Food geeks follow favorite chefs like sports fans follow star athletes, fondly recalling early performances, marveling as talents and successes accumulate over the years. Veteran restaurant nerds reminisce, “Remember when Barbara Lynch was a rookie chef/owner at No. 9 Park back in 1998? She’s built a Hall of Fame career since!” We certainly remember our first experience of Manita Bunnagitkarn’s cooking when she debuted Cha Yen Thai Cookery in 2014, a thimble-sized Watertown spot. She soon expanded Cha Yen into an adjacent storefront, earned a rave review and two Boston’s Best awards from The Improper, and late last summer opened Kala Thai Cookery across the street from the Boston Public Market. The new spot is an impressive second act from a chef who honors traditional Thai flavors but isn’t afraid of the occasional Western embellishment.
Cha Yen lovers will find many familiar, wonderful appetizers here like corn cakes ($6), a pile of fritters made from fistfuls of kernels fried in a light batter to crunchy chewiness and served with ajat, a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce topped with ground peanuts. They’ll know her superb version of tod mun ($7), fried fish cakes with vibrant bits of kaffir leaves, served with another tangy/sweet dip floating chopped carrots, cukes and red onions. Crispy rolls ($5.75) are familiar, small-bore veggie fried spring rolls, while cheesy shrimp rolls ($7) boast a similarly ungreasy fry job and are filled with a shrimp-infused mozzarella, like a Thai-American gloss on crab Rangoon. Kapow dumplings ($7) recall steamed or fried Chinese potstickers in shape but are filled with a chili-hot and basil-redolent ground chicken mixture, plus a spicy basil sauce on the side. Chicken wings ($6.75) deliver crunch and the familiar sticky-sweet-hot glaze of Thai sweet chili sauce. Our only disappointment among these terrific small plates is popiah ($6.75), Thai fresh rolls drizzled with tamarind sauce and filled with crunchy vegetables, egg and tofu but not wrapped tightly enough, a messy pain to eat with utensils or hands.
Salads are vividly hued and flavored, starting with mango salad ($7.50) punched up with red onion, carrots and Chinese celery, garnished with scallions, cilantro, cashews and a shower of chili flakes. Papaya salad ($8) is a bright pile of green (as in savory, unripe) papaya, green beans, carrots and grape tomatoes gently dressed with chili-spiked lime juice and dotted with peanuts. A generous portion of classic tom yum soup ($4, including chicken, shrimp or tofu) brings mouth-puckeringly hot-and-sour broth loaded with fresh mushrooms and a sprinkle of herbs. Noodle dishes include an above-average pad Thai ($9.55-$11, depending on protein) that has the requisite crown of fried shallots and tamarind tang to balance the sweetness, but could use a little shrimp-paste funk. The wide, stir-fried rice noodles of char kway teow ($11) combine a simple soy-sauce base with shrimp, egg and chunks of soppressata-like pork sausage with bean sprouts and scallions for crunch. Pineapple fried rice ($9.55-$11) mixes in an assortment of crunchy veggies, gets a bit of zip from a Malaysian-leaning curry powder and shines with vivid chunks of fresh pineapple. We’d welcome a more complete array of optional condiments beyond Thai chili-garlic sauce, maybe some dried chili flakes or prik nam pla, sweetened fish sauce and lime juice with fresh chilies.
The farang standby that is chicken satay ($9) is served here with a pile of rice and expected brace of dips: peanut butter/coconut milk and ajat; it’s lovely, but more interesting in a spicy rendition ($9.55) with cilantro/onion/chili dressing. Central Thai coconut milk curries ($9.55-$11) are winningly represented by massaman (“Muslim”) curry, a homey, mildly spicy ocher gravy laced with potatoes, onions and carrots and sprinkled with toasted peanuts, and the slightly more fiery red curry with red chili paste in the sauce and a swell mix of Chinese eggplant, bamboo shoots, sweet red peppers and plenty of basil. As advertised, a chef’s specialty of stir-fried garlic ($9.55-$11) delivers a boatload of garlic beautifully balanced with some sweetness.
Dessert is limited to little cups of excellent housemade ice cream ($2.75) in flavors like coconut and Thai tea. The soft drinks-only beverage menu boasts fine versions of Thai iced tea and coffee (each $3.50), sweet-tart Thai tea lemonade ($3.25), coconut water ($3.50) that floats fresh coconut slices and an assortment of hot Mem teas ($2.50).
The airy, sunny storefront of 16 table seats and seven window-counter seats is refreshingly light, all blond woods, gray wood-grain tile flooring and white-painted brick, with cheery table service, though kitchen pacing can be a little languorous on nights when the takeout trade is brisk (Sundays seem especially frenzied). Bunnagitkarn appears to pander slightly to visitors wandering in from Faneuil Hall in her restraint with fish sauce and other fermented flavors, though two-chili-rated dishes do bring serious heat. But it’s hard to miss the freshness of ingredients and the considerable value here, despite the downtown rent. For every food geek that has suffered the bush-league indignities of bowdlerized, curry-from-a-can suburban Thai food, Kala is an oasis of electric flavors, a major-league outpost of a budding empire we hope keeps expanding. ◆
Tom yum soup with shrimp
Char kway teow
Pineapple fried rice with shrimp
Spicy chicken satay
Massaman curry with chicken
Red curry with beef
Stir-fried garlic with tofu
Coconut ice cream
Kala Thai Cookery, 151 Hanover St., Boston (857-350-4378) kalaboston.com; Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11:30 am-9:30 pm, Fri.-Sat., 11:30 am-10 pm, Sun., 3-9 pm; Reservations: Yes; Liquor: None; Parking: Nearby garages