>> Friday, June 06, 2014
Thai North is the type of restaurant I don't want to write about because . . .
I want to keep this secret all to myself.
It's a tiny little restaurant in Brighton, with only a handful of tables seating maybe 20-25 people max. It's owned by a family from Chiang Mai, a large city in the northern part of Thailand. To the east of Chiang Mai (Northeastern Thailand) is the Isaan region. Food from these two regions are heavily influenced by neighboring countries Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.
You don't see Northern or Isaan Thai food a lot in America. For some reason, the typical Thai restaurant in America has settled upon a very predictable set of dishes: Pad Thai, Drunken Noodle, Tom Yum Soup, Pineapple chicken, the standard list of different curries, etc. etc. These dishes are often loaded with sugar (way more than you'd ever see in Thailand), severely toned down spice levels, and generally adapted to please the American palate.
When Thai North first quietly opened in 2011, it looked just like any other Thai restaurant. The menu had your standard deep fried appetizers (hello Golden Triangles!), Pad "fill-in-the-blank" noodle dishes, different colored curries, and popular familiar entrees made with ingredients like basil, cashews, and pineapples.
It soon became evident there was this other secret "chalkboard menu" written only in Thai. Clearly, the menu was aimed at the local Thais who visited the restaurant, not the typical American take-out customer.
Word got around about this secret menu. Someone translated it and posted it on the web. Soon, more and more non-Thai diners were ordering off of the Thai-only menu. Clearly, there was interest in this authentic, local fare.
Eventually, the chalkboard menu became part of the regular menu. The chalkboard remains, but with English translations now.
Better yet, one wall of the restaurant is covered with photographs of all the chalkboard dishes, which is super helpful if you have no clue what the English translation actually means.
I was thrilled when I first heard of Thai North because Isaan cuisine was one of my favorites when Bryan and I visited Thailand last year. I fell in love with so many of their dishes, such as the som tam (a pounded papaya salad), larb (minced meat salad), and sai krok (sour fermented sausage).
I've been longing for those complex flavors ever since I came back.
Which is why I've already visited Thai North twice in one week.
The menu at Thai North is huge and can be a bit overwhelming when you look at it the first time.
I can make it really easy for you.
Skip most if it and hone in on the one page in the back that says "Thai North Special from the Black Board." Or just look at the blackboard or the pictures on the wall. These are the Northern dishes. Don't miss the appetizers and additional desserts on the right side of the wall. These dishes don't show up anywhere else.
The Grilled Puerco ($6.95) is grilled pork on skewers served with a tangy dipping sauce. The pork is very flavorful, marinated in fish sauce, oyster sauce, cilantro, garlic, coconut milk, and a whole host of other herbs and spices. It's complex and delicious.
The Thai North Dumplings ($5.95) are steamed homemade chive dumplings made with a glutinous (sticky) rice flour skin. The texture is chewy and different from your typical Chinese dumpling. In fact, it reminds me of a cross between the Chinese dim sum dumpling "xian shui jiao" (fried glutinous rice dumpling) and Chinese Chive Pies.
I enjoyed the flavors of these a lot, and we ordered another one after realizing one order of three wasn't quite enough for the table of five. The two lots were slightly inconsistent, with the second lot being just a bit overcooked and mushier in texture. Overall though, the flavors were great and the first plate, pictured above, was well executed.
I immediately ordered the Sour Sausage ($5.95), an Isaan dish, when I saw it listed on the wall as one of the special appetizers. The sausage itself was delicious, though it was not really sour at all. It definitely didn't have the intense, slightly funky sour flavors that come from sausages that have been fermented more. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't get my sour sausage fix. Thankfully, others at the table who had never been to Thailand and didn't have such preconceived expectations, loved the sausage.
The Green Papaya Salad ($7.95), another Isaan dish I'd been craving, was very good. It was extremely authentic, down to the specific use of green beans, carrots, and peanuts, which are the exact ingredients I used when I learned how to make this at a cooking class in Bangkok. I appreciated how it wasn't overly sweet or sour, which is how many papaya salads in America taste to me. This one was nicely balanced, with the umami of the fish sauce nicely complementing the tartness of the lime and the sweetness of the palm sugar.
Another fun appetizer that's only found on the side wall is miang kam, a fun leaf-wrapped "snack" filled with peanuts, chili, onions, lime, and palm syrup cooked with lemongrass, galangal, ginger, and fish sauce. This dish is usually made with bai cha plu, the wild pepper leaf, which is really hard to find outside of Asia (though I've actually eaten it in at a Thai restaurant in Oxford!). Here, they have substituted Chinese broccoli leaves instead.
