The “Thai American diner” opened in Bed-Stuy over the weekend. Its owners, Trevor Lombaer and Sutathip Aiemsaard, met on Tinder in Thailand seven years ago and have been cooking together ever since. The couple’s food has been served from food trucks, pop-ups, and a ghost kitchen in Downtown Brooklyn.
Little Grenjai, at 477 Gates Avenue, near Marcy Avenue, is the first restaurant of their own. It’s not off to the start its owners probably imagined: Lombaer and Aiemsaard are cooking in the open kitchen on portable electric burners while they wait for gas to be turned on. Most days, they hand customers orders through a takeout window at one end of the shop.
To make things manageable, they’re serving just two items: an excellent bowl of congee made with ground pork and duck broth, and a burger that’s spicy, minty, crunchy, and sweet all at once. It’s inspired by the Thai stir-fry dish pad krapow, made by cooking ground meat and holy basil in a wok over high heat. It needs a little work, but its unusual ingredients make for one of the more interesting burgers around.
The burger ($10) starts with a blend of pork and beef that’s seasoned with soy sauce and oyster sauce. The meat is formed into a patty, then smashed on a griddle with a slice of American cheese. Things get interesting when they add their version of giardiniera. In Chicago, where Lombaer is from, the condiment is often made with pickled cauliflower and carrots. In Bed-Stuy, lemongrass and bird’s eye chiles get thrown in.
“We wanted to take the elements of pad krapow and put it into a burger,” Lombaer says. In place of lettuce, he uses a sprig of holy basil.
The restaurant’s burger sauce also goes off-script. It’s made by cooking down shrimp heads, fish sauce, palm sugar, and shallots into a paste, then mixing it with mayonnaise until it’s bright orange. It’s spicy and slightly sweet. If I had it my way, it would be slathered on both sides of the bun and probably on an order of chicken wings, too.
The sandwich is a welcome change of pace from the kind of smash burger that has been copy-and-pasted across town: one or two beef patties, a slice of American cheese, and a squirt of pink burger sauce on a Martin’s potato bun. At one point, the simplicity of that formula was freeing. Now it’s a meme.
Those burgers do have one thing on Little Grenjai. For the most part, they’re greasy — and the best of them have burnt, crisp edges that overflow from their buns. The krapow burger, when I tried it on opening weekend, was softer, and a little dry. When the gas is turned on and the heat is cranked up, I suspect those issues will address themselves.
For now, Little Grenjai is open for takeout from Wednesday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday to Friday. A dining room with around 30 seats is open on Saturday and Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.