You can spot them a mile off, wandering the streets around Warorot market, clutching the creatures slain on wooden skewers. Their prey is on show in clear plastic bags, some missing a tail or an ear, their owner's appetite having got the better of them. These are the people who know that if you want animals for breakfast in Chiang Mai, you're going to have to get out of bed.
Tucked down a side street, packed with tiny shops flogging everything from hill tribe dresses and schoolgirl hair bows to leather bags and oversized woks, is a phenomenon of a restaurant. Go Neng, or Uncle Neng, is a permanently smiling character who runs the joint with his wife. It specialises in one very traditional dish, the doughnut-like pa thong ko. A classic treat of the Thai street scene, these are fritters made of a simple dough, inflated to a golden puff in a vast vat of hot oil, then dipped into pale, decadent condensed milk or grassy green pandan. Neng has been making pa thong ko for three decades, so he has the technique down pat. But 15 years ago, he changed things up.
In a stroke of marketing genius, the restaurant went from making good fritters to making animal fritters. The menu reads somewhat scarily, opening with the choices of frog, crocodile, elephant, dinosaur, or for a few baht more, the very special dragon. And with that, Neng elevated his restaurant from just another place to that place. Hashtag animalfritters. Hashtag sorrynotsorry. Hashtag nomnomnomnom.
On our first visit, I'd left Lori in bed, exercising and exhausted, the recovery from his major knee surgery taking its toll. So I was on single parent duty and wondering where to head on yet another day in Chiang Mai. We'd done soft play, we'd done temples, and we were looking for something fun and kid friendly with breakfast somewhere along the way. So we hailed a cab, grabbed a table, settled in and started ordering animals. Olivia couldn't believe her luck.
Go Neng was where he always is, out front where the daily queue forms from 6am, making his creatures. And this was when the surprise kicked in, because what we'd assumed would just be a cute gimmick turned out to be a true labour of love. There was detail here. There was care. Each and every animal was hand-crafted from the ball of dough on the floured surface, with strips and shapes painstakingly added to create the necessary scales, spikes, trunks or limbs. Two black sesame seed eyes were pressed in as the finishing touch, and an almost imperceptible nod of approval from Neng meant they were ready for the fryer. As soon as the dough hit the oil, it puffed up fast, springing into a three dimensional creature. These fritters take far longer to create than they do to eat. And that, in a way, makes them even more special.
Our table was right next to the action, and while her little brother napped, Olivia bounded between members of staff, testing out her new-found confidence to ask questions about everything from why-do-you-need-so-many-eggs to why-cant-I-touch-that-hot-thing. This kid has had a rough time, bless her, being grabbed and prodded at random since we left London. So however much we've tried to explain the cultural differences, she's still understandably wary a lot of the time. Here though, the staff practically adopted her and it was so good to see her comfortable, happy and interacting with strangers. When we return a week later with Lori, she bounces in as if she's at a family reunion with a joyful shout of "I'm back!" and they welcome her into the fold again. She's at home.
Anyway, back to the serious shit. The fritters. As the animals hit our table, we took our first bites. And they didn't just look impressive, they tasted beautiful too. Crisp and golden on the outside, soft and light on the inside, dangerously addictive when drenched in condensed milk and washed down with a pint of iced chocolate. We know this doesn't class as a remotely healthy breakfast, but there is a time and a place for homemade quinoa bars, and this was not it. Oh, and a word from the wise: one adult and a five year old aren't physically capable of eating every animal on the menu. But hell, we had fun trying.
The place itself may be popular, a dream for animal lovers, pa thong ko obsessives and devotees of the cult of instagram. But in reality, it's nothing fancy. Just a white room, with a few tables covered in plastic gingham. There is news footage of Neng and his fritters on the tv high up on the wall. The napkins are a roll of toilet paper next to the finger-smudged bottles of soy sauce. Here it is, quite literally, the people who make the place. They may not all be related, but they may as well be, jostling and joking and clearly knowing each other inside out. Because this is no faceless conveyor belt of a factory. This isn't fast food. This is love, served with a healthy dollop of irreverence. And that, surely, is worth waiting for.
90 Wichayanon Rd
Tambon Chang Moi, Chiang Mai
Phone: +089 756 6444
Opening hours: Monday – Sunday: 6 am – 11:00 am