When we think of classic, foundational cuisine in this country, we often think of Europe, particularly France. It’s time to bump Thailand to the forefront of the collective consciousness. What today’s chefs often try to do within a dish — precisely juxtapose sweetness and salt, freshness and funk, richness and crunch, spice and cooling succor — is Thai food’s superpower. It sets a bar as a balancing act.
Respect and recognition for one of the world’s great cuisines has been a slow roll into the United States, brought to us by immigration, governmental relations, travel, and gastrodiplomacy. In the early 2000s, Thailand trained chefs and sent them abroad to win hearts and minds. (Incredibly effective! More countries do this, please!) Another force: academia. Students arrive in the United States to study, then stay and open restaurants of their own.
This is how we come to have Mahaniyom, a vibe-saturated den of beautifully layered, deeply enticing flavors and textures in Brookline. Partners Smuch Saikamthorn and Chompon Boonnak are childhood friends from Phetchabun province in the lower north of Thailand. Saikamthorn came here to study at Northeastern; he previously ran a “typical Thai restaurant” in San Diego. Boonnak, who attended Boston University, worked as a bartender at Shojo in Chinatown and discovered a passion. The Boston area has a handful of Thai restaurants that stand out against a backdrop of oversweet pad thai and curry-from-a-can. Of late, that number is growing. Mahaniyom, opened in February 2020, is an exemplar. It brings us the Thai food we deserve, with a beverage program to match.
The menu is to scale for the small space, about two dozen dishes, neither overwhelming nor limited. Plates are on the smaller side, too, designed for sharing — comme il faut, but also true to Thailand, where there are often many dishes on the table. Saikamthorn oversees the kitchen. They are cooking from memory here, he says, trying to re-create the taste of home. They seek out the best ingredients, from fresh lemongrass to local clams; they make all the curry pastes from scratch. Spice level varies from plate to plate but always seems just right for the dish. Care comes across in each bite. It is a joy to bring friends here for the first time and watch them fall in love, deeper and deeper with every order.
For me, there were three dishes that did it. First, yum ngoh, a rambutan salad. (When rambutan is out of season, it’s made with pomelo, equally good.) The fruit is floral and lightly sweet, with a texture similar to lychee. It’s paired with shrimp, offering a similar but firmer texture, a saline counterpoint. Cashews, fried shallots, roasted coconut, and chiles join the scrum, with a sweet-sour-spicy-fragrant dressing lashing it all loosely together. Each bite is different. It wakes up the taste buds, makes them eager for what’s next.
Second, kang puu, a rich, ruddy crabmeat curry served with a twist of fresh, delicate rice noodles. Fresh herbs, sliced cucumbers, and shredded purple cabbage are laid out on the plate, for mix-and-match textures and tastes.
Third, the clincher, beef massaman. I rarely order massaman curry; it often seems simple, sweet, and dull compared with other offerings. Mahaniyom’s version is an entirely different animal, bristling with complexity, warmed by a through line of heady cinnamon. Its heat builds, spreading from the back of the tongue to the front. There are maybe 20 different herbs in the mix, Saikamthorn says. It’s made with collagen-tender, slow-cooked beef shank, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, with a side of flaky roti.
I cannot come to Mahaniyom and not get these three things. When it is available, I also would not miss the pla lui suan, a deep-fried whole fish loaded up with chiles and herbs. To sit and pull moist flesh from its frame, fanning your mouth and laughing from the heat, alternating fish with mouthfuls of rice: It is a pleasure.
From there, I might order klui puu, long, crisp, fried cylinders filled with a bouncy-textured, mild mash of crab, shrimp, and pork belly. Or fried chive cake, allium-scented, tender-chewy squares with soy dipping sauce. I might explore the textural possibilities of pork with side-by-side dishes: sai krog E-san, a powerfully flavorful, almost crumbly sausage of pork belly and rice, and kor moo yang, unctuous, slippery slivers of grilled pork jowl with a tangy, fiery dipping sauce to help balance the richness.
Even a dessert of taro coconut custard isn’t simply sweet; it’s savory, too, with fried shallots in the mix.
The balance and nuance of the food are echoed in Boonnak’s cocktails — from the Mahaniyom Sazerac, wherein rye is infused with the distinctive flavor of Thai tea, to the tiki-esque Kin Na Ree, which brings together Thai and Jamaican rums with Campari, pineapple, and pandan. Ya dong is a traditional herbal moonshine in Thailand; Mahaniyom’s spin showcases an herb-infused shot (rum, rye, or vodka), served on a rattan tray beside bites of pickled mango and a pandan water chaser. It looks beautiful, and the complementary flavors feed one into the next: herbal heat from the shot; tang, salt, and spice from the chile-dusted pickled mango; then the vanilla-and-earth essence particular to pandan. The food is also great with Thai lager or silky ginger beer made with rice.
Mahaniyom does takeout, but it’s really not a takeout restaurant. It’s a lovely place to meet for lunch, when all is calm and bright. But for the real experience, go at dinner, when the atmospheric dining room is dark and crowded (reservations are a must), the cocktails are flying, the neon mural in the bathroom is aglow, and the guy sitting practically in your lap at the next table is extracting morsels from his fish head with the deep focus of a brain surgeon. I’ve probably eaten here more often than anywhere else since it opened, and still I can’t wait to eat here again. It is a restaurant with a point of view, which means it may not work for everyone (vegetarians, for instance). It’s loud. It’s lively. And when fish-head guy leaves, the server will pull over his table to give you more room for all of your food. That’s fine dining.
236 Washington St., Brookline, 617-487-5986, www.mahaniyomboston.com
Not wheelchair accessible (several steps at entrance, no ramp); no outdoor seating.
Prices $6-$32 per plate (about $14 on average)
Hours Wed-Mon lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner 4-10 p.m.
Noise level Loud
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor