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CHEAP EATS

Thai family secrets released for flavor

Sugar & Spice has the kind of menu that can easily induce decision angst. The nearly 100 choices run tantalizingly through the best that Thai cuisine has to offer -- coconut-rich curries, char-grilled meats, lime-spritzed salads, and so on. But we found you can relax and order just about anything at this spiffy new Porter Square storefront. The kitchen's range of success never dips below good and often soars to outstanding.

In fact, everything works here. The retro, space-age decor is just plain fun with its curved, blue-tiled walls, mod lighting, and Mondrian-like glass panels. Black-clad servers whisk about the place unobtrusively, always appearing tableside at the right moment. Soft jazz plays.

Spiciness is to order. Presentation is artful. Even vegetarians can find safe haven here; nearly every dish has a truly meat-free option (soy sauce subs for fish sauce and a designated vegetable-only wok is used). And all this upscale perfection comes at dive prices: Most of the entrees fall into the $7 to $8 range. So where has this restaurant been all our dining lives? Though it opened in mid-November, in a way Sugar & Spice has been three generations in the making. Owner/chef Penjan Kridaratikorn hails from Nakhon Si Thammarat, a southern Thai city.Her grandmother opened a tiny sidewalk cafe there, which Penjan's mother later expanded. In that busy kitchen, Penjan was schooled in the family cooking secrets such as how best to pound fresh ginger and basil for aromatic curries. She then switched continents, opened two Thai restaurants (Sweet Chili, in Arlington and Cambridge), and tossed aside many of those secrets to please American palates. At Sugar & Spice, Penjan "wants to do Thai Thai, authentic cooking," says manager Mookda Nuwong.

One such exquisite dish was our first appetizer, numtok ($5.95). Slices of char-grilled beef (or pork) bathed in the Thai power-hitters -- lime juice, Thai chili pepper, and dusky fish sauce -- came tossed with a fantastically fragrant confetti of kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, and ginger-like galangal. Served atop iceberg lettuce, this dish epitomizes the harmony Thai cuisine is known for. Tender, hot-off-the-grill meat balances the crisp lettuce; the airy herbs; the earthy fish sauce; the sour lime; the dash of sugar.

Also superb were morning glory ($5.25), a delicate tempura of julienned carrot, slivered tofu, baby shrimp, and leafy green watercress tossed in a sweet-sour dressing but still wonderfully crisp; and shrimp mermaid ($4.95), elegant, cone-shaped fried spring rolls stuffed with a succulent trio of shrimp, crabmeat, and chicken.

Pla dook foo ($6.95) looks daunting -- but try it. This appetizer, which translates to "fish catfish puffy" is catfish chopped so finely that when fried it puffs into a crisp, messy, golden cloud that looks vaguely, as one friend put it, like the foam inside a Barcalounger. But paired with a vibrant mango-lime sauce, sharp red onion, and cashew nuts, it is an edible translation of "sanuk," the joy known to guide all Thai pursuits including cooking.

Despite the large menu, entrees truly vary -- no simple remix of standard sauces on varied ballast here. Steamed ginger fish ($11.95), a filet of tender cod, came in a delicate bath of light soy sauce offset only by ginger spears, scallion, and a flourish of cilantro atop a raft of napa cabbage. In contrast, golden shrimp ($10.95) was a rich, delicious yellow coconut curry whipped with egg and packed with hearty vegetables and plenty of shrimp.

Even simple-sounding entrees were carefully composed. Purple fried rice ($7.95) was a flavorful hill of sauteed rice topped with tufts of tart green mango, tangy shreds of marinated chicken, threads of deliciously browned omelette, red onion, and a crown of cilantro. Stir to blend and this seesaw of flavors shows just how refined fried rice can be. Pineapple fried rice ($7.95), too, was quite good (and not too sweet).

Lemongrass chicken ($7.95 or large, $9.95) is Penjan's favorite dish, and it shows. First, she intentionally lists it twice on the menu. Second, it's fantastic. The key is in both the near fistfuls of basil, lemongrass, and lime leaf and in the fresh, perfectly stir-fried mix of vegetables.

I strain to find complaints. Seafood in love ($12.95) came in a starchy, too-sweet chili sauce. For dessert, we liked the sweet, warm coconut sticky rice with mango ($2.50), but the fried ice cream ($2.50) tasted of spring rolls likely fried in the same oil. But the real problem is that it will take weeks to try all the other tempting dishes -- crispy pad Thai, papaya salad, barbecue -- not to mention the raft of frozen fruit drinks we never got to.

All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at ae.boston.com/dining

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Primavera 289 Walk Hill St., Roslindale. 617-522-1186. It's not sleek and chic like the cluster of hip restaurants that have cropped up in Roslindale Square in recent years, but don't go to Primavera for the ambience. Go for the high-quality home-cooked food, including super-garlicky grilled chicken pizza, tender veal parmesan, and excellent chicken broccoli ziti. The something-for-everyone menu also offers subs, tacos, burritos, fried seafood, and entrees like roasted pork loin and grilled salmon. Fantastic lemon cannoli and raspberry-amaretto cheesecake, too. (12/11/03, S.P.)

Firefly's Bar-B-Que & Beyond 235 Old Connecticut Path, Framingham. 508-820-3333. Don't be misled by the strip mall location, the slick decor, and the fancy menus. This is real barbecue, cooked low and slow, by a man who approaches the art with the exactitude of a vintner. Besides well-executed Southern sides and entrees, Steve Uliss's menu covers much of the barbecue map. Choose from ribs (St. Louis, spare, or baby back), pulled pork, brisket, or chicken, and five excellent sauces: North or South Carolina, Memphis, Beelzebar (spicy), or Texas. (12/04/03, D.T.)

Patou Thai 69 Leonard St., Belmont Center, Belmont, 617-489-6999. The best-looking place in town has walls the color of young banana leaves and sea blue, a coveted wine and beer license, a genial staff in plum mock turtlenecks, and a terrific menu of modern Thai food. All that with lots of seats and plenty of parking should make this new spot a big hit. (11/27/03, S.J.) Merengue 156-160 Blue Hill Ave., Boston. 617-445-5403. This Dominican restaurant is authentic, from the chef to the owner to the Red Sox players who frequent it during baseball season. Try the Spanish rice and fried plantains, the mofongo (or mashed plantains), salmon, bistec Merengue and don't miss one of the tropical shakes. (11/20/03, B.E.)

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