Step into Ugly Baby and the bright colors explode: reds, oranges, yellows, and blues sponged on the walls, sometimes resembling clouds and mountains. The narrow room seats 25 at small tables and five along a counter that borders the open kitchen. The origin of the name? In Thailand new parents hesitate to praise a baby to keep evil spirits away. Calling a baby ugly almost guarantees good fortune, or in this case, good food.
Ugly Baby was born with impressive lineage. This Carroll Gardens newcomer was preceded by two now-defunct Red Hook establishments, Kao Soy and a pop-up called Chiang Mai, both known for their advocacy of Northern Thai fare and adventuresome dishes from other regions. Ugly Baby’s chef, Sirichai Sreparplarn, worked both places. He thankfully forgoes the annoying practice, common in New York’s Thai cafes, of providing a catalog of protein choices for each dish.
Sreparplarn parses his menu from the cuisine of Bangkok and the four regions of Thailand, with dishes selected for their novelty and powerful spice combinations, rather than for their familiarity to New York diners. The chef wants to surprise us with the breathtaking range of Siamese cuisine. Don’t expect pad Thai, but if you want to blowtorch your mouth, Ugly Baby provides ample opportunity.
The 20-item menu more fully explores southern Thai cooking than any previous establishment in the city — dishes originating along the Malay Peninsula, which dangles from the main land mass of the country. This isthmus of beaches, islands, and mountains has a cuisine influenced by Indonesian and Malaysian food. Witness gai golae ($10), a pair of chunky chicken brochettes thickly coated with coconut curry and grilled, like satays without the dipping sauce. They’re supremely wonderful.
Southern cooking is sometimes said to be spicier than Isan, and spiciest of all at Ugly Baby is kua kling ($20). The menu carries the stern warning “brutally spicy” for this dry curry of coarsely ground beef and fresh red chiles. It comes decorated with green peppercorns and shredded kaffir lime leaves, dry and crinkled like nori. Though suffused with a perfumy flavor, the heat begins rising with the first bite and never lets up.
Predictably, Southern Thai cooking is seafood-heavy, and the restaurant confirms it with tom kati sai bua ($25), a coconut soup of steamed mackerel and lotus stems, and pla tod kamin, a mellow yellow sea bream rubbed with turmeric and garlic. Not all seafood recipes on Ugly Baby’s menu come from the South. Attributed to Central Thailand, tom som pla kra pong proves a tart tamarind stew of red snapper filets, heaped up in the middle of the bowl like a tropical atoll.
The menu hits you with something fantastic — or at least something interesting — at every turn. In the “interesting” category find teen ped prik tai dum, a heap of whitish duck feet in black pepper sauce. Duck feet are more like crunchy pig ears than chicken feet, but the monovalent flavor of the dish makes a nice contrast to the spicy onslaught of the others. Also providing relief are tue ka ko ($9), a quintet of small coconut-milk muffins embedded with black beans. You’ll wish you had some for breakfast.
Representing for Isan is a fine duck larb with toasted rice powder sprinkled on top. On one try it was fine, but on another, it was way too hot, even for my chile-loving guests. On that occasion we gratefully followed it with the mildly spiced Bangkok beef soup, which featured fatty chunks of brisket in a dark sweet broth. It might have been at home in a Jewish deli.
There are other charmingly plainish things, too, including a massive heap of bean sprouts with minced pork and tofu. The dish, called pad tua ngok rau kao ($14), seems like something you’d enthusiastically eat for dinner at home some night when you just wanted something simple.
We’ve come to the part of the review where I tell you the best thing I ate at Ugly Baby. Hung le is a Chiang Mai classic, a sweet stew of pork shoulder in red curry paste. The chef tosses it with mung bean noodles, herbs, and greens, sides it with pig skin and sticky rice, and calls it kang hoh ($17). Like an ugly infant, it’s not much to look at, but it provides a kaleidoscope of flavors, probably unlike anything you’ve tasted in a Thai restaurant before.