A gooey grilled cheese was the first bite I wanted when I got back from Thailand last month, but right behind it was all the pungent, fiery northern Thai dishes I'd left behind in Chiang Mai. The sandwich was easy to come by (and so, so good), but I figured it'd be a long time before I dug into kao soi, laabs, and nam prik again. Boston's got a solid Thai food scene, but the vast majority of it is the predictable pad Thai variations, curries, and "interesting pan-fried dishes."
Then, low and behold, I hear that a northern Thai joint, Thai North, opened in Brighton's Oak Square, and that it got glowing reviews from all the local papers and blogs.
I'd read that this place played the same hide-and-seek game with the authentic dishes that a number of other restaurants do, but that if you asked to see the "real" menu (written only in Thai), they'd happily oblige. Enough non-Thai-speaking customers must have been asking, because by the time I got there, there was a blackboard of northern specialties, each item spelled out in both Thai and English. A whole new world.
What I'd really come for was the kao soi ($8.25), generally considered the national dish of Chiang Mai, and unfortunately hard to find in most American Thai restaurants. (That said, the version Andy Ricker cooks up at Pok Pok is pretty great.) It's basically a brothy red curry with noodles, meat (usually chicken), and a heap of contrasting garnishes. The complex, coconut milk-enriched liquid, laced with chili oil, comes about halfway up the deep bowl and soaks into a generous tangle of chewy, flat noodles. Also swimming in the mix: a braised chicken leg, pickled mustard greens, crisp slices of raw red onion, cilantro, scallions, crunchy fried noodles, and a juicy lime wedge for squeezing. Alongside, a bowl of roasted chili paste. If there's another dish out there with a more balanced, multifaceted mixture of flavors and textures, I can't think of it, and unlike most versions I've had, this one's not overly sweet.
Nam prik, northern Thailand's spicy, funky-tasting chile dip served with a crudité-like spread of blanched veggies for dipping, is even harder to come by around here, but the blackboard menu listed a handful of options, including an eggplant version I'd never seen called dtam makhya. According to EatingAsia blogger Robyn Eckhardt, the name translates to "pounded eggplant"—a literal description of the deeply charred and mashed fruit that showed up in the bowl. There must have been plenty of chiles in there, too, 'cause it was downright fiery. Thank goodness for the cooling dippers—a range of blanched vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and puffy deep-fried pork rinds—though the dip itself was so tasty that I found myself spooning it up despite the heat. Call it foolish love.
The only Thai restaurant staple we ordered was mango with sticky rice ($6), but this was far and away the best version I've ever had. Okay, a mango's a mango, and a good one isn't that hard to find, but the coconut sticky rice was extraordinary: sticky, yes, but so thoroughly steeped with coconut milk that its texture was creamy, and its flavor was downright decadent. Think "sticky rice pudding."
Oh, and did I mention the portions are enormous? Each dish can feed two—and I'm not a good a sharer.
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.