You'll be forgiven if Uncle Boons has fallen off your radar since the Thai restaurant opened in Nolita two years ago. Chefs Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, who met while working at Per Se, have not appeared on the Today Show to yuk it up with Al Roker. They don't send out newsletters with mediations on ramps and the larger culinary meaning of the Kentucky Derby. They don't serve long tasting menus or collaborative vegetable-forward dinners with Michelin-starred Scandinavian chefs. They don't flood the house Instagram account with photos of lithe celebrities holding up garlic-marinated frog legs; instead they post online pictures of a Muay Thai kickboxer who also happened to be my waiter.
Redding and Dezner, who are married, aren't about promoting and reinventing. They're about cooking, consistently and well. And so you shouldn’t be surprised when I tell you that what makes Uncle Boons somewhat of an outlier is the extent to which it hasn’t changed since its 2013 debut. That’s not to say it hasn’t evolved and improved; new items (like green curry snails) appear on the menu with regularity; the restaurant added a serious cocktail program about six months into its run (try the kaffir lime daiquiri); and the kitchen now serves brunch on the weekends, for those who worship at the altar of that controversial and dubious meal. Still, those are just tweaks.
The larger point is this: In an era when established restaurants are justifiably upping their game by revamping their menus (like at Mission Chinese or Empellon Cocina) or by pushing us even further outside of our comfort zones with longer tastings (like at Contra, Fung Tu, and Thirty Acres), it’s reassuring that other ambitious venues are still packing in crowds by holding the course. In the case of Uncle Boons, that means serving affordable and electrically charged Thai fare to a crowd that ranges from adventurous hospitality types to svelte Nolita denizens who might not otherwise partake of sweetbread salads.
The restaurant's best dish, a coconut milk-brushed half-chicken, still comes with a generous pile of green mango salad, and it still costs just $22, the same price as on opening night. It is a one plate meal in our small plates world.
It is a one plate meal in our small plates world
The kitchen brines the D’Artagnan birds in fish sauce, salt, palm sugar, garlic, and cilantro before impaling them on the charcoal-fired rotisserie. The consequent product is precisely what one wants in a slow cooked chicken, flesh whose tenderness approaches confit levels, flavors whose power recalls concentrated stock, and skin whose pliable texture surely makes it the animal fat equivalent of a fruit roll up. You can try not ordering it, a pointless exercise as the black steel rotiseerie is visible from the bar, its flames and fat-tinged smoke perfuming the dining room like carnivorous potpourri. In what part of Thailand might one find such deliciousness? In "Muay Thai boxing arenas," the menu reads. Now you know.
"Our food isn't regional. We just make whatever we like to eat," Redding says. "My family is from Nakon Sawan originally but now lives just outside of Bangkok. I was born in Ubon close to the Lao border. We've traveled all over the country and draw inspiration from whatever is tasty."
Most of Uncle Boons’ dark-wood paneling (salvaged from the previous occupant) makes it feel like a subterranean 1970s cocktail den; the space's most prominent artworks are vintage Thai movie posters, including one of an unlucky bloke who’s being gored through the chest by an elephant tusk. Heavy stuff.
The menu is long, so aside from the outstanding chicken, here’s what to order (or avoid):
Betel leaves: This bitter Asian herb, purported to promote sexual vigor and combat warts, is wrapped around a bright mixture of peanuts, dried shrimp and thai bird chiles. It whets your palate for the meal to come ($12).
Green snail curry: These slithery creatures serve one purpose, to act as a chewy, meaty conduits for creamy coconut milk spiked with kaffir, galangal, and lemongrass ($12).
Frogs' legs: I’ll estimate that at least five poor frogs, maybe more, were sacrificed to produce this single dish. The kitchen turbo charges the juicy, meaty legs of the regal grenouille with a nuclear-powered infusion of garlic and ginger. These are the chicken wings of the swamp world. Not even Jean-Georges prepares this delicacy so expertly ($14).
Rotisserie chicken salad: This isn't any more a salad than a taco salad. Rather, it’s an excuse to eat a heap of cold, delicious meat, mixed with banana blossoms and crispy shallots. The first few seconds of chewing produce a concentrated poultry funk. Then comes intense pain from the chili jam. Drink beer, repeat ($15).
Pork ribs: The shrimp paste-crusted morsels taste underseasoned at first. Not a problem; drizzle salty, sticky fish sauce on top and the flavor of the pork comes through; a hint of shellfish jazzes things up even further ($12).
Lamb laab: A mix of ground lamb shoulder, chili powder, rice powder, fish sauce, cucumber, lime, and mint. The barnyard tang of the lamb is both tempered and amplified by the acidic and incendiary elements ($16). Snatch up the meat with sticky rice (a hint drier than it should be).
Yellowtail collar: Something you’d expect to find at a world-class izakaya. Expect succulent, charcoal-grilled fish, with tiny bits of charred, fatty flesh ($13).
Crab rice: The cost is $25 and with good reason; Uncle Boons provides you with two days worth of rice spiked with as much sweet shellfish flavor as the famous Dungeness crab spaghetti at Del Posto.
Short ribs: Powerfully beefy ribs sit in a Massaman curry (bay, cardamom, cinnamon) whose gentle warming heat lingers for minutes after consumption. Pro tip: order with soft roti and make some DIY Thai tacos ($24).
Ice cream sundae: Coconut milk gelato, candied nuts, and whipped cream. If you don’t like this, you are a flawed human being.
So there you go, a little bit of everything. As Sripraphai focuses on the rainbow curries of central and southern Thailand, as Somtum Der pledges its allegiance to the fiery salads of the Northeast Issan province, and as Pok Pok gives a kick-ass ode to Chiang Mai and the north, Uncle Boons (along with Kin Shop) does the pan-Thai thing and nails it.
Cost: Small plates at $16 or under; mains at $25 or less.
Sample dishes: Green snail curry, beef ribs with massaman curry, crab fried rice with egg, roasted pork belly in soy anise broth.
Bonus tip: Order soft, buttery roti ($3) with any curry for delicious DUNKING.