Uncle Boons: Traditional Thai Gets a Soho Spin
7 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012 (at Elizabeth; map); 646-370-6650; uncleboons.com
Service: Casual but professional, very well informed of the menu
Setting: Small, intimate, a bit bombastic
Must-Haves: Chicken banana leaf salad, Sweetbread mee krob, Khao soi, Grilled half chicken
Cost: Small plates $10 to $16, entrees $20 to $26
Compare To: Pok Pok, Kin Shop, Yunnan Kitchen
Hours: Monday (Closed), Tues-Thurs 5:30 p.m. - 11 p.m., Fri & Sat 5:30 p.m. -12 a.m., Sunday 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Recommendations: Recommended. It's not the authentic Thai you are looking for, but perhaps the Thai you need.
I've got to admit it: I did not like Uncle Boons the first time I went. At least, I thought I didn't. The staff was friendly as could be, the space was fun, I even made friends with some folks at the bar, but the food just seemed... off to me.
Things started fine with a Lon Jai ($10), a Thai version of a michelada that looks like a glass of sriracha with a peppered rim. The cold Singha beer bubbles up through the hot sauce and then—what's that?—coriander wafts up to your nose along with something more mysterious and musky. "It's salted pickled lime juice," the bartender tells me, as he puts a plate of their chopped lamb salad in front of me. Laab Neuh Gae ($14) comes on strong out of the gate, with an unmistakable lamb-y aroma and richness that makes you wonder, is lamb really the best choice for laab? It tasted heavy, fatty, not refreshing, until... wait a minute... Okay, suddenly I got it. Those slices of cucumber and pickled onion aren't just garnishes—their bracing sourness allows you to focus on the flavor of the lamb, not the fat. The dish, surprisingly, worked.
It was a running theme my first couple meals there. Dishes that seem ever so slightly off when I read their descriptions or even when I first tasted them. Food that doesn't taste exactly the way Thai food is supposed to taste; like throwing on Let It Be and suddenly hearing Paul belting out Don't Let Me Down instead of John. But you quickly get past that, past the idea that there's a right and wrong version of a dish. Authenticity is overrated, you might even catch yourself saying, a bit of self doubt in your voice. You've never had Mee Krob ($14) served with sweetbreads before? Who cares? The creamy-centered, crisply-coated nuggets tossed with a vibrant tamarind sauce work, and that's what matters.
So what that the potatoes in the Massaman curry ($22) come in noodle-like, semi-raw threads instead of the tender chunks you're used to? The slow-braised beef cheeks in it offer more tenderness than you'll ever need. Who cares if the hulking, barely-tender grilled pork spare ribs ($24) look like they belong on a Southern soul food platter, not a Southern Thai platter? You'll be just as happy to get your fingers sticky eating it (especially because it allows you to get at the funky shrimp paste rice underneath).
Uncle Boons is not Thai flavors and spirit combined with Western restaurant concept the way, say Kin Shop is, nor is it an unabashed love letter to authentic regional Thai cuisine like Pok Pok. It's not even the quasi-authentic-but-pandering-to-locals type of Thai you find at outer borough favorites like Sri Pra Phai or Chao Thai with their vegetable medley curries.
No, what Uncle Boons does for Thai food is more similar to what Yunnan Kitchen did for Yunnanese cuisine. This is Thai food made with authentic ingredients, techniques, and flavors, but given a rough scrub in a hot shower and a comb through. And while a high end restaurant actually in Thailand might stop right there, this is Nolita, where the combed hair must first be artfully mussed into place, the pressed suit wrinkled and decorated with tchotchkes that express just the right amount of comfortable flair, the face adorned with a knowing grin and just the hint of a wink.
In all honesty, the concept runs the great risk of running into hipster territory, but husband and wife team Ann Redding and Matt Danzer manage to pull it off with only a hint of irony and self consciousness. You hear it in the soundtrack—Western classic rock interpreted on high pitched, percussive Thai instruments—and see it in dishes like the Sai Krok Ampai ($12), a slightly mealy house-made pork and sticky rice sausage ("Mama Pai's recipe!" the menu cutely exclaims) served over pickled cabbage that reminds you uncannily of a Papaya king dog with sauerkraut.
