Tiger Mama is a restaurant that makes you forget it’s a business.
This has something to do with the hivelike buzz of labor, the sense of hand-craft and passion, as if you’ve stepped through a medieval time warp and into your friendly local abbey, where, granted, they are throwing a tiki party.
Or maybe it’s just chef-owner Tiffani Faison’s crispy chile potatoes, which seem to be magic-dusted. After one bite, there will be another, and another, and then you will find yourself helplessly, insanely ordering dish on top of dish on top of all that you’ve already irresponsibly ordered. There is clearly sorcery at work here.
A “Top Chef” finalist who also operates nearby barbecue joint Sweet Cheeks, Faison can be seen patrolling the stainless-steel line at the rear of Tiger Mama, a redhead surrounded by a posse of devoted, black-capped gastro-bros, on occasion wielding a blistering blowtorch.
Her passion radiates from each dish. Also her generosity — portion size included — contagious in an era when dining can so often feel calculated. This spirit is palpable in the climate of the long, dusky room, decorated with jungle plants and glowing orange neon that reads “TALK DON’T COOK RICE”; in the relaxed faces of one’s fellow diners, who are nestled into comfortable booths of reclaimed wood or perched at one of the inviting bars that anchor each end of the restaurant; and most critically in the staff, juggling customers and streams of plates.
One food runner comes across as so knowledgeable, quirky, and quick-witted, my wife whispers: “How thrilled would you be if one of our sons grew up to be this guy?”
At Tiger Mama, even the fails are spectacular — I’ll get to that — as Faison, chef de cuisine Mike Stark, and crew ambitiously push the envelopes of Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian cuisines. The menu reads like an umami obstacle course, with headings like: Cold & Fresh, Crispy & Spicy, Broths & Curries, Rich & Earthy, Noodles & Rice. A half-dozen small plates sit under each category, larded with insidious descriptors: “seared” and “cracklin’,” “charred” and “hot hot.” And the cocktail list is the final snare, with its Mandalay Punch (sesame-infused rye) and Taiwan On (Batavia arrack and Thai basil). Good luck stepping past all of this.
The cold dishes, which feel wrong on a chilly April night, are so unassailably good that the reality of weather fades. It’s not only the high-quality ingredients Faison orchestrates — both the scallop sashimi and hamachi crudo showcase brightly fresh, lavishly tender seafood — but her feats of dramatic narration. You get the initial tease — sesame mushroom aioli on hamachi, pureed Vietnamese mints and shiso over scallop — followed by complication and organic surprise: the insinuating heat of chiles, the unexpected pop of crisp puffed rice.
The short rib crudo, another cold item, is no less formidable. It shows up looking scary pretty, also tasting scary pretty. A succession of daunting layers typical of a Tiger Mama dish — 15? 16? — hit like depth charges: shaved meat, biting Southeast Asian herbs, charred leeks, chiles, a roster of fragrant spices. But the complexity never swamps the dishes, which taste earthy, elemental, harmonic.
If you fear bringing a vegetarian here — pork, seafood, and fish sauce surface often — you should not. The vegetable dishes at Tiger Mama — several under $10 — hold their own with anything, courtesy of Faison’s daring hand at heat, spice, sourness, crunch. The peapod stems rival any to be found in Chinatown.
Our server arrives with a tangy and hot, bright and frothy soup, classic tom kha gai, which she portions from a tea pitcher into waiting bowls. Included at no one’s request: a second small pitcher, an excellent vegetarian version for my vegetarian wife. (Still, can someone please tell her what she’s missing?) It’s yet one more touch where the hospitality feels generous and natural.
After this, it’s no shock that the weightier small plates offer further revelation. You eat and can’t quite believe you’re getting it this good. The short rib rendang, densely beefy, floats in a rich Malaysian curry sprinkled with crispy peanuts and toasted coconut. I’ll take clams any way, but Faison’s chile jam version stands out. Their luscious red curry arrives spiked with Southeast Asian flavors, moppable with the toasted sticky milk bread served on top.
Pad gra pow is ground chicken laced with chiles, Thai basil, and purple choi, topped with a fried egg. You happily break the yolk, finishing the dish. Then, of course, you finish the dish.
At this point you’re waiting, hoping nothing bombs in this parade of excellence. And only a couple of dishes miss the heights. The crispy pork rolls are fine, yet the accompanying pile of dry vermicelli and herbs feels lost. A shrimp special, spiced with typical aromatic power, features large shellfish that come dried out on one end, mushy on the other.
The noodle and rice list is well stocked with winners. Back in December, days after Tiger Mama opened, I found the “pig rice” gummed and muddy. No longer — and what a great sign of a restaurant’s steady evolution. The rice is now deep-flavored, studded with smoky bacon, tasso, Isaan sausage, with pork sung (dehydrated and confetti-ed) on top.
The spring weeds fried rice rivals it. The greens — garlic chive, radicchio, dandelion, and chrysanthemum — include, as our server tells us, “whatever else they pulled out of the ground today.”
That spectacular fail? It arrives via the spectacularly scenic whole Tiger Duck — marinated, smoked, fried, with sides of tamarind syrup, chile mayo, green herbs, something like hot-buttered crumpets. The high price ($70) relative to everything else translates to high expectation — especially in light of, say, the $8 okra, a taste you’ll take to the grave. Some of the trappings are odd, including those thick muffins (which would be thin pancakes were this Peking duck) and a grand hill of herbs that a fluffle of bunnies couldn’t cut through. Then there is the duck itself. It is provocatively perfumed, but the leg meat remains rubbery, the fat under-rendered, the skin not crisp enough.
Yet, when the leftovers are oven-blasted the next morning, you have on hand possibly the best breakfast ever.
Spectacular fail? Maybe not. Spectacular restaurant? For sure.
1363 Boylston St., Fenway, Boston, 617-425-6262, www.tigermamaboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Small plates $7-$21. Banquet-style plates $41-$70.
Hours: Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Sun-Thu 5-10 p.m. (bar until midnight), Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m. (bar until 1 a.m.).
Noise level: Ambient buzz
What to order: Scallop sashimi, short rib crudo, hamachi crudo, pea pod stems, spicy okra, crispy chile potatoes, tom kha gai, short rib rendang, chili jam clams, pad gra pow, spring weeds fried rice, pig rice