The moment we lifted the lid off our little pot of steamed mussels and breathed in the puff of tantalizing steam that rose from it, we were reminded that you can't judge a restaurant by its chotchkes.
Never did we expect to find fat New Zealand mussels lolling in a pot of luscious broth in this little storefront restaurant in Quincy. But there they were, simmering with a thumb-sized chunk of fresh lemongrass, an abundance of wild lime leaves and Thai basil, and even a big wedge of blue ginger . And there we were, sitting amid a décor that Martha Stewart might refer to as "festive fowl."
Yes, we were surrounded by a flock of duck knick-knacks, duck posters, duck art prints, carved ducks, and the occasional stray wooden loon. Seven years ago when Worachai Wiwatyukhan opened Little Duck Thai Restaurant, he figured it was the perfect spot to unload his all-things-duck collection.
It's a charming look that many regulars never see, because Little Duck is most popular for delivered take out. Walk inside, though, and about 10 tables, a few attentive servers, and duckapalooza await.
Our first meal started out, well, just ducky, beginning with the above-mentioned mussels ($6.75) and their slurp-inducing broth and moving on to the Thai vegetable pancakes ($4.95). These stuffed dough pockets made from tapioca flour crisp up outside when fried but remain nicely chewy inside. Filled with a mash of spinach and spring onion, they were a hot-cool, crunchy-soft treat.
Whole shrimp rolls ("goong tod," $6.50) with their tails poking out of the end of eggroll wrappers were tender and flavorful due to a savory marinade. Curry rolls ($4.95) recalled Indian samosas with their soft, curried potato filling tucked inside a thin wrapper.
But what really got us gabbing were the side sauces. Rather than the same all-purpose liquid in every dipping bowl, ours held a new flavor in each -- a darkly sweet molasses sauce, Thai chili sauce tweaked with a mess of fresh garlic, a fiery chili-citrus-soy sauce, and a mild sweet chili sauce.
Had everything else kept up this standard, I'd say this may be among the area's best Thai spots, but unfortunately too many dishes took a swan dive, or rather a mallard dive, from there.
We just couldn't find the fresh, potent flavors we started with anywhere else on the menu. A lackluster "tom kar" chicken-coconut soup ($3.25) tasted like nearly undoctored coconut milk. Steamed dumplings ($4.25) were gummy, and the beef saté seemed unmarinated. Other entrees lost points because of thick, corn-starch sauces, including the hot basil chicken ($9.95), which otherwise had a pleasing fresh basil flavor.
We did, however, find plenty of serviceable neighborhood Thai, great for a meal if you live nearby. Pad Thai noodles ($7.50) were nicely done -- not too greasy or sweet. Tofu in green curry ($9.95) had clean chili heat and loads of fresh veggies. Four Kings ($13.95) -- mixed seafood in a rich red curry -- had the complex spiciness you expect.
Other good bets included the crispy garlic duck ($14.25), which recalled good Southern fried chicken, only with a haystack of fresh veggies in garlic sauce on the side. Whole striped bass ($18.95, serves two), though overcooked, was tasty in a mild brown sauce. And while a dish of "spicy bamboo" ($13.95) could have used more kick, the big, skin-on salmon filet that we chose as our meat was tender and juicy.
Desserts returned the oomph that hooked us at the start. A wedge of warm, syrup-soaked Thai custard ($2.75) seemed like the perfect offspring of an Italian ricotta pie and flan. Sweet, fresh lychees on ice ($2.75) came afloat in a light syrup that was refreshing enough to drink. It was just the kind of summer taste you want while bird watching, which we're sure to do here again over a meal of our favorite appetizers and desserts.