Thai Thai Kitchen
19 Pelham Street, Newton Centre
Open MonĖSat, 11:30 a.m.Ė10 p.m.
AE, MC, Vi
No valet parking; public lots nearby
Street-level access; narrow aisle and no bathroom
I donít like to review really small restaurants, but I must when they are as good as Oishii or Thai Thai Kitchen. Thai Thai is really small ó 10 seats at a long counter, opposite an open kitchen. The restaurant was probably conceived as a take-out place, as suggested by its decision to close on Sundays ó generally a busy night for Asian restaurants in the suburbs. This doesnít seem to be a religious decision; the restaurant is decorated with both Christmas wreaths and a Buddhist shrine. However, take-out obscures one of Thai Thai Kitchenís strengths, which is that dishes are cooked to order and served immediately. So my only excuse for jamming up this little place with a good review ó aside from its culinary merits ó is that Thai Thai Kitchen stands out for authenticity. Authenticity in Thai cuisine includes quite a lot of hot spice, perhaps more than any other commercial cuisine in the US. Thai Thai Kitchen has dishes that donít burn your lips right away, including an excellent pad Thai, but much of this restaurantís distinction lies in this: that one chili silhouette on its menu is equal to two or three elsewhere, and two silhouettes here is pretty much off the charts for anything but the original chicken with basil at Bangkok Cuisine, when it was the only Thai restaurant in New England. For us spice lovers, the chilies open up new channels in our senses of smell and taste, but I suspect some readers will stop right here and go to the film reviews. That may keep the crowds at Thai Thai Kitchen to manageable levels.
If you are spice averse, youíll like the appetizers, almost none of which are spicy. Probably the most traditional are tod mun ($4.95), the eggy fish cakes (five patties here), with quite a lot of galangal (mustardy ginger) in the flavor, and a hint of red curry, with an addictive peanut dip that also has some heat to it. The Thai Thai sampler ($9.25) features herbal-beef and -chicken satays, a couple of very crunchy thin spring rolls (but flavored mostly with cabbage), a couple of Chinese-style chicken wings, a couple of wonderful pork shumai (steamed dumplings), and heaps of vegetable tempura ó string beans, broccoli, snow peas, sweet potato, onion, and baby corn. There are three dips: the peanut sauce, a sort of salad in vinegar-and-fish sauce like Vietnamese nuoc cham, and a lighter version of that with lots of ground peanuts on top.
The two Thai soups we know best are both marked with an asterisk here, and the heat was in the form of chili oil that coated the spoon, even when I tried to skim some off. Thus the hot-and-sour tom yum goong ($2.95/$5.95), a clear soup with shrimp, is hot-hot-a-little-sweet-hot-lime-leafy-hot-and-sour soup, with an aftertaste of cilantro. The most soothing filling is chopped mushrooms, but these are floating on top in the red oil. Tom kha khai ($2.95/$5.95) is another scorcher, although this chicken-coconut soup is usually served without much spice in American Thai restaurants. This soup has an excellent balance of galangal and lemongrass, and a fine sweet note in the coconut milk.
Thai food includes salads, and here the spicy theme continues. Spicy grilled-eggplant salad ($7.95) is made of sliced lavender eggplants ó the long, thin kind ó with some vegetable and onion flavor coming through the hot pepper, including slices of mild green chili. Spicy squid salad ($8.25), at two silhouettes, is you-betcha hot, but here the heat opens up the flavors of mint, basil, red onion, and chopped celery, and quite a bit of the dry-citronella flavor of fresh lemongrass. The squid are beautifully cut with scales to resemble dragons, and the salad is filled with iceberg lettuce and pink tomatoes, both of which seem to carry the most spice. Another salad-like appetizer is larb ($7.95), which I know mostly in Laotian versions. Itís a chopped beef or chicken salad with scallions, mint, and red onions, quite seductive in the chicken version.
Getting on to curries, "wild curry" ($9.25) with chicken, beef, or pork (we had chicken) uses an unusual spice translated as "lesser ginger." This has a sweeter, less sharp, but also earthier flavor than ginger or galangal. Wild curry is soupy, with no coconut milk but lots of Thai basil and heaps of vegetables: corn cobs, string beans, mushrooms, snow peas, carrots, and green bell pepper. Itís a two-silhouette adventure, however.
The Masaman curry ($9.25) comes with chicken or beef; we had the beef, since the name means "Muslim curry." Itís a familiar-tasting mild Indian curry, but enriched with coconut and somewhat sweet, featuring tender beef, potato, carrot, onions, and lots of toasted whole cashews. Curries come with rice, of which the jasmine is good but not spectacularly aromatic.
What is terrific, especially if you donít try to bring it home, is the pad Thai ($7.95). Itís not unusual, except for being somewhat eggier than most, but it has the full range of flavors ó scallions, shrimp, tofu, ground peanuts ó and is stunningly fresh and delectable, as it travels only four or five steps from wok to you.
Drinks are bottled and canned Asian and American sodas, bubble teas for dessert, Thai iced tea and coffee, and good ice water. There are some desserts, mostly quite inexpensive packages of tiny Thai coconut cookies ($1), spicy tamarind snacks ($2), little "biscuits" with dots of cream topping, and micro-pineapple cookies ($1.75), which are kind of jammy.
Service at Thai Thai Kitchen is excellent when the place isnít crowded. Dishes come somewhat out of order so that they donít cool down. Take-out seems to be assembled well. If a group is sharing dinner, as ours was on one visit, people tend to eat standing up, which blocks the long narrow aisle, so it wonít be so nice when all the spice-loving readers converge at once. The background music was recently Christmas carols, but the food sets such a strong mood that one hardly notices.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com .