Thai family secrets released for flavor
By Denise Taylor, January 02, 2004
Sugar & Spice
Location: 1933 Mass. Avenue
Porter Square / Cambridge
617-868-4200 Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major cards accepted
Handicap access: Wheelchair accessible
Sugar & Spice has the kind of menu that can easily induce decision
angst. The nearly 100 choices run tantalizingly through the best that
Thai cuisine has to offer -- coconut-rich curries, char-grilled
meats, lime-spritzed salads, and so on. But we found you can relax
and order just about anything at this spiffy new Porter Square
storefront. The kitchen's range of success never dips below good and
often soars to outstanding.
In fact, everything works here. The retro, space-age decor is just
plain fun with its curved, blue-tiled walls, mod lighting, and
Mondrian-like glass panels. Black-clad servers whisk about the place
unobtrusively, always appearing tableside at the right moment. Soft
Spiciness is to order. Presentation is artful. Even vegetarians can
find safe haven here; nearly every dish has a truly meat-free option
(soy sauce subs for fish sauce and a designated vegetable-only wok
is used). And all this upscale perfection comes at dive prices: Most
of the entrees fall into the $7 to $8 range. So where has this
restaurant been all our dining lives? Though it opened in
mid-November, in a way Sugar & Spice has been three generations in
the making. Owner/chef Penjan Kridaratikorn hails from Nakhon Si
Thammarat, a southern Thai city.Her grandmother opened a tiny
sidewalk cafe there, which Penjan's mother later expanded. In that
busy kitchen, Penjan was schooled in the family cooking secrets such
as how best to pound fresh ginger and basil for aromatic curries.
She then switched continents, opened two Thai restaurants (Sweet
Chili, in Arlington and Cambridge), and tossed aside many of those
secrets to please American palates. At Sugar & Spice, Penjan "wants
to do Thai Thai, authentic cooking," says manager Mookda Nuwong.
One such exquisite dish was our first appetizer, numtok ($5.95).
Slices of char-grilled beef (or pork) bathed in the Thai
power-hitters -- lime juice, Thai chili pepper, and dusky fish
sauce -- came tossed with a fantastically fragrant confetti of
kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, and ginger-like galangal. Served atop
iceberg lettuce, this dish epitomizes the harmony Thai cuisine is
known for. Tender, hot-off-the-grill meat balances the crisp lettuce;
the airy herbs; the earthy fish sauce; the sour lime; the dash of sugar.
Also superb were morning glory ($5.25), a delicate tempura of
julienned carrot, slivered tofu, baby shrimp, and leafy green
watercress tossed in a sweet-sour dressing but still wonderfully
crisp; and shrimp mermaid ($4.95), elegant, cone-shaped fried spring
rolls stuffed with a succulent trio of shrimp, crabmeat, and chicken.
Pla dook foo ($6.95) looks daunting -- but try it. This appetizer,
which translates to "fish catfish puffy" is catfish chopped so finely
that when fried it puffs into a crisp, messy, golden cloud that looks
vaguely, as one friend put it, like the foam inside a Barcalounger.
But paired with a vibrant mango-lime sauce, sharp red onion, and
cashew nuts, it is an edible translation of "sanuk," the joy known to
guide all Thai pursuits including cooking.
Despite the large menu, entrees truly vary -- no simple remix of
standard sauces on varied ballast here. Steamed ginger fish ($11.95),
a filet of tender cod, came in a delicate bath of light soy sauce
offset only by ginger spears, scallion, and a flourish of cilantro
atop a raft of napa cabbage. In contrast, golden shrimp ($10.95) was
a rich, delicious yellow coconut curry whipped with egg and packed
with hearty vegetables and plenty of shrimp.
Even simple-sounding entrees were carefully composed. Purple fried
rice ($7.95) was a flavorful hill of sauteed rice topped with tufts
of tart green mango, tangy shreds of marinated chicken, threads of
deliciously browned omelette, red onion, and a crown of cilantro.
Stir to blend and this seesaw of flavors shows just how refined
fried rice can be. Pineapple fried rice ($7.95), too, was quite good
(and not too sweet).
Lemongrass chicken ($7.95 or large, $9.95) is Penjan's favorite dish,
and it shows. First, she intentionally lists it twice on the menu.
Second, it's fantastic. The key is in both the near fistfuls of basil,
lemongrass, and lime leaf and in the fresh, perfectly stir-fried
mix of vegetables.
I strain to find complaints. Seafood in love ($12.95) came in a
starchy, too-sweet chili sauce. For dessert, we liked the sweet,
warm coconut sticky rice with mango ($2.50), but the fried ice cream
($2.50) tasted of spring rolls likely fried in the same oil. But the
real problem is that it will take weeks to try all the other tempting
dishes -- crispy pad Thai, papaya salad, barbecue -- not to mention
the raft of frozen fruit drinks we never got to.