Asian food cravings tend to hit around vacation time, whenever everyone around me is, or is talking about, heading home. I had a strong desire for comfort food—something satisfyingly salty, meaty, and soupy.
Home-styled Thai food seemed to be a good choice, especially from the recently-opened restaurant of two former Per Se chefs, Matt Danzer and Ann Redding, who actually grew up in Thailand. Uncle Boons is well worth the schlep into the bowels of NoLIta, and it left me greatly satisfied with its delicious, authentic dishes and great service. Candles in orange glass jars, straw seats, and cedar wood paneling created a fantastic ambiance.
We ordered a small plate: kaam wua katiem pik thai (caramelized beef cheeks). Imagine Chinese-style beef broth noodles, but with the meat slow-braised to soft, stringy strands—dark from concentrated soy sauce and swimming in its own soup—enhanced by garlic, peppercorn, and a hint of whiskey. Paired with a side of sticky rice, the dish instantly transported me back into Thailand’s food stalls at the night markets. These two pieces of beef were a typical “family-style communal food,” the kind that’s meant to go with a bowl of rice in front of each diner.
Our ahaan yang of charcoal-grilled blowfish tails came with a lime, garlic, and chili dipping sauce. Painted ever so slightly with a sugar cane glaze, the chewy flesh was crisp on the outside but tender enough that it slid off the small bones attached to the tail. The fragrance of cane hits your tongue first, then the slightly smoky notes from the cooking method of grilling, finishing off with an oily, but not overwhelming, foundation from the fish’s own fat. The sauce was made with just the right balance of the pungent heat from crushed fresh green chili and sour hits of citrus, and cut the rich fish nicely—although it smothers some of its delicate flavors.
Chef Redding’s personal favorite, Uncle Boons guay jap—a pork offal broth—was the type of soup that left a stickiness on your lips because of the amount of protein packed into the braise and reduction. Spiked with cassia and garlic, the broth was rich and well-reduced in that it wasn’t brimming with salt, but was still thick enough to go with the flat sheet rice noodles curled up in rolls in the liquid. The large pieces of braised pork shoulder were done as well as the beef cheeks—except with pieces of fat still attached that had the right amount of chewiness as the pork tongue.
The brain was breaded in a salt-and-pepper Wondra flour skin then deep-fried, almost exactly like authentic street food in Taiwan. The blood cakes were way too salty, dry, and crumbly, but good when paired with a boiled egg and still deliciously gooey at the center. Fried-until-crisp garlic slices gave the dish a nice flavor kick and crunch. Orange chili vinegar helps balance out this rather rich fat-and-carbs dish, although it was just as good without.
Uncle Boons gave me a fantastic, attentive experience that made me remember the patience that some chefs still have in fast-paced Manhattan life. What characterizes these dishes and their complexity is the willingness to wait and stew these meats for at least 12 hours. Give this place a try—experiencing Thailand’s gastronomic culture in Manhattan is a must.
Uncle Boons is located at 7 Spring St., between Elizabeth Street & Bowery.