New York’s all-you-can-eat scene welcomes a lively new entrant: Boon Dee (168-11 Union Turnpike, between 168th and 169th streets, in Hillcrest, Queens) ushers in one of the few examples of mookata (mu kratha), the Thai tradition of AYCE, DIY barbecue-and-hot-pot-in-one. It’s an expansive breadth of fixings like chile-marinated meats, cilantro-seasoned seafood, heaps of vegetables, and dipping sauces for just under $40 per person and half price for kids 3 to 7 years old.
While Tea Cup Cafe in the Thai enclave of Elmhurst added the grill-hot pot combo to its menu in 2021, Boon Dee has gone all-in on mookata. For years, co-owner Raweewan Chen dreamed of launching this, but it wasn’t until 2021 — five years after opening Tasty Thai in Ridgewood — that she and her partners secured funds for a space large enough to accommodate the style of eating they miss most from their native Thailand.
In an open 10,000-plus-square-foot space, each table is equipped with a round skillet and a ventilation hood. Traditionally, the skillet features a dome with grilling at the center and a deep trench for soup. At Boon Dee, the whole cooking surface is at least 1.5 times as large as the traditional one. The grill area is flat to maximize the smokiness from the proximity to the flame as well as the amount of meat that can be grilled altogether.
When they’re ready, customers can head to the long buffet bar in the middle of the dining room. About 20 raw meats and seafood include jumbo shrimp, cumin lamb, sesame pork, thin-sliced beef, and pork belly marinated overnight with garlic, cilantro, and chile powder. Take your pick of vegetables like watercress and kabocha squash, as well as noodles, fish balls, and six dipping sauces.
In Thailand, the sauces are where a mookata place really sets itself apart from the competition, says Chen. At Boon Dee, there’s a red mookata sauce with tomatoes and cilantro; a tangy green seafood sauce made with garlic, lime, cilantro, and chile typically paired with its namesake ingredient; suki sauce made with tomatoes, chile sauce, and sesame seeds; and jaew sauce made with tamarind, khao khua (toasted rice powder), and herbs like lemongrass and galangal.
The servers dole out cooking tips such as “flip the marinated squid once it’s turned opaque white,” or “shrimp is ready when it’s curled into a ‘U’ form.” Don’t worry about char buildup, or running low on the chicken bone broth, because the servers readily switch out the grill pan and replenish the stock.
Boon Dee offers snacks, too: sides like pad krapow gai (minced chicken with basil) and desserts such as grass jelly with crushed ice and jackfruit, or mango with coconut sticky rice.
“There’s no wrong way of doing mookata,” says Chen. “It’s like, okay, you go with this meat, dip it in the sauce, and then you go with the soup, and then you go back up for a snack, chit chat with your friends, and keep grilling. It’s so fun. You just keep moving.”
Caroline Shin is a Queens-raised food journalist and founder of the Cooking with Granny YouTube and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Follow her on Instagram @CookingWGranny.