Mon-Thu, 5:30pm-11pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30pm-midnight; Sun, 5:30pm-10pm
J, Z at Bowery; 6 at Spring St.
If you want to know what it’s like to enjoy a fiery, beer-soaked dinner on a steamy July evening in expat Bangkok, you can do one of two things. Hop on a flight to Thailand, in search of the real thing, or peddle your clunky Citi Bike down to Spring Street and take a seat at the bar of a little restaurant called Uncle Boons. There, you will find a motley assortment of fellow travelers and poseurs — bearded philosophers, drunken poets, sunburned tourists in their porkpie hats — holding court over frosty bottles of Chang beer. You will find worn brown walls cluttered with mementos from old, twentieth-century Thailand—faded photographs of King Bhumibol with his medals, pictures of Siamese dancers, neon watercolors of water buffalo in rice paddies. Ceiling fans whir gently in the cool, dark rooms, and the wooden café tables are set with guttering yellow candles and golden spoons shaped like stalks of bamboo.
This evocative bandbox of a restaurant is the brainchild of Matt Danzer and Ann Redding, two veteran gourmet cooks (both worked at Per Se) who’ve traveled and eaten extensively around Thailand. Redding grew up in Thailand (she actually has an uncle named Boon), and many of the tchotchkes on the walls are curated from various family houses. Several of the recipes on the small, eclectic menu come from her family, too, including Uncle Boon’s excellent green-mango salad (made with slivers of mango and crispy squid), and deliciously tangy grilled sausages, which Mommy Pai stuffs with a loose mixture of rice and Issan pork. A charcoal grill turns out seaside specialties like charred prawns (good) and grilled blowfish tails (less good), and if you call for the house chicken, it will come to you fresh off the rotisserie, like at a Thai-boxing arena, with an array of spicy dipping sauces.
“I think I had this in Chiang Mai once,” said one of my diners as we took fanlike betel leaves and wrapped them around a mix of chiles, peanuts, and dried shrimp (mieng kum, a traditional snack). No one, however, had seen anything quite like the creamy, smooth black-crab dip called lon pu kem (which is made with a leavening of ground pork and coconut cream and garnished with fresh vegetables for dipping), or the fried frogs’ legs (kob tod katiem pik Thai, for the record; see here), which the kitchen serves over lemongrass and herbs. These delicacies were followed by a tower of roasted chicken tossed with banana blossoms and shreds of crispy shallots (yum kai hua pli), and spicy, lime-soaked laab salad, made here with lamb instead of the usual pork, which we washed down with bottles of frozen Chang beer.
The cooking at Uncle Boons lacks the scholarly intensity of Andy Ricker’s northern-accented Thai menu at Pok Pok Ny, near Red Hook, and if you’re searching for properly spicy regional curries and the endless, rainbow variety of fish dishes and hot-sour soups that characterize great Thai cooking, Queens is still the borough for you. But for a quick tourist’s fix of this great Southeast Asian cuisine, you could do worse than a platter of home-cooked-style crab fried rice, topped with sprigs of fresh coriander, or the classic massaman curry, which Danzer and Redding prepare with softly braised beef ribs (order with a fresh, buttery roti pancake on the side). The lone house dessert is a decorative and cooling cococut-ice-cream sundae, which is big enough for three and crowned on its frothy whipped-cream top with candied peanuts, drifts of toasted coconut, and a single sugary tea cracker, just like in the old ice-cream parlors of Bangkok.
If you’re seeking relative calm and quiet, ask for a table in the small back dining room.Recommended Dishes
Green-mango salad, chopped lamb salad with mint, massaman curry with beef ribs, ice-cream sundae.