It takes courage to do what Manita Bunnagitkarn, 31, is doing in Watertown. She has rented a slip of a place and is offering very good Thai food to take out. You can stay, of course, but you’re vying for one of eight table seats. She is making everything to order (no MSG), and that can take time. So you have to wait and there’s no place to wait, unless you want to go across the street and get some beer for your meal.
Cha Yen Thai Cookery is in a restaurant that once housed a wings spot, on the same block as the popular Middle Eastern market, Sevan Bakery, and Deluxe Town Diner.
Bunnagitkarn, who came to Boston from Thailand when she was 15, has a philosophy: “I want people to have fresh food and ingredients that they can afford, everyday,” she says. To that end, no dish on the menu — and portions are generous — costs more than $10.
Cha Yen means iced tea, which is also on the menu, as is iced coffee and what Bunnagitkarn calls “old-school” homemade ice cream, which is to say, icy treats like spicy chocolate, vanilla, and coffee made with milk and cream and thickened with eggs.
The chef, who trained at Johnson & Wales, and worked at Finale, Bonfire, and Sodexo, is turning out food as fast as she can. The place is crowded and becoming popular. Some of the dishes have a Chinese influence, perhaps because her father’s parents were both born in China and she learned their cooking at home.
This menu is a celebration of home cooking. Classic larb ($8), a spicy mixture of ground chicken (or pork or mushrooms) comes with crunchy pieces of rice powder, which Bunnagitkarn says are common in Northeast Thailand. Small rolls of tofu ($6), called poh piah, are tucked into soft rice flour wrappers with cabbage and bean-thread noodles and wonderful with a tamarind sauce. Crispy poh piah ($5), also filled with cabbage, bean-thread noodles, and mushrooms, look very much like other fried spring rolls, though these are thin as pencils, with the crispness of the wrappers trumping everything inside.
As in much of Thai cuisine, many dishes are either saucy or come with sauce. Chicken satay ($6) are still moist from marinating in coconut juice, and are accompanied by an addictive peanut dipping sauce. Roti ($5) are like scallion pancakes without the scallions. Bunnagitkarn generally steers clear of fried items, she says, and calls these pan-toasted. But they’re golden from oil, cut into wedges, and served with a coral curry sauce made with chicken. Galangal soup ($4), which comes with chicken, shrimp, or tofu in a coconut-milk broth is warming, lightly spicy, and seasoned with the rhizome that looks so much like ginger. But the shrimp in the soup are flabby and besides the nice broth, there’s not much going on here. Grilled calamari ($7) is made from a giant squid, big sliced rounds tinted golden from a soy marinade. They’re undercooked and too chewy to eat.
Papaya salad ($8), with long strips of crunchy green papaya, is bright and crisp, but grape tomatoes seem out of place. Those little red orbs are also in a fine version of fried rice (chicken, pork, tofu for $8.50; beef, duck, seafood for $10), along with eggs, carrots, and broccoli.
Panang curry (chicken, pork, tofu for $8.50; beef, duck, seafood for $10) has two asterisks to indicate its spiciness, but it’s just right. Generous strips of pork are mixed with kaffir lime leaves, red and green bell pepper, and lots of green beans and basil. And both pad Thai (chicken, pork, tofu for $8.50; beef, duck, seafood for $10) and pad see ew, almost the same dish but with wider noodles, are super here.
You have to admire what Bunnagitkarn is doing, without many seats. Can a restaurant get a following if you’re only dashing in and out to pick something up? I think so. This young chef is working very hard back there. And seems happy too.
“I love it,” she says, “so far so good.”
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.