There are restaurants you eat at once or twice. Then there are places you gladly return to time after time. Little Big Diner — with its menu of snappy, soulful riffs on East Asian favorites — is the kind of spot that inspires repeat visits.
David Punch and his team launched the 20-seat diner in Newton Centre as an outgrowth of pop-up ramen nights at Sycamore, the chef-owner's bistro located nearby. Eight months after Little Big Diner's opening, customers still queue up for this dine-in-only, no-reservations-taken joint. In addition to slurp-worthy Japanese noodles, the kitchen turns out vivid renditions of Korean, Hawaiian, and Southeast Asian fare. Think big flavors packed into a diminutive space.
In less-skilled hands, such an ambitious amalgam of cuisines could falter. But here there's no need to worry. Executive chef Daniel Scott honed his fine-dining chops at restaurants including Blue Ginger in Wellesley and Sycamore. He also draws inspiration from his Korean mom. "My mother is super traditional," he says. Growing up, he watched her make her own tofu and kimchi, and transform blue crab into a funky pickle. Her influence shows up in delicious ways.
Take, for example, the banchan-like toppings on the gorgeous rice bowls. A version with marinated-then-charred Heiwa tofu ($12) is topped with four kinds of namul, vegetables that have been blanched or salted, pressed of liquid, cooled, then seasoned. Slices of English cucumber, made pliant by the technique, are splashed with rice vinegar and sprinkled with gochugaru pepper flakes. Bowls, which resemble bibimbap with a sunny side up egg, can be customized with other proteins like shoyu chicken, chashu pork, or Arctic char ($14-$16).
This is fare you can't help but admire before digging in. A platter of chilled Vietnamese pork noodles ($15) offers a riot of colors and textures. The marinated, grilled meat rests on cool vermicelli noodles, along with toasted peanuts, whole-leaf basil, mint, and slivered red onion. Soybean sprouts and pickled carrots add heft and crunch. Dress the dish to your heart's content with the chef's own nuoc cham, seasoned Asian fish sauce that's tart, pungent, and not too sweet.
That fragrant fish sauce appears again in green papaya salad ($7). "We mortar and pestle it to order," says Scott of the salad, which takes crisp threads of the fruit and combines them with dried shrimp, lime juice, Thai bird chiles, and toasted garlic. Folks would fuss if this dish ever rotated off the menu.
Shio chicken ramen ($15) — springy alkaline noodles in a broth made silky with schmaltz — is here to stay. "Funny daikon" (squeaky rehydrated nubbins of radish, seasoned like kimchi) tops the dish, along with wood ear mushrooms, grilled thigh meat, and a sweet soy marinated egg. Miso ramen ($15), in versions "spicy or not," is another anchor on the menu, adorned with corn niblets, sesame seeds, and mayu, black garlic oil.
The kitchen rotates vegetarian offerings frequently. An excellent forest mushroom ramen, in an uber-umami broth with shredded nori, has come and gone. (Pretty please, bring it back?) Dainty noodles in a spicy Thai curry soup ($14) turn mushy by bowl's end. Thicker pasta would stand up better to the rich coconut milk broth.
Grilled shrimp salad buns ($9) are perfect for the dog days of summer. Morsels of plump, cool shrimp are tossed with mayo, dusted with togarashi, and tucked into Chinese-style mantou. Enjoy alongside a yuzu margarita ($11) with its tantalizing rim of salt and citrus peel.
Scott reflects on the flavors and textures that make for a winning formula. "My mother likes to say, 'Crunchy things make your brain happy,' " he says. Fans filling every seat seem thrilled he listened to mom.
LITTLE BIG DINER
1247 Centre St., Newton Centre, 857-404-0068, www.littlebigdiner.com
All credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $7-$10. Noodles $14-$15. Rice bowls $12-$16.
Hours Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Sun-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.
Liquor Full bar
What to order Rice bowl with tofu, chilled pork noodles, green papaya salad, shio chicken ramen, miso ramen, shrimp salad buns, yuzu margarita.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.