Like its predecessors Kao Soy and temporary offshoot Chiang Mai, Ugly Baby is already one of the most exciting Thai restaurants to hit town in a long time.
It’s located on an obscure stretch of Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, and out the window you can see F and G trains periodically rush by, on their plunge underground from the elevated tracks. The interior is slightly larger than the now-defunct Kao Soy and is lavishly painted with abstract, colorful foliage. The menu, via chef Sirichai Sreparplarn, ransacks the four regions of Thai cuisine for fascinating recipes.
Even familiar dishes are still capable of astonishing. Here called gai golae ($10), the old Southeast Asian standby of chicken satay is rendered, not with lifeless tidbits of chicken breast, but with giant wads of dark thigh meat, long marinated in coconut and curry. The effect is chewy and spicy. Another great app is tue ka ko ($9), little muffins studded with black beans. A little harder to appreciate, but pushing the boundaries of Thai food as we know it, is teen ped prik tai dum ($12), a plate of cartilaginous and pale duck feet spiked with black pepper. Pig-ear fanciers will love it, as will admirers of slippery things.
A friend and I chose six dishes from the 20-item initial menu, which is refreshing in its shortness and refuses to list multiple variations for each dish, or organize them according to predictable categories. We washed our meal down with a lively vignoles (a hybrid white grape developed in the Finger Lakes in 1930) from Keuka Lake Vineyards. Note that Ugly Baby is currently BYOB. Acquired from Carroll Gardens Wines (427 Court Street), the wine was crisp and acidic, and paired perfectly with the bold flavors of Ugly Baby’s dishes.
Already memorable, our meal went straight uphill from there. The southern Thai dishes on the menu are of particular interest, since the cuisine is reportedly hot as hell and we don’t have much of it here. Kua kling ($20) is a dry beef-shank curry seasoned with bird chiles and green peppercorns, with a nice thatch of shredded kaffir lime on top. It is certainly the spiciest dish I’ve had so far this year, and for chile lovers, it’s a life-changing event.
On the advice of the hostess, we matched it with a very mild brisket soup from Bangkok with a sweet, soy-laced broth. Nevertheless, this gao lao nuer toon ($20) came with a tart red sauce to supplement the beefy flavor. Already sated, but still curious to try new dishes, we went for an order of rice noodles (mee kati Isan, $20) topped with coarsely ground pork in peanut sauce, so that the noodles, meat, and legumes formed a near-homogeneous mass. To vary the terrain, crunchy cabbage and shallots were provided for extra crunch.
We walked out with an impressive collection of leftovers, just as the sun was setting and an F train went roaring by, ablaze with light.