- Name: Unchai Restaurant
- Location: 2351 Burrard St., Vancouver
- Phone: 604-559-6484
- Instagram: @unchairestaurant
- Cuisine: Thai
- Additional information: Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. No reservations.
- Rating system: Cheap eats
Unchai’s most popular dish, Pad Ki Mao, announces itself long before it hits the table.
While still getting comfy in a tight two-seater wedged against a window, you hear the hiss of oil as it hits a screaming-hot wok. This is immediately followed by the sizzle of pork being quickly seared and browned.
A cloud of steam rises above the partition between dining room and kitchen, which is really just a glorified backsplash on the garde manger. Ladles scrape and stir. A wok clangs and bangs. The sweet aroma of singed onion fills the air.
If you were to peek around the corner, you would see chef Narong Yumongkol leaning over the wok station as tall flames lick around the edges. With one lean, muscled arm he tosses the stir-fry, over and over, again and again. With the other, he reaches over to the counter, grabs a spoon and tastes.
Without looking up, he adds a dash of chili. Taste. Toss. Scrape.
Then a squeeze of soy. New spoon. Taste. Toss. Scrape.
Mesmerized by the dance, you slink back to your seat. Minutes later, a brown clump of noodles sprinkled with finely slivered herbs and golden garlic chips is delivered to the table in a puff of smoke.
It doesn’t look particularly appetizing. But the warm wok breath combined with the floral vibrancy of fresh mint and holy basil is intoxicating. The textural contrast of silky noodles and bouncy pork against the crisp crunch of gai lan, bell peppers and bean sprouts is captivating. And the taste – dark and caramelized, brightened with herbaceous lime and buzzing with tingly heat – is divine.
The Pad Ki Mao is a delicious dish and so much more complex than your standard pad Thai.
“Which really, you can get anywhere so why order it here,” the chatty server says with a proud nod.
But its punishing preparation – all that heavy tossing, constant scraping and finely tuned tasting – has been nothing but trouble for Mr. Yumongkol since he and his wife, Warisara Unchai, left the renowned Maenam fold of restaurants to open Unchai last February.
“We are temporarily closed for the week due to the chef’s back,” read a recent (and increasingly common) apology on the Unchai Instagram feed.
Mr. Yumongkol knows very well how physically demanding the life of a cook can be. Now 41, he’s been working behind the stoves since he was 12. First, at a small family restaurant near his hometown in northern Thailand, eventually moving up to the high-end Sukhothai Bangkok hotel, from which he was recruited to go overseas to become sous chef at Le Méridien Dubai.
But Unchai is the first restaurant he has owned. And even though the modest 16-seater is only a few steps ups from the Sen Pad Thai food-court stall on Granville Island (where he was previously head chef), he and Ms. Unchai (they met while both were working at Salathai, then joined the Maenam group together) run it as a true mom-and-pop shop fuelled by the labour of love.
Initially, they were open every day. They shop themselves for obscure ingredients, some of which (culantro, for instance) must be ordered from Thailand. The chef makes all his own curry pastes, usually a two-day process. And in his eagerness to showcase all sorts of regional northern and central Thai specialties not found elsewhere in Vancouver, they offered a huge menu that backed him into a tight spot because only he knew how to make them.
Without any advertising, Unchai has become a word-of-mouth sensation. There are lineups every night and full sittings at lunch.
Pad Ki Mao, however, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and Mr. Yumongkol ended up in physiotherapy. Now, after some time off, several menu refinements, a reduction in opening hours and the training of new staff, the restaurant seems to be operating at a comfortable pace.
When it reopened two weeks ago, the Pad Ki Mao was gone – along with the pad Thai. Many customers cried, but really, there is so much more deliciousness on this new menu to discover.
The new Gang Kua curries (with chicken, beef or shrimp) are far more complex and much better balanced than the old (slightly sweet) Unchai curry. A red curry, it boasts deep umami funk from house-made shrimp paste mingled with a riot of roasted spices, the brightness of whole makrut limes, the floral woodiness of ginger root and long-lasting chili heat.
The crab omelette – a huge fistful of freshly shelled crabmeat folded inside a gilded egg pancake – is now a mainstay.
The Chuchi Moo Grop, with its slabs of pork belly encased in a light crunchiness yielding to melting tenderness – is a must try.
And if you are feeling adventurous, you will want to try the Boat Noodle Soup – but only if you really like the bitter taste of pork blood. This uncompromising version is very rich and thick, coagulating quickly under the heat like a dark-red stracciatella.
But whatever you do, order a salad. The brightly herbaceous Plaa Goong, with spicy shrimp and sweet lemongrass, is out of this world. And the Beef Cook Foon just bursts with the vibrancy of fresh celery leaves and surprises with the slight chew of powdered rice.
You can once again order the Pad Ki Mao: Mr. Yumongkol has relented to popular demand and brought it back. But don’t ask for the pad Thai. You can get that anywhere.