DakZen is a home away from home in Davis Square
SOMERVILLE — I’m at DakZen, a tiny restaurant with bright yellow walls in Davis Square, perched at a counter, looking out the window at the rain. In front of me is a bowl filled with deep-ochre broth, fiery and rich, strewn with herbs and pickled mustard greens, crowned with a tangled nest of crisp noodles. I stir the noodles into the broth and watch them soften, breathing in the steam: Curry. Coconut milk. Khao soi. The Northern Thai dish I can’t stop myself from ordering when I see it on a menu. Sometimes it’s a weakened version of itself. At DakZen, it is vibrant and fresh. Once I start eating, I don’t stop until the bowl is empty. I stagger out into some serious weather, but I’m still filled with that warm glow.
Thai food was the first food I loved that wasn’t mine by birth. Before that there were individual dishes: Greek spinach pies my mother purchased from the guy near the playground, spiced tomato soup and poori from the Indian restaurant with the ceiling cloaked in billowy tapestries. (It later burned down, because billowy tapestries.) But I loved Thai food wholesale, from the very first bite of skewered chicken sate, draped in satiny peanut sauce. I loved pad thai, sweet and gummy; I loved a mild green curry fatted with coconut milk. The soup called tom kha gai became an obsession. It was made with canned straw mushrooms, dry slices of white-meat chicken curling in the broth, but the flavors of lemongrass and galangal revealed themselves. This was Americanized Thai food. It still tasted so good to me.
Then I went to Thailand. There is always a gulf between a cuisine as it is spoken and its translated form. It is easy to understand why so many chefs fall in love when they travel: with Mexican food in all of its regional variety, with the precision and ceremony of Japanese kaiseki, with the spices of Northern Africa. But it is particularly easy to understand when it comes to Thai cuisine, with its holy basil and lime leaves, its brightness and bitterness, its sweet and sour and hot, the thrum of fish sauce in the background. It is complex and compelling, and it is impossible to taste a fraction of its diversity without going to its homeland.
If that gulf creates longing in the traveler returned, it is 1,000 times worse for the citizen who leaves. The homesickness that pertains to food is its own specific strain. It is so strong, it might in fact lead one to open a restaurant, just to produce the food one requires.
That’s how it happened for DakZen cofounder Nutthachai “Jeep” Chaojaroenpong, who grew up in Thailand, three hours outside Bangkok. His family runs a business producing sweet Chinese sausage, and he wanted to be a chef. But he found that the schedule was too harsh for him, so he decided to get his MBA instead. He studied marketing at Boston College.
He and friend Panupak Kraiwong wanted to eat food as it tasted at home, but they couldn’t find what they were looking for. The cuisine is labor-intensive. One place will often specialize in one dish. But at American Thai restaurants, the menus are encyclopedic. It does the food a disservice, Chaojaroenpong says. “We feel bad for Thai food. It should not be represented this way.”
So, the inevitable: “We just decided to gather and open a restaurant ourselves to make it the most authentic.”
In the name of keeping prices reasonable (the most expensive thing is $11.95), DakZen is semi-self service: Depending how busy it is, you might place your order at the register or have it taken at your table; either way, please clear your own place. The menu is smaller, about 20 dishes in all. There are what we have come to know as standards: spring rolls, pad thai, fried rice. But there’s no curry, never mind the standard rainbow of red-green-Massaman-Panang. (In November, however, DakZen will feature rotating curry specials, switching every 10 days.) There aren’t interchangeable proteins.
Instead, there are hoi joh, fried puffs of tofu skin filled with crab, the best drinking snack that has yet to happen to America. (Perhaps followed by khao grapow moo grob and kai dow, crisp pork belly and fried egg over rice with chiles and delicate holy basil, which would make a fine hangover remedy.) And boat noodles, rice noodles in flavorful broth with pork balls and pork rinds. And yen ta fou, a pink-hued seafood extravaganza (shrimp, squid, fish balls, fish cakes) that reflects the Chinese influence. There is ba me moo dang, a bowl brimming with yellow noodles, barbecue pork and crisp pork belly, hard-boiled egg, greens, and wontons, in a Thai barbecue sauce that is deeply sweet and heady with something five spice-ish but different, more like a hard-to-source cinnamon. Broth is served on the side, slurped separately.
I’m trying to work my way through the menu, but it’s hard to get past the khao soi. Chaojaroenpong says “DakZen” translates to an impolite version of “chow down” (the exact phrase can’t appear in a family newspaper). I have no choice but to comply.
195 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-718-1759, www.dakzen.com