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This Thai spot has a hidden menu

Thai North Thai North chef-owner Mamatcha MacGillivray serves Thai specialties, including Chiang Mai noodle curry. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2012
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There is a secret at Thai North restaurant in Brighton: Not everything here is what it appears to be.

For the uninitiated, the menu at this tidy 12-seat eatery seems like it offers mostly standard Thai food, with mostly standard results (pad Thai, chicken pineapple). Food and service are competent, but unremarkable. The wait staff will seem more tolerant than pleasant.

Why customers are not told about the small black chalkboard propped against the wall near the back of the restaurant remains a mystery. Sixteen dishes are listed in ThaiSiamese script. All are specialties of Northern Thailand, a region with its own language, culture, alphabet, and, it turns out, cuisine. Order one of these dishes (a Canadian customer has chalked in translations) and the waitress’s reserve turns to smiling enthusiasm. She and the owner are from Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of Northern Thailand. They pride themselves on their Northern Thai food, which is justified.

What’s on the hidden chalkboard is sublime. Chiang Mai noodle curry ($8.25), traditionally called khao soi, arrives as a large bowl of golden, aromatic broth brimming with egg noodles, a braised chicken leg, and a scoop of crunchy-fried noodles. The taste is partly driven by a massaman curry base, partly by the long-simmering lemongrass, tamarind, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, and a bit of coconut milk. Flavor-rich red droplets of curry oil infused with chili pepper coat the noodles as you pull them out of the bowl. Fresh red onion and cilantro add texture, color, and contrast. For a smoky, citrus heat, roasted pequin peppers in oil are in a ramekin on the side. In Chiang Mai, this dish is common street food, but it is rarely found here.

Another wonder is the Northern style CH curry ($7.50), an example of the clean, complex taste characteristic of well-prepared dishes from this region. The owner comes over to help our waitress explain the dish, in which large dice of a roasted Thai melon, poached chicken, green beans, and miniature Thai eggplant are in a broth of galangal, lemongrass, shallots, shrimp paste, dried and fresh chilies, citrus leaves, and Thai herbs. And while the restaurant will pour regular-menu red curry sauce on just about anything, our hosts are aghast at my request for a beef or shrimp version of this dish. “The CH is for chicken,” explains the waitress, in the way you might explain that oatmeal is made with oats. “We only eat this curry with chicken.”

The magic chalkboard also lists the traditional Northern Thai dish nam prik noom, which the restaurant is calling calls “pounded green chili dip.” Ground beef, roasted and crushed chili pepper, lemongrass, crushed tomato, cilantro, lime, garlic, and Thai fish sauce (nam pla) make up a very spicy chili-like dish. The mixture is spooned over sticky rice, the principal starch in Northern Thailand, which comes in a traditional, covered reed basket to protect it from drying out, and the rice is wrapped in plastic wrap before it goes in (while creating a high-temperature hazard to unwrap).

Yes, some items on the regular menu are worth ordering. Som-tum ($6.75), or green papaya salad, and larb kai ($11.25), a minced chicken salad with citrus and spices, are excellent and do not shy away from traditional seasonings. But too many dishes follow Americanized formulas and lack real spice; the restaurant believes these will sell better.

Whatever you chose,choose, the meal will end well, with the only dessert, slices of beautiful ripe mango alongside sweet coconut sticky rice ($6).

Stick with the chalkboard.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at ike@theideassection.com.

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