...., a small sleepy town surrounded by hills, about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai, skip the offerings at the numerous backpackers' cafes ("we cook Western food, Thai food, banana pancakes, spaghetti and meatballs, all foods") to save room for the authentic Thai food offered at two quiet spots on Ratchadamnoen Road.
Heading south on Rangthiyanon Road smack in the middle of town, pass the market on your left and Soi 2 on your right, and turn right at the next corner (Ratchadamnoen). About halfway down the block on your left sits a small place with a smoking grill in front. The hanging wooden sign is in Thai; the sound of pestle pounding mortar mingles with the snap of chicken fat dripping onto the coals. Remove your shoes before stepping inside and feasting on unforgettable Isaan food (English and Thai menu): all manner of yam (sweet-sour-spicy salads) including somtam, daikon, green mango, sour sausage, somtam phonlamai (fruit somtam, a real treasure), salted egg, and potato; laab; sup nawmai (bamboo salad --- mistranslated on the menu as "bamboo soup" ... because "sup" sounds like "soup"), grilled sausage and chicken so superbly marinated that dip would be overkill; and sticky rice. Come prepared to order your yam and laab spicy (phet) or not, and predominantly sweet or sour (waan/priaow), the friendly staff will work with you. Open until only about 4 or 5pm, but the stout, smiling proprietress told us that dinner could be arranged with advance notice, to start by 6pm -- an intriguing idea, given the obvious skills in the kitchen, and all of the exotic and unfamiliar herbs available at Pai's late/afternoon evening market.
A bit further down the road on your right, find another small place by the name of "Thai Food and Style Cooking". Look for the display case out front showing spicy sauced whole fish and 3 clay pots -- curries: red chicken curry, sour curry (gaeng som), and southern fish curry (gaeng tai plaa) on our early morning visit (the curries are a morning/early afternoon thing). A small mound of rice moistened with a bit of the curry of your choice is 10 baht ... an amount of food perfectly sized so as to leave room for sampling and comparison. There is also a translated menu with the usual offerings (somtam, laab, chicken-rice etc.) but at lunch or dinner time it's worth making the effort to convey you'd like something else ... we told the owner we were in the mood for heat and ended up with a delicious beef curry heavy on northern Thai herbs and beyond incendiary. She (the owner) is incredibly sweet and will do her best to translate the Thai menu for you (on the back of the English menu, and longer); she literally glows when receiving compliments about the food. We felt that if we were staying on in Pai we could work out an arrangement whereby the kitchen might cook up, northern Thai-style, any of the unusual veggies we might purchase at the market. This place is open for dinner, at least till 9p.
Though both places have English menus and wonderful, inexpensive food, and are only 1/2 block away from backpacker row, they were strangely devoid of farang in this well-visited town ... but usually packed with Thais, always a good sign.