Ronnarong Thai Tapas Bar
255 Washington St., Somerville
Open Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
For a decade, Great Thai Chef served food from a nondescript brick corner on the edge of Union Square, getting decent reviews but never much attention. Then, last year, the owner and chef, Ronnarong Saksua, renovated the interior of the restaurant, softening the room with green walls, a sleek new bar, and bright pillows. He also remade the menu, adding a series of intriguing Thai “tapas,’’ included glorified beef jerky, and new entrees.
The result is the renamed Ronnarong Thai Tapas Bar, with a menu that’s both playful and adroit. Although you can order many of the traditional dishes that often show up in American Thai restaurants - pad thai, pad se-u, tom yum, curries - you might also be surprised. The most interesting dishes are on the tapas menu, where everything costs $5, an economical way to eat.
Dining here, you get the idea that Saksua and his staff have paid attention to the details. While we looked at the menu, our waitress brought a bowl of complimentary round shrimp crackers. The tapas are served on crisp white dishes, each one adorned with a flower carved from a carrot and embellished with red cabbage and other vegetables.
Golden crowns ($5) are mild little treats, dainty rice-flour shells with scalloped edges, filled with minced chicken and shrimp, peas, and corn. Paradise beef ($5), a Slim Jim with a higher calling, manages to be both tender and dried, sweet and spicy. The dish is unusual enough that you want to keep tasting. The tom yum soup ($3), whose firepower was one-star, sent us gasping for water - and fearing dishes with two and three stars.
Saksua is not shy with spice, although you can request milder versions of some dishes. We ordered a less spicy version of duck choo chee ($12) - a two-star dish - and were impressed with the tender pieces of duck. Pad thai ($9) is disappointingly sweet, with almost no tanginess to balance the flavor. But the chicken is tender, and the shrimp nicely cooked.
Drunken chicken ($11) is spicy, as promised, and the tiny pieces of diced chicken ooze with the garlicky sauce. Although the spicy beef salad ($12) is rated two-star hot, it doesn’t live up to that fiery factor. The combination of beef and lime dressing is wonderful, although Ronnarong’s salad, with red onions and scallions served on a bed of lettuce, doesn’t have as many vegetables as other versions of this dish.
Ronnarong has paid great attention to its drink menu, both alcoholic and temperate. The homemade sodas ($3) - basil, ginger, lemongrass, chili - are addictive, and the flavors can be combined for interesting mixes. We tried the lemongrass, tangy and sweet. The drinks from the bar are playful: a Thai-mosa (with guava, tamarind, and sparkling wine) and a Thai sangria that includes sake and lemongrass.
From the outside, a brick cube on a corner in Union Square, Ronnarong could be a dentist’s office. But inside, the restaurant has been renovated into a cheery room with an el-shaped bar on one side, a row of tables along the other. Behind the tables, stretching the length of the restaurant, a wooden bench has been built into the wall and studded with pillows. The tables are close enough that they almost feel communal.
The menus are works of art, heavy covers studded with hand-carved elephants and trees. Even the bathroom walls are intriguing, decoupaged with lush photos of Thailand: elephants and monkeys, beaches and dramatic rock falls. Especially in the glare of winter’s approach, all of this - the food, the pictures, the cheerful restaurant - makes you want to immediately book a flight to Bangkok.