By Brooke Jackson-Glidden, MUSE Food Editor
I have a confession: I’m a Thai food snob.
I have been to seven different Thai restaurants in Boston, three of which were on campus. I have scrolled through Yelp search results, written down names on napkins during eavesdropped conversations, snagged business cards from random waiting room tables, all in search for the name, just one name, of a Thai restaurant that lived up to my experience at home.
I come from a land of crazy good Thai food. Generally, the West Coast is ripe with excellent Asian cuisine, as there tend to be more Asian immigrants on that side of the country. I grew up on sweet Tom Kha, salty Shoyu Niniku Ramen and Tangy Pho littered with floating limes. My friends and I would go out for Thai food twice a month, order bright-orange Thai iced tea and completely cover the table in plates of all different shades – key lime green curry, dark brown pad kee mao (also known as Drunken Noodles) with vibrant red peppers and orange carrots, tan massaman curry with the purple skins of red potatoes emerging from the depths like islands.
There is a missing respect for Thai food, I think. I find more complex flavors in Thai then in any other cuisine. Acidic lime and its counterpart, lemongrass, mixed with sticky-sweet coconut, salty peanuts and pungent garlic results in a harmonious balance of palate, and just when you think culinary serenity is reached, salty-sweet hunan (fish sauce) strolls into the party like he knows everyone there and a whole new flavor palate introduces itself to the dish. And don’t even get me started on Sriracha.
I lived for my trips to Sabai, my favorite Thai restaurant of my hometown, with my friends on Friday nights, when the evening was young and we saw “going crazy” as ordering every dish as spicy as the scale went. We’d hunch over our plates, ladling aromatic curries over little sculpted rice boats, dangling brown noodles and julienned bamboo shoots dangerously from one bowl to the one sitting in front of us, silent except for the sound of clinking plates, utensils, and the occasional sniff from running sinuses.
I lived for those nights. No, we didn’t have nights that were fuzzy in the morning, or pictures of us we don’t remember taking. We remembered each bite perfectly, at our usual booth in our usual haunt where the waiters know us by name. We were never bored, just comfortable.
Moving to Boston was anything but comfortable. I knew I wanted to leave the West Coast when I was six years old, but that didn’t make the move easier. I have yet to meet anyone from Oregon, let alone my town. I had no connections in Boston – the closest relative lived in Pittsburg. And I had no Thai food that compared to home.
My friend, a student at the Fordham Lincoln Center campus often texted me from the City with a similar complaint. “When you pull apart the noodles, they’re white on the inside!” she would cry over Skype. “They put tomatoes in green curry!” I’d howl back. “Who does that?!”
When we came back for break, we all met at our same booth, ordered our same drinks, and covered the table again. We talked about our various colleges, our new unforgettable nights, and the inferior Thai food on our campuses. Sitting there with them, I started to realize something – yes, the Thai food in our town was delicious, and in all likelihood it was better than what we could find in our various towns. But maybe part of our frustration was that we knew something was ending, and we wouldn’t be able to find that same experience, of us at that table together, again.
I came back for my second semester of college with the realization that maybe my Thai food experience wouldn’t be quite the same as it was in high school, and that was okay. I went through one final Yelp search, messaged all my new college friends, dragged them into the middle of the Financial District, through a couple of questionable alleys, until I found a hole-in-the-wall, take-out restaurant called Thai’s Bistro. My friends commented on the sketchy exterior and ordered warily. We pushed the tables together and waited.
When we finally got our food, I noticed immediately that the dishes looked remarkably better than the ones I had tried before. I hesitated, and then dove in, chopsticks first.
It. Was. Delicious.
The Drunken Noodles were dripping in spicy-sweet sauce just like the ones at home, with thin slices of beef and bright bell peppers. The green curry was that perfect balance of “clean” and “dirty,” in that it was spicy and rich, but not missing the sweetness of that coconut milk. The Tom Kha paled in comparison to the one of my childhood, but the Shumai dipped in Sriracha was a delicious replacement.
No, we didn’t huddle over our dishes in respect and amazement. We sang along to the radio, took ridiculous pictures, did our respective biddie impressions and talked about what we would do when my friend from Fordham came to visit next week. The man at the counter danced along to our music, and smiled and waved when we left.
And as I walked back down Atlantic Avenue with these people that I love, stomach full of coconut milk and slippery drunken noodles, I decided that my booth at Sabai will be waiting for me when I come home in the summer. But for now, this is perfect.