Thai, fit for the king
In search of authentic spices, flavors
Ever since I first saw him some 15 years ago when I was living in San Francisco, I have been having a not-so-secret love affair with His Majesty “The Great’’ Bhumibol Adulyadej - or rather with his photograph. Dressed in an ornate and heavily decorated royal uniform, the venerated and venerable King of Thailand looks down from the walls of every true Thai restaurant. I’ve noticed that a large and prominent photo often means the food is going to be very good. You don’t cut corners when the king is watching.
At least that was the case in San Francisco. Here in Boston, I’ve had mixed results. Boston hosts a few spectacular Thai restaurants. But at the majority of Thai eateries here, there is an unnerving tendency to remove essential herbs, spices, and ingredients that the owners feel are too challenging for Boston diners. Even with the king looking on.
I asked my waiter at Amarin of Thailand, in Newton Corner, why they do this. He looks around to verify that the nearest diners cannot hear us. “This is Newton,’’ he says, sotto voce. “They cannot have strong tastes.’’ So it’s not Amarin’s fault the food is bland, it’s yours.
Ideally, Thai dishes are a riotous, sexy, spicy balance of tastes, aggressively complementing and enhancing one another. Take the chili and shrimp paste out of som tum and you have the dissatisfying network-broadcast version of a racy R-rated movie. Next time, tell your waiter you’re old enough for R. Certain restaurants will be thrilled to make it for you. If they can’t, you probably shouldn’t be eating there.
I set out to get an overview of what many consider the best Thai restaurants in the Boston area (there are 178 east of Worcester). I polled some trusted restaurant cognoscenti and, yes, some actual Thai sources as a sanity check. I visited each of the resulting top eight places and tried a variety of dishes - three Thai classics at every restaurant, and then some of the house specialties.
The results are surprising, and quite comforting. Mom really is the best cook. If your Mom is Thai, that is.
Irin Doangpratheep, and her husband, Saesukh, opened S-&-I Thai in a tiny (10 seats at three tables) space in Allston five years ago. Because the space is so small, most customers order the food to go. Try arriving at an odd hour, say 4 p.m. for a late lunch or early supper, or just wait as long as it takes to get a seat. On the wall is an enormous photo-grid of your possible dinners, some of which are familiar: dishes like the savory and salty wide rice noodle dish, pad see ew (sliced meat with Chinese broccoli, egg, and dark soy), fragrant Massaman curry (mild yellow coconut curry with tamarind, cardamom, cinnamon, and other flavorings), and soothing tom kha gai (coconut-galangal chicken soup). These are all excellent. Not until I taste it at S-&-I do I understand why anyone likes crab rangoon. The filling is light, seafoody, and sublime - reportedly a favorite of college students at nearby BU.
But it’s the dishes you’ve never heard of that are the real treasures here. We ask what’s popular with Thai customers, prepared in the traditional way. Doangpratheep and her staff suggest ka phrao khai yiao ma mu sap, which turns out to be a mound of ground pork and sweet Anaheim red and green peppers, red and white onions, chopped hot chilies, mysteriously blackened hard-cooked egg quarters, and a supporting cast of spices and fresh herbs. The pork - and every part of the dish, really - is addictively delicious, which presents a problem once the heat is factored in. It builds up as you go, but it’s so good you can’t stop eating.
Refresh your palate with some “Cofe Coconut Syrup 100%.’’ Surprisingly light, sweet and tongue-cooling over ice, it gets me ready for the next dish.
“You like 1,000 year old egg!’’ the waitress announces, laughing with satisfaction. We’ve eaten most of the ka phrao khai yiao ma mu sap (no, I cannot pronounce it), and even the blackened-eggs part is improbably great. “Now, here’s phat phet pork.’’ She smiles as she presents a dish of sweet crispy-fried pork-belly with bright red fresh-chili topping over wok-tossed garlic green beans. Who ordered this? No one, it turns out. Apparently because we are having such a great time with ka phrao khai yiao ma mu sap, we now get phat phet pork and - now another unordered plate arrives - yum neur, which is spicy sliced sirloin laced with light strands of cooked egg and diced herbs, also spectacular.
Irin and her staff are thrilled that we enjoy her authentic dishes. Who wouldn’t? I hope it’s OK to hug the waitress.
