What makes a restaurant good? Why do some get Michelin stars? 5 stars on NY Times? The length of the wait list? No matter what the metric, every accolade will result in fame, which drives traffic, and eventually, the price up. My friend Harry, a newly minted foodie that’s chasing all the stars, come back to New York City for the holidays. He fell in love with Eleven Madison Park, but wonder if Michelin stars actually mean anything. Sort by price, Uncle Boons is on the top of the list. We wanted to reserve a table – nobody wants to travel thousands of miles and unable to try their food – but they don’t take reservations! I love it when restaurants do that. Everyone has a fair shot; if you really want to eat here, come early and show up.
So we did. We arrive at 5:10pm, and there is already a group of people waiting in the temporary extension. It is a nice day out so I don’t understand why they are waiting in the tiny ass door. Also, I don’t understand American fetish over Thai cuisine. I’m unfamiliar with Thai food even though I spent a decade in the country bordering just south of them. In fact, I have never head of Pad Thai until college, and I have never been impressed by their curries. My favorite dish is the sour and spicy Tom Yum soup, which grew on me later in life. Thai cuisine does have good grilled meat and seafood, but here is the thing – all South East Asian countries have similar food. In my opnion, the Malaysian version of their dish just taste better without either the sour twist or the pants of fire spices on everything. So, it is a surprise to see the line that wrap around the block as Uncle Boons opens. Even though we are 2nd in line, one of our friends is running late, so we stand awkwardly in the lobby of the tight restaurant. They compensate it by sitting us all the way at the back of the restaurant, which is away from the crowd, but the tables are as cramped as laws allow. Don’t visit NYC if you are claustrophobic; it might not be as bad as Hong Kong, but it isn’t very spacious.
The menu is pretty straight forward. Uncle Boons is famous for the rotisserie chicken and charcoal grilled goodies. Our final lineup consists of grilled baby octopus, beef ribs curry with potatoes, lamb salad with chillies, duck breast with maitake and charcoal roasted dorade (a type of fish). With bowls of jasmine rice and roti. It was interesting that roti is on the menu because that’s not associated with Thai cuisine. However, I’m not going to complain because curries are best paired with rice and bread. We consulted our server as we do not know the portion sizes – she gives us the green light. Unlike western dishes where it is obvious what’s on a plate, I am unable to scoop out what others are ordering. Everything looks like some kind of meat in a stew. By the way, they proudly hang their Michelin star across the bar high up on a white wall. Even the hostess did not know where it is located!
Unlike fancier French restaurant, dishes show up as soon as they are ready. The kitchen can’t be that big since we are in NYC, but they managed to churn out food just like any other Asian restaurant, which is an incredible feat. Not before long, our tiny table is overfilled with dishes. The dingy and dark restaurant with lots of Thai memorabilia reminded me of Tibetian/Nepalese/Bhutanese restaurant rather than the colorful south east Asian country. I would like to point out here that each bowl of Jasmine rice can feed 2 people; they not only filled it to the brim, but almost double the amount of rice of the bowl over it.
Let’s start from the bottom. We are not impressed with the roasted fish, which taste like any Asian steamed fish. There was no charcoal flavor to it, just plain white fish. It was deboned though, which made serving easy. Another name for the beef ribs curry in other parts of Asia is the rendang, with a slight sour flavor to the otherwise spicy curry. Tasty, but I wouldn’t have guessed Thai. The duck breast with maitake reminded me of sliced rare filet mignon steak. The strong flavor of the curry sauce hits you first, then the gamey flavor of the duck comes out at the end, not bad at all. Personally, I wasn’t amazed by the lamb salad but that’s because it is just extremely spicy and sour. To be honest, it is more like ground lamb with some vegetables, rather than a lamb salad. Finally, the best dish goes to the grilled baby octopus. Unlike the fish, a bite into the octopus oozes of smoked chacoal. It is very well seasoned and flavorful. The accompanying sauce is spicy and sour, further elevating the flavor of the octopus. This, is the epitome of Thai cuisine. A must order dish.
Uncle Boon is the brainchild of talented chefs Matt Danzer and Ann Redding (she is Thai), with the goal putting a creative spin on traditional Thai cuisine. The creativity is what stands out from the thousands of Thai restaurants around the country, and the hundreds spread throughout NYC. Even though the dishes are well executed, I am unable to see how the fusion elements elevates them above traditional Thai food. On the other hand, the price point is so reasonable, taking into account of the location and the star. If I’m to come back, I’m just going to order off the charcoal grilled goodies menu, and maybe the blood sausage. I want to see the magic here. But don’t take my word for it, Michelin honored them with a star. That got to stand for something, am I right?
Visited: December 26th, 2018 at 5:30pm for dinner.
Address: 7 Spring St, New York City.