Chef Eddie Huang is the second generation American-Born Taiwanese (ABT) mastermind behind BaoHaus, the East Village eatery that delivers perfect pork buns and other excellent takes on the street food Eddie grew up eating. The closest Eddie came to “formal” cooking training was from his mother. Influenced by her style, he developed his own unique recipes and techniques by eating out, taking notes, and recreating dishes at home. A hip-hop head, Eddie enjoys watching the Redskins, Knicks, hitting the roor, and hollering at birds.
Tastes, preferences, and approach to the same works or mediums vary from culture to culture. In the Field, it’s that tick-tick followed by that bump, red beans with dry rice, Church on Sundays. On our side these days, it’s Montana, white boys cooking Thai (“Hi Harold!” - Maino), and S.D.A.’s in Fort Greene. For those that don’t know... These are the breaks.
Breaks on a bus, breaks on a car... If a CIA grad breaks into my kitchen, he’s browning the pork belly and braising it in the oven. If I crash your crib, I’m going to blanche the belly, toss out the first, braise it on the stove top, and leave you with slime flu. Certain things are conditioned, others are learned, and some are things I want to like. If it’s spicy, it needs sugar; if it’s fatty, it needs ginger; if it’s cold, it needs vinegar; if it’s a dumpling of any form, that vinegar better be red; and if that dumpling has soup in it, julienned ginger in the vinegar ASAP, Rocky...
For a lot of readers, your preferences for Thai probably land somewhere between Pad Thai and Khao Soi, depending on whether or not Study Abroad took you on a up-north trip. Perhaps you’ve been to the holy grail of New York Thai restaurants, SriPraPhai. If you haven’t, there was always dinner at Lotus of Siam between tosses off the pass line and 5 a.m. Luxor elevator bank pimpin’. But, I doubt you’ve had anything like David Thompson’s dinner at Betel (1 Grove St.) in the West Village.
For your reading pleasure, I refused to read any reviews, praises, or criticisms of David Thompson before going in. Word was that he does “sophisticated” Thai food, “dressed up” Thai, or perhaps “cheffy shit,” but really, I just wanted to taste the food for myself without any industry context. You know how that shit gets, this chef’s friends with that chef and even though he doesn’t like his curry paste, we’re gonna convince every one it’s good cause it’s different... There are a lot of DJ Khaleds we prop up in the food world. You not the best, ninja.
I didn’t know about the Thompson Dinner until Andy Ricker set me up with two seats. For those that don’t know, Andy is the Pete Maravich of Thai food in America. #WhiteBoyCookGood. You’ve heard about his wings at Pok Pok (3226 Southeast Division St., Portland, Oregon), but dig deeper, have a vinegar cocktail, and the man will take your taste buds to deep, dark, lewd places usually reserved for The Weeknd mixtapes. He told me that Thompson and himself would be serving three courses family style, and that there were Kanom Jin noodles being flown in from Thailand. Boner. I was also told dinner was $150 a head. Deflate. Pause. But, there was Malin and Goetze in the bathroom and Black Thought on the stereo, so that has to account for something.
The first course included a Ma hor made of prawn, chicken, and pork, topped with peanuts over pineapple with coriander. It’s what we know Thai food to be. Sweet, meaty from the fish sauce, strongly aromatic from the coriandor, and, of course, the familiar use of peanuts for texture and that final layer of complexity. There were Australian ex-pats sitting next to me who remarked, “The Ma hor put me at ease.” They remembered the dish from Thompsons’ run at Darley Street Thai in Sydney. For them, a flavor learned then conditioned.
There were also Southern grilled mussels on skewers that were a tad sandy and lost. One of my complaints with Thai food is that the essence in some ingredients gets neutralized due to the heavy seasoning. Without the shell and jus of the mussel, it ended up the most expensive moose knuckle I ever had. Oh shit, my bad. Vagina monologue.
To finish the course, spicy pork with rice cakes and betel leaves. For those that like strong flavors and aromatics, this is your ace boon. Anytime I see betel on a menu, I approve. The Thai eat leaves, the Taiwanese have betel nut girls. We win.
With the second course, Thompson really got busy. The catfish with chili jam and green mango danced like Killa Cam’s floors. There was a minced prawn curry that had the exact opposite appeal of the mussels. Intact was the essence and funk of prawn heads, just enough coconut milk, and the perfect dose of turmeric and ginger to round it out. For me, the profiles of these dishes were familiar, balanced, and comforting. Conditioned flavors. It was at this moment that I really started to understand Thompson’s Thai food.
With Southeast Asian food, they flip the script and aromatics are many times the stars: Kato. The ginger is more lively, the lemon basil is kind to the nose, but harsh to the taste, pastes are freshly pounded and pungent, and the umami you’re used to is cooked out of the protein and reintroduced with fish sauce. It’s a very interesting way of cooking and eating that, for me, takes training.
Eating Thompson’s Thai food is an education. At times, the chicken with wild ginger (aka Chinese Key = ka chai) feels like corporal punishment. But with the reprimand comes further instruction. Fold more lemon basil into the chicken! Eat it over the Kanom Jin, a noodle that initially seems ordinary but carries a faint fermented flavor that natives appreciate. It’s the little things that make a dish for those that have eaten it all their lives. If any faint scent or texture is missing, somebody’s getting an open-toed sandal up their ass cause they don’t have Timbos in Thailand. (Note, anyone looking for a band name, look no further: Timbos in Thailand, hit mother fucking records...) Suddenly, like the marriage of Master Kush and Lemon Joy, there was clarity through wild ginger torture. Every thing came clean. Not Hillary Duff, silly—the East is in the house!
Ditto for the salted beef ribs with fish sauce. On first bite and glance, it was criminally salty. Scott, the editor of Tasting Table, loved it, not minding the salt at all. I then ripped the ribs into strips and ate them with slightly pickled bean sprouts and bamboo. Crisis averted, respect is born. David Thompson, I fux wit you. A sip of beer for the next bite of beef ribs and once again, you get it: Michelin starred drankin’ food. I took a bite of the fish cakes... Victory was in his clutches now. Deep flavor, the requisite crunchy exterior, and a bouncy center reminiscent of Brazilian butt implants that are the hallmark of any good fish cake.
Happy endings came in the form of grilled sticky rice with a banana center. It was soft and semi-sweet like Kid Cudi, but unlike bullshit martian raps and curved khaki hats, I enjoyed it. By this point, there was no doubting his food, but one question lingered. Point blank, was the dinner worth $150/head? (FYI, the $150 included gratuity and wine pairing.) I can only answer this question for myself. For $150: I could get Lebron 8 solar reds, two-thirds of a Band of Outsiders buttondown, or 3 empty bottles of Johnnie Walker Double Black on eBay.
The choice is yours, but if I had $150 to do it again, I’d choose the transcendental Thai dinner that smacked me upside the head with a lesson on putting aromatics first. Play that French: “When it’s showtime _ _ _ _ _ pass the ball, make a call, watch me go in for the kill. I was stuntin’ on you corny _ _ _ _ _ _ way before the deal.”