Home Restaurant Thai Cuisine With An Added Touch of Whimsy

Thai Cuisine With An Added Touch of Whimsy


At Uncle Boons Sister in NoLIta, pad Thai is a calm, quiet dish. There is no histrionic sweetness, just a tamarind undertow, a kiss of lime and brine from knots of dried shrunken shrimp. Eating it is like hearing a folk song after years of jangly pop.

The chefs, Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, opened Uncle Boons Sister in October as a takeout shop and low-key annex to Uncle Boons, their full-fledged Thai restaurant a block away. No dish exceeds $15. The theme is home-style comfort food, adapted not for some imagined, generically American palate but for the couple’s private sense of polish and whimsy, reflecting time spent in the kitchen at Per Se, where they met.

Sai oua, a great gashed house-made pork sausage riddled with galangal, is tucked into a hot dog bun under a papaya-salad relish, with a tiny Thai flag staked through it. Flaked crab claw meat lends sweetness to a musky nam ya curry, commonly made with minced fish, alongside skinny rice noodles. In a bracing salad of watercress strewn with meaty cashews and toasted coconut, grapefruit supplants pomelo for a clean, bitter rinse of the tongue.

Moo ping, pork skewers, are more straightforward, the meat sculpted around flat sticks like chubby Popsicles and tasting of candied smoke. For the street snack called mataba, ground lamb warmed by yellow curry hides inside a fold of flaky roti ready to start shedding its buttery skins.

Some experiments are more intriguing than successful. Laab is reimagined as fried chicken (Ms. Redding credits a KFC in Bangkok for the inspiration), with nubs of chicken first steeped in fish sauce, palm sugar, garlic and a crush of cilantro roots, then dredged in flour, panko and khao khua, sticky rice grains roasted and pulverized. Once fried, they’re dark and rugged, all the juices sealed in, and a thrill to eat — but too big to properly take on the sting, crackle and funk of the dressing, which fades to a backdrop.

Khao man gai (literally, chicken fat rice) is a unifying dish found across Southeast Asia, known in Singapore and Malaysia as Hainanese chicken and in Vietnam as com ga. Traditionally the chicken is poached in a mob of ginger, and might land at the table accompanied by sides of its gizzards and coagulated blood.

Sai oua, a great gashed house-made pork sausage riddled with galangal, is tucked into a hot dog bun under a papaya-salad relish, with a tiny Thai flag staked through it. Credit Juliana Sohn for The New York Times

Ms. Redding and Mr. Danzer tried poaching, but early diners didn’t care for it, so they put whole chickens on the rotisserie instead. The result is fine enough, but it throws off the balance of the dish, whose true focus is the rice, steamed in chicken stock until it preens.

The cramped space was briefly home to Mr. Donahue’s, a diner-esque ode to Mr. Danzer’s late grandfather, a World War II veteran, New York City police detective and “meat-and-potatoes guy.” Now it honors Ms. Redding’s mother and five aunts, who grew up on a farm in Nakhon Sawan in central Thailand. (Her real-life Uncle Boon, “a great eater, great drinker, great karaoke man,” died this year.)

There’s barely room for a handful of tables, which diners must bus themselves, under lampshades like upturned baskets. Orders are placed at the counter and identified by playing cards with pictures of female Muay Thai martial-arts fighters showing off moves like rakrae hak khaen: “the armpit breaks the arm.” On the wall hangs a poster of the nine kings in the Chakri dynasty, which has ruled Thailand since 1782.

For dessert, a cone of coconut gelato comes lacquered with a “magic shell” of coconut oil and white chocolate, dipped into broken peanuts, coconut shreds and salt, and wrapped in plastic like a bouquet. I preferred the milk toast: a slab of brioche, crisped just so the edges darken, then soaked with condensed milk until swollen, beaded with sugar and torched. Somewhere along the way it turns into cake.

Ms. Redding’s mother, who lives in Maryland, used to point out “For Rent” signs when she visited, warning her daughter and son-in-law that she might open her own, superior Thai restaurant and knock them off their perch. Uncle Boons Sister is at once a homage to her and a pre-emptive strike. Before it opened, she came to stay with the couple, to help care for their newborn son. Every morning she’d ask what recipe they were testing; every night they’d return to find her making the same dish.

“She’s competitive,” Ms. Redding said. Then, with a surrendering laugh: “We picked up a few tips.”

Previous articleKim Jonghyun: K-Pop Stars carry SHINee Singer’s Coffin
Next articleThe 9 Best Beauty Trends to Look Forward to in 2018