You might almost not notice the fact that the duo are well-pedigreed chefs who met at Per Se, the temple of haute cuisine in Manhattan's Time Warner Center, but the touches are there. The best of the curry dishes is a big 'ol bowl of Thai comfort, and one that makes me wish the weather were colder. A chicken leg quarter ($20) braised until fall-apart tender in Northern-style golden curry, served with thick hand-rolled egg noodles that resemble Italian pici more than anything, and plenty of bright pickled shallots and mustard greens. You don't get this kind of flavor and texture without some serious cooking chops.
Giant head-on prawns ($16) singed with char induce greedy sucking as they disappear. They're better with a simple squeeze of charred lime—the too-thin lime and chili dipping sauce is more an exercise in frustration than flavor as it drips and dribbles, flavoring the table and plate instead of the meat.
If there's one flaw in Uncle Boons' game, it lies in the texture of their sauces. Some, like the lime dipping sauce that comes with the grilled foods are too thin to coat the food they're served with, while others—most notably the curries—are over-reduced, turning thick, stodgy as the dishes start to cool within moments of arriving at the table.
Take the Kanom Jiin Keow Wan Jaa ($21). It's the only vegetarian entree on the menu and has the makings of something great, but the noodles and overly thick and strangely bland green curry quickly coagulate into a heavy, starchy solid. We picked off the delicious fried shallots and steamed egg, like picking the cherries and mandarins off of the ambrosia salad on the pot-luck table.
And sometimes the surprise twist—the one that makes you go, "wait a minute, this is actually quite delicious"—unfortunately works the other way around. Roasted oysters on the half shell ($16) with chili sauce and fermented tofu sound like something you'd want to suck down on a Thai beach, but instead, the condiments only manage to distract from the natural sweet brininess of the oysters. They're totally skippable, as are some doughy roti ($3).
A better example of their flavor-blending prowess is with the Mieng Kum, a mixture of coconut, lime, dried shrimp, chilies, and peanuts that comes served on top of a betel leaf wrap with a tart dipping sauce. The finely chopped elements come together like Captain Planet, all of the basic flavors of Thai cuisine swirling in one tiny bite. (Though at $12 for five small bites, it almost feels like paying sashimi prices for a dish of finely composed condiments.)
If you're looking to wash those bites down, there are some strange beverage choices made here, like the decision not to carry any actual sodas, but to leave an artificially flavored sparkling seltzer water on the menu. Served with a bit of pickled lime juice, the drink is delicious and refreshing, but I kinda wanted my Coke, and man, do Thai people love their sugary drinks.
For all its attention to balance and quality ingredients, there's one thing that some Thai fan-boys may crave. "Careful, this is the hottest dish on the menu," our waiter warned us one night as he set the Yum Kai Hua Pli ($15)—a chicken and banana blossom salad—down in front of us. We tasted, tasted, and tasted some more. Fiery, it wasn't, but dang if that ain't some of the tenderest, most flavorful chicken you'll ever taste.
Yum Mamoung Na Boon ($14), their version of a green papaya salad, is another one of the dishes that at first made me say, aw, I wish it was just a bit more spicy... but slowly grew on me as the subtle herbal and citrus balance came through—something I might have missed had my mouth been numbed. Order the rotisserie chicken and you'll get a small portion of of it on the side, complete with its fried squid chip cap.
Speaking of that chicken, it's the best thing on the menu. There's a single window from the dining room into the kitchen that offers you a view of the star of the show slowly revolving above a fire, warming up like a kickboxer getting ready for a fight. Fitting, as the dish is based on the popular Muay Thai ringside snack of roast chicken with spicy dipping sauces. But I can guarantee you that no chicken in a boxing arena in Thailand is as succulent, juicy, or chickeny as this one. If there's any reason to visit Uncle Boons, this is it right here.
No, I lied. The other reason is their Kao Pat Pu ($25). Fried rice can be relegated to boring stand-by status on many Thai menus, but here, large chunks of fresh crab meat and a distinct seafood aroma elevate it to best-of status. It's another surprise hit from a menu that, for the most part, hits on all the right notes.
I came into Uncle Boons expecting flavor to hit me back in the gut like a kickboxer on the ropes, and if you're looking for that, you won't find it. What you will find instead, is more subtle, more refined—less martial and more art. And, if you're like me, you'll probably also find yourself walking back again and again to figure out exactly what it is that makes it so darn tasty.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.