As a waiter leads us to our table against a wall at Dok Bua, one of my dining companions turns to me and says, "Funny, the last time I was here, this side of the place was a grocery store with refrigerator cases. The other side had tables." We look carefully at the wall, which is covered with a foliage-themed contact paper. Then my companion announces, "They're still refrigerator cases!" Sure enough, the glass doors had been covered completely by the paper, with only the metal handles protruding at regular intervals. It might sound as if we're not very observant, but Dok Bua is filled with so much kitsch that it's hard to notice everything at once. There are still some groceries, plus a neon palm tree, for example, and the imitation banana tree, with bunches of very tiny fruits, in all their plastic glory. At the entrance are Asian salty and sweet snacks and a pinball machine.
Dok Bua, which means water lily, is owned by Thailand-born Nida Pong and has been in this spot for six years. A year and a half ago, it expanded its restaurant tables so that it now seats about 30. Recently, half a dozen friends mentioned the restaurant to me, all of whom had discovered it within the past year. What began as a market and restaurant -- located between Wulf's, the famous Brookline fish market, and the bagel emporium Kupel's -- has morphed into an eatery where the friendliest service meets some pretty terrific Thai food.
This spot does two of my favorite dishes quite well. One is pad si ew ($6.95), which is a variation of pad Thai. Si ew doesn't fuss with all the chopped egg bits and bean sprouts common to pad Thai. Instead, si ew consists of very wide rice noodles -- something like the dry chow foon noodles on a Chinese menu -- cooked with pieces of chicken and Chinese broccoli. The dark sauce barely coats the noodles, so the dish tastes light, the vegetable crisp, and the morsels of chicken caramel-like.
Som tum ($6.95) is the other dish I look for. Made from very thin and long matchsticks of green papaya, which are white and quite crisp, and tossed with a hot vinegary dressing, the salad also contains green beans, tomatoes, and peanuts. You can imagine eating this salad in tropical weather and feeling incredibly refreshed.
The best item on the menu is poo-nim ($12.95), which is billed as "crispy soft-shell crab." What arrives is a mountain of claws from cut-up soft shells that are dipped in a tempura-like batter and fried until golden brown. They define crisp. What a dish! Another surprise is the Thai omelet with ground shrimp ($6.95), made with an eggy batter that tastes of shrimp and that puffs in the pan. Stir-fried eggplant ($6.95), very tender with a warm heat, is tossed with crunchy vegetables like onions and green peppers.
Pla neung manao ($13.95) consists of a footlong steamed bass bathed in a lemony broth. Cooked with its head and bones intact, the flaky meat tastes especially sweet. A salad called larb ($7.95), a kind of spicy chili mixture, is offered with chicken or meat. It's finely chopped, cooked, and mixed with a limey dressing, mint leaves, red onion, and cucumber, presented on a bed of lettuce. Also delightfully hot is pla goong ($8.95), a grilled shrimp salad with celery, quartered button mushrooms, and lemon grass on a bed of greens.
If you don't like heat, better say so early on. As for take-out, Dok Bua packs its dishes so they don't leak all over your car on the way home. The containers have a nice, tight seal. But this food, with its crunchy and crisp textures and its mixture of cool greens and stir-fries, isn't as good at home. Greens wilt, deep-fried items get soggy, and the crunch is lost.
So settle in beside a wall of "foliage" and enjoy these exceptional dishes as they emerge from the pan.
All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants. Krazy Karry's Backyard Grill 319 Broadway, Arlington. 617-643-2004. It looks, feels, and smells a bit like the Golden Arches, and for good reason: Its owner is a former
Aneka Rasa 122 Harvard Ave., Allston. 617-562-8989. Malaysian cuisine, with its fantastically fragrant palette of flavors, is one of the most exciting cuisines in Southeast Asia, and this independently owned spinoff of the Penang restaurant chain is a good place to explore it. Go with friends, order dishes to share, and you're bound to find favorites from rich coconut curries and spicy noodle soups to tropical salads and savory grilled meats. (5/20/04, D.T.)
Steve's Authentic Greek Cuisine 316 Newbury St., Boston, 617-267-1817. Sitting pretty at the corner of Hereford for the past 22 years -- when there was nothing chic about "the other end" of Newbury Street -- Steve's offers inexpensive kebabs, along with other Greek specialties, such as the salted roe spread taramosalata and lemony avgolemono. Some Back Bay locals eat breakfast at Steve's several times a week. (5/13/04, S.J.)
Victoria Seafood 1029 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-783-5111. This unpretentious Chinese restaurant is a great place for a large party: You can feed a dozen people for under $100, without sacrificing quality. Try the special twin lobsters, done one of four ways, for $12.95. The sizzling beef with black pepper includes another favorite: garlicky green beans on top. With 247 items on the menu, you can't go wrong. (5/6/04, B.E.) El Taino 417 Hyde Park Ave., Roslindale. 617-325-5900. This Puerto Rican restaurant and Latin nightclub gives local islanders a taste of their native home and introduces island cooking -- which combines Caribbean, African, Indian, and European foods and seasonings -- to those unfamiliar with it. That means plenty of fried and baked meats and seafoods, lots of plantains, and delicious tropical juices and nectars. (04/29/04, S.P.)
Punjabi Dhaba 225 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-547-8272. Billed as an "Indian roadside cafe," Punjabi serves terrific, cheap food in a no-nonsense place where you order at a counter and take a large stainless steel tray -- heaped with curry and a mountain of rice and a zippy little onion pickle -- and find a seat in the crowd. (4/22/04, S.J.) Caffe Paolina 646 Humphrey St., Swampscott. 781-593-6455. The homemade pastas, light Southern Italian cuisine, and superb tiramisu at this petit restaurant taste all the better when served up by the friendly Lapore family. For now hours are early, so be sure to get there in time to enjoy the easygoing atmosphere and the clear, uncomplicated flavors of Chef Vincenzo's cooking. (4/15/04, D.T.)
Grill 417 417 Hanover St., Boston. 617-742-7172. It's getting difficult to find good, affordable restaurants in the North End. This one fits the bill. It's a small, casual place where freshness is the operative word, from the antipasto to the Grill 417, a grilled seafood platter with scallops, shrimp, tuna, swordfish, and salmon, as well as grilled veggies. Kids will love the pizza, and the pasta dishes are sublime. Be sure to start with the roasted scallops swimming (happily) in a light marsala-tomato sauce. (4/8/04, B.E.)