Food nerds often cite 1996’s Big Night among their favorite food-themed movies, in part for the familiar conflict it presents: Immigrant restaurateurs struggling to sell a very traditional, respectful version of their native cuisine, while a rival thrives with a dumbed-down, Americanized version. Sometimes the locals are slow to catch on to what makes the original more thrilling, to appreciate novel ingredients and flavors and textures. So we’re gratified to see traditional, regionally diverse versions of Thai cuisine gaining traction at places like Khao Hom, Kor Tor Mor and Kala, where chefs aren’t afraid to throw the offal, fermented funk and chili heat. Dakzen, a new spot in Davis Square, is the latest reflection of this welcome trend.
This modest little storefront features a split-level room with 26 low-slung table seats plus another four counter seats, set in a spare, brightly lit space of sunshine-yellow and white walls. You scribble your name on the waitlist by the door. A server takes your order tableside and presents you with the check; there’s that awkward moment where you have to enter their tip while they watch. They serve your food, but you help yourself to napkins and utensils and bus your own table. Fine dining it ain’t, but you know your money is going into the kitchen.
The result is a high-value, whirlwind tour of Thailand’s Central, Northern and Isan regions, focusing on noodle soups and stir-fries usually served from roadside carts, trucks and market stalls. But don’t miss the standout snacks ($6 each) for starters. These include sai ua, a gorgeous, chili-hot pork chitterling sausage served with peanuts and fresh chilies; rook chin tod, three kinds of meatballs (golden pork, dark beef and pale fish) with a bouncy, fine-grained texture and a good sweet dipping sauce; poh piah, crunchy and mild vegetarian fried spring rolls with familiar sweet chili sauce; hoi joh, delicate crab croquettes in crispy tofu-skin wrappers; tod mun pla, red-curry fish cakes with another sweet dip; and kanom jeeb, open-faced steamed dumplings of shrimp.
As in Thailand, you may want to dip into the relish trays to fine-tune certain flavors: sugar, toasted chili, fresh jalapeños in vinegar, prik nam pla (a lime/chili/fish-sauce condiment), sludgy dried chilies in oil, bottles of soy sauce and fish sauce. We found ourselves reaching for heat and acid to dress up a mild rendition of pad Thai with fried tofu ($9), which nevertheless boasted welcome accents of dried shrimp, pickled turnip and fried shallots alongside the expected rice noodles, omelet strips, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts. Boat noodles ($9)—yep, these were originally served from little boats in Bangkok’s canals—incorporate rubbery pork meatballs, crunchy fried pork rinds, bean sprouts, morning glory (similar to Chinese water spinach) and a choice of beef or pork. This had the expected dark color from traditional pig’s blood, but none of the hoped-for pork liver, while an overly insistent star anise/cinnamon note nearly overwhelmed the dish.
We found a much better balance of sweet, spicy-hot, sour and funky/savory flavors in dishes like yen ta fo ($9), a traditional Bangkok noodle soup with a bright pink, tangy/sweet broth floating lovely whole shrimp, rings of squid, fish balls, slices of fish cake, morning glory and mushroom, topped with crispy wonton. Khao soi ($9), the famed Northern Thai almost-soup, was a similarly complex wonder with a creamy, coconut-milk yellow-curry gravy with chicken, red onions, pickled mustard greens, half a soft-boiled egg, tender-cooked egg noodles, a tangle of crunchy dry-fried noodles and a smear of toasted chili condiment. Tom yum noodle soup ($9) also delivered the vibrant, different-flavor-in-every-bite goods with a vividly hot-and-sour broth dabbed with ground pork, dry shrimp, crushed peanuts, fish balls, fish cakes, slices of roast pork and that lovely soft-boiled egg again.
Hefty entrees sans broth include pad see ew ($9 or $11, depending on choice of protein), a simple but satisfying pile of wide, flat rice noodles stir-fried in a chili-hot, soy sauce-based gravy with Chinese broccoli. Khao grapow with crispy pork belly and a fried egg ($13) was another straightforward winner, serving chunks of chicharron-like slices of skin-on pork belly in a garlicky, fiery sauce punched up with intensely fragrant holy basil, plus a pile of good jasmine rice.
Desserts include pang yen ($6), a pyramid of shaved ice doused with sweetened condensed milk and either red or green syrup, both yielding very sweet, pastel-shaded results atop a dull foundation of Wonder Bread. We preferred the enormous slab of kanom moh kang ($6), a coconut-milk custard given almost bread-pudding-like heft with taro. Soft drinks include bottles of sweetened soy milk ($3) and excellent housemade Thai iced tea and lime iced tea ($4). If you like your Thai food in the American suburban style—bland, sugary and bowdlerized, with nary a whiff of shrimp paste or fish sauce—this place probably isn’t for you. But if you’re ready to embrace the fiery, funky, prismatic charms of the real regional-Thai deal, you need to get to Dakzen and get your street noodles on. ◆
Yen ta fo
Tom yum noodle soup
Pad see ew with chicken
Kanom moh kang
Dakzen, 195 Elm St., Somerville (617-718-1759) dakzen.com; Hours: Sun., noon-9 pm; Mon.-Thu., 11 am-9 pm; Fri., 11 am-10 pm; Sat., noon-10 pm; Liquor: None; Reservations: No; Parking: Metered street spaces