The complex blend of flavors is decidedly Thai and delicious. I love the perfect blend of sweet (palm sugar!), spicy (chili), and umami (fish sauce) together with the textural differences between the crunchy peanuts, raw onions, and leaf wrapping. Although it's not quite as good as the real ones made with the authentic wild pepper leaf, it's still a pretty tasty snack.
The Chiangmai Sausage (Sai Ua $10) is another blackboard special and is one of the most unusual and delicious sausages I have ever had. One of the diners said it reminded him of China's "Chendu" style sausage. It's made with pork, herbs, spices, and kaeng khua red curry paste. I found it to be richly complex, with various elements of the herbs and spices really shining through.
I don't usually eat that much meat, but I found myself going back for "just one more slice" several time.
The Northern Burmese Curry ($8.50) comes with your choice of protein (I think we chose chicken) and was milder in flavor than most Thai curries. It wasn't spicy at all, and was a bit sweet. It was still nicely complex and went well with rice.
The Northern Herb Fish ($10.95) was bursting with fragrant flavors and aromas from the variety of vegetables and herbs inside. There are leaves I don't even recognize, but my guess is they infuse their own unique flavors into the dish. The dish had a healthy dose of Thai basil, another dominant flavor in the dish. Overall, we loved the aromatic flavors of this dish. My only complaint is that the white fish used was only of reasonable quality. It wasn't the freshest ever, and you could tell. I guess at this price for a seafood dish, it's hard to expect super high quality fish.
The signature dish of the restaurant is definitely the Chiangmai Noodle Curry (Kaow Soy Chicken) $9.95 which is excellent. This complex dish consists of a massaman curry based broth filled with egg noodles, a braised chicken leg, crunchy fried noodles, and piled high with fresh cilantro, pickled vegetables, and red onion.
The broth is gorgeously fragrant, made that way by a long simmer with lemongrass, tamarind, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, and coconut milk.
On the side, they serve a delicious smoky house-made chili sauce made from roasted pequin peppers. It's got just a bit of sweetness and is fantastic. We actually asked them where we could buy it. Upon finding out that they make it themselves, we asked whether they would be willing to bottle it and sell it to us.
We ordered "Thai spicy" and we received a bowl that was bright red (see photo above). In reality, the heat level was just right for me, though it most certainly had a kick.
The second time I went back we ordered "Normal Spicy", and it was much milder. You can see it's not that red at all. I think I prefer the "Thai spicy" version, which is still nowhere close to as spicy as any of the true "Thai spicy" food in Thailand.
Duck Salad ($13.50) larb
One of my favorite Isaan dishes (up there with som tam), is larb, also known as lop, lap, or laab ("larb" rhymes with "saab"). This refreshing salad is made with ground meat, roasted rice powder, lime juice, fish sauce, and a load of gorgeously fragrant herbs, such as cilantro, mint, scallions, shallots, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves.
We tried two different versions of this salad. Pictured above is a version made with ground duck (larb ped). They also offer the same dish with ground chicken (larb gai) and ground pork (larb mu).
We tried another version, called the Northeastern Salad ($11.25), which was similar in flavor except that it did not have lime, and thus did not have the bright and tart component to the salad. This one was fiery hot, probably the spiciest dish we had that night. In fact, it was the only dish from which I had to "take breaks" because the burn built to a level I could not withstand for extended amounts of time.
It was pretty tasty - in small doses!
We did try one dish from the "regular" menu, mostly for my friend's toddler, who wouldn't be able to handle the spice and also happens to love noodles. The Pad See You was average and unremarkable (though our friend's 17-month old daughter loved it). I've had better better Pad See You at several other Thai places in Boston.
I haven't tried the rest of their regular menu, but frankly I don't plan on it. Clearly their specialty is Isaan cuisine, which makes sense since that's the food of their hometown.
For dessert, we had a special Thai Custard with Sticky rice. It reminded me of a sweeter and overgrown version of a Japanese tamago omelette served with a side of coconut-milk infused sweet and salty sticky rice, which I absolutely love. I totally want to try the Mango sticky rice next time I'm there.
All in all, I've immensely enjoyed my meals at Thai North. The special Northern and Northeastern (Isaan) food there is excellent. It's no surprise at all that it won "Best of Boston" for Best Thai restaurant in 2013. I can't even think of another Thai restaurant that comes close, frankly. It's refreshing to taste truly authentic dishes made from scratch using such a wide variety of fragrant herbs and exotic spices. It's eye-opening and fun to experience such new and surprisingly flavors.
I can't wait to go back.
433 Faneuil St
Brighton, MA 02135