Just two miles away, in Brookline, is Rod Dee. Piyanuch Prom ploy has run this 15-seat restaurant for 15 years, and it’s rightly legendary among Thais in Boston. The family recently opened a second location by the same name five blocks away. Her kitchen is staffed by three Thai women who deftly manage outsize metal woks over a volcano-like blue jet of natural gas. The food is vibrant and authentic.
The pad see ew here is perfect. Dark and light soy sauces are seared onto firm and chewy wide rice noodles and diagonally cut gai-lan (Chinese broccoli). Streaked with the soy, the noodles remain white, the dish is light, and tiny bits of egg (scrambled during cooking) give a comforting, complementary texture. It takes a very high temperature and a lot of skill to get this classic dish this perfect. Few other places come close.
Other Rod Dee dishes are executed with similar craftsmanship and passion. Two people in our party call the beef curry the best they ever had. It’s rich and spicy with identically shaped pineapple and potato morsels that make each bite a clever surprise: fruity or savory. Honestly, every dish is a joy, and this restaurant is a treasure.
There is a separate menu here for Thai customers. Promploy and her nephew Sittithep Kvajangsant go over it with me and echo some of the comments I heard earlier from Irin Doangpratheep. When they prepare dishes for non-Thai people, they use less spice and some spices might be omitted altogether. Genuine Thai preparations use lots of flavors that, some owners argue, may be odd to Bostonians: galanga, kaffir lime leaves, krachai (fingerroot), fish sauce, kha phrao (holy basil), Thai basil (sweet purple basil), phrik khi nu (Thai pepper), cilantro, coriander (seeds and root), tumeric, dried shrimp powder, tamarind, palm sugar, and several types of hot chilies. They buy some of these ingredients at Battambang Supermarket in Lowell or order from a distributor in New York. Many of the other once-exotic vegetables are now available at specialty markets, including A. Russo & Sons in Watertown (now is a good time for Thai eggplant). Thankfully, such ingredients are becoming more available.
The only problem with these two restaurants is seating. Luckily, there’s Dok Bua in Brookline. Very good dishes, authenticity, and places for 50 diners. The quality of the ingredients is not always up to the level of S-&-I and Rod Dee, and the degree to which you can get them to give you a true Thai range and level of seasoning is more limited, but Dok Bua is a very good Thai restaurant, nonetheless. Especially if you want to dine out with a group. Or sit down during the dinner hour. Try the traditional Thai appetizer miang kam: raw cha-plu leaves filled with red onion, fresh chili, ginger, garlic, lime, peanuts, and dried shrimp. The taste is fresh, very citrusy, and utterly captivating - this dish alone is worth the visit. The cod with chili and lemon sauce is another that shows off Dok Bua’s knack for bright, light, spicy flavor. Parsley, lime, cilantro, celery, and complex chili-heat celebrate steamed fresh local cod.
Bamboo Thai (Brighton), Amarin of Thailand (Newton), Sugar and Spice (Porter Square), and Brown Sugar Cafe (Boston) all have problems with underseasoned dishes that leave sometimes less-than-fresh ingredients exposed. All four serve chicken Massaman curry that appears to be an assembly of dry cooked ingredients (chicken slices, potato cubes, onion, vegetables) with curry sauce poured over and given a stir. None of these versions tastes like the ingredients were actually cooked in the curry.
At Bamboo, goong kraberg (a vegetable-filled pastry shell appetizer) appears to have frozen peas and canned corn. Amarin also seems to use frozen peas and carrot cubes in its golden ka-yong appetizer. The restaurant removes the delicious leaves from the Chinese broccoli in pad see ew (too bitter?) while Brown Sugar uses regular broccoli florets (more familiar?) that wind up being a sponge for oil.
House of Siam on Columbus Avenue in Boston (I far prefer this location of the restaurant) did the best of the nice-dining-room set, but even there the spices - in the chili salmon and other dishes - is simply hot, rather than complex or interesting. It hits only one part of your tongue, failing to excite your whole palate as S-&-I, Rod Dee, and Dok Bua all do.
Of course, these restaurants could produce excellent Thai food. Amarin proves that with its hangley beef curry, a beautifully prepared fragrant and nicely spicy Northern Thai-style coconut-coriander-cumin curry with potatoes and thin sweet peppers. It puts most of the rest of the menu there to shame. Is the restaurant Americanizing dishes for our benefit, or because it’s easier to buy less-exotic ingredients and staff the kitchen with non-Thai cooks? Let them know it’s not what you want.
If you have to, remind them the king is watching.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant critic Devra First returns next week.