By MC Slim JB | The Improper Bostonian
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.
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