Sweet Ginger is the rare restaurant where it’s tough to decide between dining in and taking out.
The Thai eatery in Somerville’s Union Square has a tidy and attractive, although somewhat small, dining room. The crisp orange-and-black décor, complete with faux ”spiders” on the minimalist lighting fixtures, feels positively autumnal.
Service is friendly and prompt; it’s easy to be in and out in under an hour. But with the busy, clattering kitchen in full view and a steady stream of take-out customers passing through, it’s not the most relaxing or romantic dining experience.
Perhaps in keeping with the restaurant’s name, there’s a notable sweetness to many of the dishes. It’s a subtle but distinctive soft note that isn’t usually in the forefront among the bold flavors of Thai cuisine.
For example, while crab Rangoon ($4.50) is a standard appetizer on Thai menus - and generally interchangeable from place to place - at Sweet Ginger the addition of curry adds warm color and flavor to a filling that elsewhere is always rich but often bland. And yes, there’s a faint but unmistakable sweet undertone.
Unexpected, yet pleasant, flavors crop up again and again. Another appetizer, the spicy todman ($7), is a fritter of minced shrimp and chicken. But the flavor that dominates is that of lime leaves, tasting very similar to lemongrass. Green flecks of scallion add both color and crunch to the otherwise meaty interior.
The seaweed rolls appetizer ($5), an unusual combination of seaweed wrapped around sweet potato noodles and carrot, then fried, offers an addictive combination of briny flavor and crispy texture. Add a sesame-ginger sauce and you have big flavors in a bite-size portion.
The enormous entrée menu includes numerous expertly prepared Thai standbys, many of them with an interesting twist. The pad Thai ($9), a noodle dish that’s to Thailand as mac-and-cheese is to the United States, was generous with add-ins like shrimp, egg, scallions, and peanuts. Large and tender chunks of chicken make the dish especially meaty and substantial.
The drunken noodles ($9.25), a similar stir-fried dish but with wider noodles and a wider variety of vegetables, packs a punch, giving a potent burn at the back of the throat on the way down. This isn’t usually a wildly spicy dish, but Sweet Ginger’s version is not for the faint of palate.
The massaman curry with tofu ($10) garners extra points for its inclusion of sweet potato to this rich, creamy dish.
There are some gems to be found among the house specialties. A dish called rama shower ($12) was a real treat. While the grilled chicken atop steamed vegetables was nothing to write home about, the accompanying peanut sauce was thick and luscious, transforming the other ingredients.
Similarly, the marinated and grilled strips of meat in the Sweet Ginger BBQ pork ($12) were nice and tender, although not distinctively Thai in their own right. But the addition of two dipping options, a sweet peanut sauce and a vinegary sauce with diced cucumbers, punch up the flavor profile.
The mango curry ($13), a combination of shrimp, chicken, mango, and various vegetables in a yellow sauce, was bright and delicious.
The Sweet Ginger salmon ($14.50) offers a massive slab of fish topped with ginger, onion, baby corn, snow peas, mushroom, carrots, and peppers. But the flavors were a bit confusing, more Chinese than Thai.
Amid heavier dessert choices like fried ice cream ($3.50) and fried banana ($2.50), my pick would be the more authentic mango with sweet sticky rice ($6). Just faintly sweet and with the tropical tang of perfectly ripe mango wedges, this light dessert makes a pleasant, mild cooldown after a flavorful meal.