There is little demand for the umpeenth review platform and so long gone are the days where I spend energy focussing on individual restaurant and business analyses. Every once in awhile, however, I find myself in a place that leaves enough of an impression that I am compelled to narrate my experience there. My time at Little Good Things Cafe in Mae Hong Son is an example.
The capital city of the Northern Thai province of the same name, Mae Hong Son is a little slice of heaven often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Pai. For those with time to spare, this town is an easy location to find oneself lost in time, staying days or weeks beyond original intentions. Those with more than a day to spare, who have found Little Good Things, will inevitable return the following day. And the one after. Repeat.
What distinguishes Little Good Things from your run of the mill eatery, aside of course from the memorable food the kitchen knocks out, is its ownership and management. Imm, who opened the business in 2016, curates an atmosphere that is convivial and welcoming, non-judgemental, and that fosters interest by and of its patrons. There is little better way to while away an afternoon than in the mixed company the cafe calls in. In the three idle afternoons I spent at Little Good Things, I met a slew of thought-provoking individuals.
There was the young man with a passion for non-Western music, that which would seem esoteric to the average ear of someone from the European or American continents. Shan music was of particular interest, and so he planned a trip purely to research this particular genre. One day he showed up at the cafe with a couple of boxes of vintage cassettes. The excitement in his eyes was palpable, the sort that is infectious; now, when I am back in England, I am eager to familiarise myself with some of these recordings too.
And then the German musician and sound engineer, a self-professed snowbird who winters in Thailand before returning to Europe in spring for the start of the festival circuit. The Australian couple who challenges traditional attitudes toward retirement and have pushed themselves on a gap year, one also a musician. The office workers who had the head to save up and get gone in order to formulate plans to maintain three or four day work weeks upon returning home. The youthful full timers who are in love with their careers but needed a break. The locals who return daily with their own containers, an act Imm encourages with positive environmental messages dotted around the restaurant.
Last but not least, Imm's kind, wonderful mother, putting her culinary skill to great use to cook a solid mixture of Western, Thai, and Burmese foods that are all equally a pleasure to consume.
The food is a gastronomic parcel of comfort, where even if previously unfamiliar the flavours are somehow evocative of the feeling of home. The uniform look of contentment taken on by the entire person, body and mind, of other diners upon their first bite indicates they feel the same way. Eyes closed and the greatest effort is to chew the food for as long as possible in a bid to extend this experience forevermore.
Between the culinary creativity of Imm and the extraordinary kitchen talents of her mother, Little Good Things Cafe is a place where anyone could be in their element if only they took the effort to just show up.
Pa lo is a braised five spice stew of Chinese origin but Thais and Chinese covet its comforting flavours equally. What sets the pa lo at Little Good Things apart from every other variation I've tried is its level of sweetness. I suspect this is because most of my experience with the dish is made in a central style; ask just about any Thai to describe Bangkok food and they will say "sweet" ahead of any other descriptor.
Along with five spice (the top Thai brand, Lobo, includes cinnamon, ground coriander, bay leaf, star anise and allspice), Pa lo contains caramel-y palm sugar and dark soy sauce that adds a rich molasses undertone. When too much of the former is added and the dish is overly sweet, the cloying nature can mute any possibility of equilibrium that should exist between the ingredients as an aggregate.
When I saw the dish of the day at Little Good Things was pa lo, I was initially disappointed. Sure, a few bites are good, but how could I eat an entire bowl of such a saccharine stew? My bias was discomfirmed after my first mouthful. This is pa lo like no other I've tried, where the richness of the dark soy is showcased and salt overrides the sugaryness, but only moderately so that the fare still offers that expected sweetness.
A speciality of Imm's mother, the Burmese chicken curry is a great introduction to the curry style of Thailand's Westerly neighbour. Contrasting with the Thai method of beginning with a ground curry paste, Burmese counterparts tend to start with a sort of sofrito of garlic, onions, ginger, and chillies. Ground spices, especially turmeric, are then added.
Little Good Things maintains a rotating daily special, which comes in the form of a main dish with salad and rice. There is also a fixed menu featuring items like smoothies and Buddha bowls. I didn't try any of the food from the menu, but everything I saw come out of the kitchen looked spectacular. If you happen to find yourself in Mae Hong Son, and you should, then you would be doing your life a disservice to skip visiting Little Good Things.