Nam Prik Ong at Thai North
by MC Slim JB
| May 03, 2012
Photo: JOEL VEAK
Any food nerd worth his garum knows that amazing restaurants are often found where immigrant chef-owners are cooking mainly for their fellow ex-pats. These places serve traditional cuisines in all their un-Americanized glory: not dumbed down, bowdlerized, or unnecessarily gussied up. (Think of the ferociously flavored $2 Eastie taqueria taco versus the showy, bland $8 Seaport one.) Thai North (433 Faneuil Street, Brighton, 617.254.2025) is one such place, though its menu of ubiquitous standbys like satay, pad Thai, and green-curry chicken might fool you at first. Fear not: this sunny, attractive 16-seat storefront specializes in the cuisine of its namesake northern Thailand. You just need to drop the menu and focus exclusively on the specials blackboard (and helpful illustrative wall photos).
Not that the blackboard’s translations are always helpful. What are “dressing wings” ($6.50), anyway? These turn out to be big deboned chicken wings stuffed with ground pork and herbs, fried crisp, and served with a sweet chili dipping sauce: amazing. What goes into gaeng hung lay, aka “Northern-style Burmese curry” ($8)? That one is big chunks of pork loin on one visit, pork belly on another, in a complexly spiced gravy with chilies, lemongrass, shallots, and ginger-like galangal but none of the coconut milk typical of southern curries. “Chiang Mai noodle curry” ($8.25), aka khao soi, is memorable: a giant bowl of egg noodles, chicken, and tofu in a rich, aromatic, coconut-milk-accented broth with crunchy noodles on top and a chili-soybean relish on the side for extra fire. You may have had larb gai, the spicy Thai salad of finely chopped chicken, but how about larb bpèt, “Northern-style duck salad” ($13.50)? This beautifully cuts the richness of minced duck with a bracing amalgam of garlic, red onion, shallots, lime, Thai basil, chilies, and crunchy roasted rice powder.
Many of these dishes are flanked with the north’s starchy staple, sticky rice, here fragrant and flecked with pretty purple husks. Bites of it help to relieve the three-alarm fire of “Chiang Mai sausage” ($10), aka sai ua, the regional capital’s renowned, finely textured pork sausage. Sticky rice also complements the northern chef’s penchant for ravishingly flavored (if dully translated) pâtés and dips like “tomato-based ground meat” ($9.50), aka nam prik ong. This beautiful dish centers on a bowl of what I call “God’s Bolognese,” a ragù of pork, chilies, tomato, garlic, lime, and palm sugar, with a pile of barely poached crudités (broccoli, green beans, snow peas, and carrots) and crisp-fried pork rinds for dipping. It’s a stunner, reason enough to haul yourself out to Oak Square. Ask its supremely sweet servers to pretend you’re an ex-pat, too, and Thai North’s kitchen will reward you with the kind of heady, euphoria-inducing flavors that just can’t be found in places that cater to unhyphenated Americans.