Where To Chalawan in Porter Square.
Why For Southeast Asian dishes enjoyed amid the happy clatter of delighted diners.
The Back Story Chalawan replaces Pho House; management remains the same. In addition to the new name, there’s a new chef: Palm Amatawate, who grew up in southern Thailand and comes from a restaurant family. He’s cooked in Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. He moved to the Boston area from Bali with his family, betting that Cambridge diners would welcome his ideas.
“I wanted to do proper Thai food, as authentic as possible. We make everything, all our curry pastes, in house; I wanted to bring upscale Thai and Southeast Asian food to an upscale market,” he says.
What To Eat A piece of advice: Don’t consult the online menu to strategize your order; it might not match the printed version. “I’m sorry; we don’t have that,” I’m told about promising online offerings (steamed buns with roasted duck and hoisin sauce; Kampong crispy chicken). An apologetic host and waitress are happy to make other suggestions, though, and those recommendations are right on. Among the hits: steamed snapper dumplings awash in a biting black vinegar-chili sauce ($9); creamy, fatty pork belly in a sugary plum and tamarillo sauce, topped with fried shallots ($12); chunky beef tenderloin cubes with chilies and cilantro ($20); and Indonesian chicken curry, a korma-style platter of tomatoes and potatoes, braised in yogurt. ($19). The meat is high quality and unfettered by gloppy sauces.
What To Drink A small bar at the back of the restaurant serves unexpectedly fun nonalcoholic cocktails: a virgin bloody Mary with house-made chili salts; a watermelon-ginger “refresher”; a banana smoothie; a Thai soda of honey and lime. There’s also wine and Singaporean or Thai beer (Leo, Singha, Tiger).
The Takeaway At 5:30 p.m., the softly lit dining room is overflowing and noisy; walk-ins are gently asked to return in two hours. Tables are filled with families tending high-chair-bound babies; young couples (including a pair clearly meeting for the first time, with one half of the couple arriving late and apologizing to his restless date, who’s uncomfortable occupying prime real estate alone); and locals thanking staffers for opening in the neighborhood. A few people swarm the entrance, settling on takeout instead; the host runs interference with aplomb, delivering dishes, tossing off food recommendations — every customer is urged to order the snapper dumplings — and occasionally pausing to answer the phone. Another piece of advice: It might ring and ring should you call for a reservation or for takeout. Don’t give up.
Chalawan, 1790 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-8888, www.thechalawan.com