Here at The Improper, we routinely report on glamorous restaurants where elaborate food and swank cocktails are served to pretty people in beautiful rooms. But we’re also food nerds who know that phenomenal cooking doesn’t always arrive in a gilded wrapper or the poshest zip codes. If it’s special enough, we’ll take our readers beyond those downtown neighborhoods that garner most of the food coverage in Boston. What, you ask, could interest us all the way out in Watertown’s Coolidge Square? One answer is the thimble-sized Cha Yen Thai Cookery, where an extraordinary young talent named Manita Bunnagitkarn is taking apart traditional Thai cuisine and putting it back together in gorgeous, delicious ways.
Bunnagitkarn’s formula appears simple: Start with great ingredients (much of her produce comes from nearby Russo’s), honor traditional Thai recipes, but don’t be afraid to apply Western fine-dining technique. For instance, her curry puff ($6) kicks the sorry ass of every dull, factory-made Thai turnover you’ve ever had, filling an exquisite puff-pastry shell with a mound of diced chicken, onions and potatoes delicately seasoned with turmeric. Corn cake ($5) evokes a vegetarian tod mun, using big corn kernels instead of fish paste; the result is a wonderful pile of golden brown, crunchy/chewy fritters, their fine deep-frying nicely underscored with ajat, the sweet-and-sour cucumber/chili relish topped with ground peanuts. Poh piah ($6) takes the common fresh roll to a higher plane by substituting a featherweight housemade crepe for the usual softened rice-paper wrapper, stuffed with mung-bean sprouts, cucumber, tofu, scallion, egg and, if you ask, some Chinese sausage. The pan-risen flatbread roti ($5) is unprepossessing on the plate, looking like a scallion-free scallion pancake, but has a sublimely light yet chewy texture and a smashing massaman curry of minced sweet potatoes.
Soups echo a theme here of intricate, distinctive flavors rising above pedestrian formula: I can’t remember a better tasting tom yum soup ($4), with its bracing acidity and subtle but insistent chili heat, or the similarly far-above-average galangal soup ($4) with shrimp, boasting a creamy coconut-milk base, mushrooms and heady aromas of galangal and lemongrass. A variety of mushrooms provides the foundation for a superbly original version of larb ($8), a vivid salad of red onions, fresh chilies, leaves of mint and holy basil, and crunchy toasted rice powder.
Noodle dishes likewise transcend ordinariness with striking details, like the careful char on the wide rice noodles with Chinese broccoli in see ew with pork ($8.50) or the two-day preparation of duck breast slices in the sukothai ($10), thin egg noodles artfully bedecked with ground peanuts, sugar, duck, sliced fish cake, fish balls, scallions and a perfect soft-boiled egg, all stirred together by the customer. Grilled calamari ($7) takes a skillfully thin-sliced body of a fist-sized squid, plus whole clumps of tentacles, and puts excellent char on the exterior while keeping it tenderly undercooked within: an impressive balancing act, a seafood cooking coup.
If you’d guess by now that entrees might reflect similarly extraordinary care in preparation and clarity of flavors, you’d be right. A stir-fry of eggplant basil with duck ($10) brings an intriguing interplay of fierce Thai basil, sweet and hot chilies, and chunks of al dente Chinese eggplant. Pla pad kun chai ($10) stir-fries cod fillets with classic Thai aromatics (ginger, lemongrass, shallots) plus a few bright fresh chilies for heat, though some customers may want to reach for the relish caddy, adding its toasted chili flakes, prik nam pla (fish sauce, lime juice, chilies), chili-infused rice vinegar and/or sugar to highlight their own preferences.
Beverage options include, again, terrific versions of familiar drinks like Thai iced tea ($2.95) and iced coffee ($2.95), neither cloyingly sweet as is typical, and fresh coconut juice ($2.95) with slices of coconut meat. Bunnagitkarn even makes her own ice cream, hard-packed half-scoops in little plastic tubs ($2.50), including novel flavors like Thai tea, though coffee and vanilla also sing when allowed to soften.
The level of skill and inventiveness on display in the flavors and lovely platings here would not feel out of place in a Back Bay bistro with white tablecloths and cossetting service, but Cha Yen operates out of a simple storefront with a single communal table and a few counter seats in the window. Service duties are shared by the chef and her lieutenants. That partly accounts for the ridiculous bargain prices, and perhaps how under-the-radar the place has managed to stay despite being open since July. Much like Tim Maslow early on—another brilliant young chef who caught fire working Asian idioms in an obscure, humble outpost in Watertown—Bunnagitkarn’s current fans include a few intrepid Chowhound types and lucky neighbors coming by for takeout. But this secret won’t last long. Now might be a good time to get over to Cha Yen yourself, so you can say you loved Manita’s cooking before she became famous.
-Galangal soup with shrimp
-Sukothai with duck
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11:30 am-9:30 pm; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 am-10 pm; Sun., 3:30-9:30 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces
Cha Yen Thai Cookery 613 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown (617-393-0031) chayenthaicookery.com