro root, chile, and fish sauce. The subtle rich flavor of the dip-like sauce was a perfect match for the crunchy rice cakes.

Next arrived an item from the special's board, Pad Cha Catfish ($8.95). Barring some miraculous new arrival within the next few months, this dish will go down in our notebooks as the best fish dish we've eaten in Austin this year. It is a "dry" curry (meaning no broth) of bits of fried catfish flash stir-fried with green peppercorns, white pepper, basil, kra chai (a peppery type of ginger), and shallot. The dish is traditional ancient Thai (before the introduction of the chile pepper), and every bite reveals yet another layer of intense, superlative taste.

We are huge fans of Thai beef salad, and Mam's version (at $5.50) is so good that it brings tears to the eyes. Thinly sliced beef strips and salad greens are tossed with a fiery dressing tangy with lime zest and juice, mellowed with palm sugar. The portion is huge and the taste ethereal. We paired this with a large bowl of Guay Teaw Nuer Combo (Beef Noodle Soup, $6.50). We found a heavenly broth rich from tendon, roasted shinbone, and marrow, coupled with rice noodles, rare and stewed beef slices, meatballs, and veggies. It makes one really appreciate the work that goes into producing a perfect stock.

The fresh spring rolls ($3.95) found at Mam's are what one should always expect: rolled-to-order and filled with a fine mix of shrimp, noodles, veggies, and plenty of basil and mint. The accompanying peanut sauce with honey and chile is a wonderful foil. Chu Chee Salmon ($8.95) from the blackboard is an excellent version of this classic reddish Thai seafood-only curry bathing a moist salmon fillet, and it's not artificially thickened like many versions at other Thai restaurants.

Pud Ped Ga Prao with Chicken ($5.95) is our new lunch favorite. It features ground chicken and mushroom in a spicy, flavorful sauce brimming with Thai basil, served with a mound of jasmine rice. Kao Soi ($6.50) is a famous ancient Chang Mai (northern) dish usually sold by vendors. This delicious dish features Chinese egg noodles tossed with Muslim-influenced curry spices, with bay leaf, chiles, lemongrass, and makroot.

Yen Ta Fo Hang ($6.50) is a popular vendor dish from Bangkok with a tangy sweetness containing fried garlic, tomato, fermented tofu, bok choy, and chiles coating squid, fish balls, just-cooked shrimp, crab-flavored sea leg, and noodles, and the legendary dish is superb. Although not big fans of the pedestrian Pad Thai, we felt that we needed to try Mam's version ($5.50) for comparison. Where many restaurants serve a vinegar-laced melange of gummy noodles, this version has a perfectly balanced sauce of tamarind and fruit juice, with a kiss of Thai chile and thick slices of chicken coating moist al dente pasta.

Thai food of this caliber is hard to find in much large cities, even on the West Coast, with heavily influenced Thai restaurant scenes. It is on a level with some of the best food found in Bangkok, and Austin should feel privileged to welcome Madam Mam's to our restaurant fold. When you go eat at Mam's, resist the temptation to order the familiar; be adventurous and select the less customary items. Do so and you'll guarantee yourself a meal of refined flavors that would make diners in Thailand envious.

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