Boston suddenly has a passel of Asian restaurants offering swank atmosphere, expansive bar programs and coddling service unseen in modest neighborhoods like Chinatown and Allston. Food geeks naturally approach such places with some skepticism. How Westernized, we ask, will they be? Who needs another suburban-style “Asian” restaurant that shuns fermented flavors and dials down the chili fire in every dish? We’re OK with creative tinkering, but the editing out of fierce, distinctive flavors really chafes us. So it’s gratifying to see that Tiger Mama, chef/owner Tiffani Faison’s new Fenway restaurant focused on Southeast Asian cuisine, isn’t doing Asian for Beginners.
Consider nam prik ($7), the Thai dip of crushed green chilies for spreading on sliced cucumbers and housemade pork rinds, which has not only the right wallop of capsicum fire and garlic, but a judicious whiff of shrimp paste normally deemed too stinky for farang. From northeastern Thailand, Issan-style pork sausage ($8) is redolent of lemongrass, garlic and fiery chilies; its dip of sweet banana ketchup carries a jolt of fish sauce. Pad gra pow ($13) seasons ground chicken with fresh chilies and copious Thai basil topped with a fried egg; its capsicum heat, initially subtle, accumulates to searing levels, needing a side of coconut sticky rice ($3) to counter the fire. Lobster curry ($15) with celery root and grilled baby corn offers big chunks of lobster in a Central Thai green curry with ringing flavors of lemongrass, galangal, garlic, chilies, basil and coconut milk. The vividness of this sauce should forever, rightfully ruin your enjoyment of Thai curries made from canned pastes. After tasting Faison’s and chef de cuisine Mike Stark’s tom kha gai ($6), the familiar Thai sour soup of chicken broth and coconut milk, with its superior adornments of clams, squid, sweet cherry tomatoes and mushrooms, you also may have trouble ordering it elsewhere.
These intense flavors frequently induce an endorphin rush, but occasionally veer off course. Mala mushrooms ($12) delivers the promised combo of numbing-hot Sichuan peppercorns and chili fire, but also a daunting hit of salt, while Southern-style pork laap ($12), a salad of ground pork, chilies and mint, is spoiled by an overly acidic lime dressing.
Subtler, better-executed dishes include hamachi crudo ($13) with crisp puffed rice and an earthy fillip of sesame mushroom aioli. Crispy papaya ($8), clusters of batter-fried green papaya shreds onto which you spoon tomato/chili vinaigrette, reads like onion rings dressed in salsa: odd but good. Chili jam clams ($13) dress pristine middlenecks with dribs of thick, sweet red curry alongside slices of sweet-glazed milk bread, the Japanese gourmand’s Wonder Bread. The thin, magenta broth and Thai green peppercorns of root-vegetable jungle curry ($12) provide a pretty, complexly spiced counterpoint to parsnips, carrots and baby turnips. Cowboy Hat Lady pork ($15) crowns tender, fatty, star-anise-scented pork shanks with a soft poached egg, a dramatic-looking, hearty dish. For mild comfort, there’s the classic brown-sauce noodle dish of Hokkien mee ($13) with pork and onions, and crab fried rice ($21) loaded with lump crab.
Several plates offer the fun, informal pleasures of eating with one’s hands. Bun cha Hanoi ($13) provides two components for wrapping in romaine leaves and herbs: skinny, thick-skinned pork spring rolls, and grilled pork patties in sour broth. Crispy garlic prawns “LoS” ($19) invite you to eat huge and meaty fried shrimp, shells and tails and all; the result is excellently garlicky and crunchy, a fine tribute to Las Vegas’s superb Lotus of Siam. Lamb roti ($13) brings Muslim influence from Malaysia in the form of crisp turnovers of sweet-spiced lamb with contrasting dips of basil raita and mint cilantro jam. With a few friends and the instinct to splurge, the large-format chili crab ($125) is a Singaporean-inspired plate of pure bliss: more than a pound of head and claw chunks in a sweet/hot chili sauce and another pound of huge, already-cracked legs sauced Western-style in buerre blanc, plus a whole loaf of milk-bread garlic toast. It’s messy, indulgent and utterly delicious.
Bar manager Charlie Coykendall has built a fine Asian-leaning list of specialty cocktails like the Taiwan On ($12) of aged rum, arrack, Thai basil, coconut and key lime, as well as real Tiki classics like the Jet Pilot ($14) of rums, falernum, cinnamon, citrus and absinthe. The 24-strong list of beers ($4-$12) features plenty of mild, food-friendly lagers like Beerlao ($6), Czechvar ($6) and Chang ($7). Likewise, the list of 13 wines by the glass ($9-$15) and 34 bottles ($42-$117) includes several off-dry whites well-suited to the cuisine, like the 2013 Hermann J. Wiemer dry riesling ($47) from the Finger Lakes. Two bars bookend an attractively atmospheric, not-too-noisy dining room with flattering lighting and tropical greenery. Service is casually attentive and helpful with small-plate coursing and unfamiliar menu items. Annoyances include an unhelpful website and dinner checks that charge $1-$2 more than menu prices for some items. Burnish out these rough spots, though, and Tiger Mama has captured a rara avis: the Asian restaurant that delivers an upscale experience without sacrificing the soul of its source cuisines.
-Pad gra pow
-Chili jam clams
-Cowboy Hat Lady pork
Hours: Sun.-Wed., 5-10:30 pm, Thu.-Sat., 5-11:30 pm
Parking: Adjacent validated garage, other nearby private garages and lots, metered street spaces
Liquor: Full bar
Tiger Mama 1363 Boylston St., Boston (617-425-6262) tigermamaboston.com