Vintage Thai at Uncle Boons
An early view, before the tables are packed.
In New York there are restaurants covering every square inch, roughly. And, as in most cities, many fail to be successful. For two years I had been walking by a dark, semi-underground location on Spring Street, just west of Bowery. On my daily walks it had been at least two different restaurants that I would glance at, but never consider trying. They both had the same mysterious quality, and an emptiness that didn't lend it a quality that said, "Come in!" When it flipped a third time to become Uncle Boons, I was still skeptical. The decor was still dark and ambient, but at least this time there was more of it. Less cookie cutter Japanese mall restaurant and more tiki themed hipster bar. Who was this Uncle Boon, and why did he think he could make this location work?
I thought about going, but I hadn't. And then IT happened. Pete Wells reviewed it in the Times. Once his two stars hit, the place was mobbed. I still walked by, but it was always in the morning on my way to the gym, and it was closed. I tried one night to get in, stepping inside around 7:45 p.m. I gave the host my phone number so they could call me. They called me at 10:15 p.m. So, yeah, that didn't happen.
My biggest tip for how to get in to a restaurant? Go early. I went with a friend at 6 p.m., before a show at 8 p.m. The only other table filled at that time was a large round table with two adults and two kids. I wondered what the kids would eat. I looked over the menu, my eyes aswirl with wanting every last dish, only a few of which I recognized from my long-ago trip to Thailand to visit my friend Karyn.
Karyn was in the Peace Corps in Thailand. She lived six hours north of Bangkok. At the time she was the only caucasian person living in Phichit. When we arrived it was dark. I asked how we would get to her house from the train station. "Don't worry," she said. I did, but when we arrived there were several trucks waiting around, put-putting their engines. I sat in the back as we curved our way to her home. We followed no road. While traveling around Thailand there wasn't a single dish I ate that didn't feel authentic and local. My enjoyment of every subsequent Thai meal in the States is colored by that trip, almost fourteen years ago.
Betel leaf wrap with ginger, lime, toasted coconut, dried shrimp, chiles & peanuts.
The first appetizer on the menu, Mieng Kum, noted that it was a "very traditional thai snack," and that the betel leaf wrap was only occasionally available. I like green stuff and was intrigued. The leaves arrived five to a plate and full of edible bits. If I were actually in Thailand, or in an Indiana Jones movie, I might assume there were also bugs in it. I'm sure there weren't. The sauce was also full of crunchy tidbits. Each bite became crunch dipped in crunch. I needed a smooth sauce, something thicker, with a more definitive flavor. As it was I felt like I was eating texture, and not flavor.
Charcoal grilled baby octopus
The charcoal-grilled octopus (above), was good. I will always order octopus but I know there are those out there who don't like its chewy and rubbery texture. The grill marks gave it a nice we-were-just-on-the-grill flavor. The sauce however was another miss, for me. It reminded me of a green tomatillo salsa and I think I wanted something less tangy and acidic. I wanted something that would stick to the tentacles.
The unimaginable happened midway between the octopus and our third dish, Yum Kai Hua Pli. I didn't take a photo of it. (I know, I know, settle down.) In my defense, I will say that the first dishes arrived in such a rapid pace that I don't quite feel to blame. If I can get on my soap box for a moment, WHY must plates arrive so quickly? I don't want to linger for hours, but I would like to take more then twenty minutes to eat. I get there are other things to consider, the kitchen, the crowd, but I've got to imagine that each dish could come out with at least five to ten minutes before the next arrived. Okay, I'm done.
The spicy roasted chicken salad was ridiculously good, and so brutally spicy that we added in an order of sticky rice. The salad had banana blossoms, for texture and a light floral flavor, crushed cashews, crispy shallots. Piled up in a giant pyramid of shredded matter, the salad was dressed in a peanutty coconut cream that was nutty and sweet. The initial wallop of spice didn't kick in until after I forked in a few mouthfuls. But then, whooo. It was a great example of pleasure and pain. I wanted to eat it but I needed to temper the heat. Sticky rice to the rescue.
Boneless beef rib curry with a side of roti
No Thai meal is complete without curry, and if you have the room, roti. The Massaman Neuh, named, I am guessing, after the curry that was used, featured boneless beef ribs, with meat that just slunk off the bone, soft potatoes, red onions, cilantro, peanuts and green peppercorn. It was rich and fragrant, soothing my inflamed tongue and driving me to dip more and more of the roti through its pungent broth. When I stopped eating it was only because I was full, not because I wanted to.
And yes, according to the website, there is a real-life Uncle Boon. He is co-owner and co-chef Ann Redding's actual uncle. And the kitsch decor, it's all legit too. A fantasy wonderland that will leave you expecting Tom Selleck to drive up in his Magnum P.I. Ferrari. If only.