Ever since opening in 2010, Boda has been met with fervid devotion; the focus on Thai street food and casual-chic setting fit the youthful Portland demographic like a glove. The location in the West End—across the street from Petit Jacqueline, Pei Men Miyake and next to Local 188—assimilates it within the epicenter of Portland’s refined casual restaurant scene. Chefs Danai Sriprasert and Nattasak Wongsaicha were semifinalists for the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Northeast, a major accomplishment for a restaurant so young.
Boda has received a good deal of attention from its inception since it focuses on Thai street food. Apparently the owners were aware of the novelty of their concept since there is a “frequently asked questions” page on their website. Included are queries like “Why is your menu so small” and “Do you have take-out?,” as well as more conceptual topics (“What kind of food do you serve at Boda?”) It should be noted that while their menu is small by Thai restaurant standards, it’s actually quite bountiful, with about a dozen tapas, skewers, and main dishes respectively. The cuisine is similar to the Next Tour of Thailand menu, with dishes like Beef Panaeng and papaya salad. When I first noticed the faq section I was ambivalent since it suggested a hierarchical dynamic situating the restaurant as professor and the customer as student. While it’s great to learn about foreign/ethnic cuisines when going out to eat, I think it’s important for an ethnic restaurant to acknowledge that it can’t just be a mirror onto its home country, and a restaurant should acknowledge the setting in which it is located. However, I actually think that the questions on Boda’s website are not borne out of any professorial posturing but instead integrate the restaurant within Portland’s hip, casual dining scene; the skewers, tapas, and street food are less like the heavy Thai cuisine one finds at most Thai restaurants in this country and more germane to Portland’s proclivity for small-plate cuisine. Boda’s identity is therefore largely formulated through what it is not—the relative brevity of its menu was nice since Thai restaurants have a tendency toward menus that are way too long and attempt to please everyone—overlong menus are possibly my greatest restaurant pet peeve as they suggest a lack of focus and specialization.
Boda doesn’t take reservations, although given that it was a Tuesday we didn’t have any wait and were taken to a table in the upper level of the dining room. The restaurant’s space is a bit unusual as it is bifurcated into a more expansive lower level (in front of the window in the photo above) and an intimate upper level; what is especially strange is that while the “official” bar is at the higher level, both spaces contain bar seating areas, almost as though the place were once two distinct restaurants. One of the interesting aspects of a casual restaurant like Boda is that the customers are clearly there with different purposes; a couple of parties wore formal outfits, as though en route to the theater, while others were dressed in t-shirts and jeans—in this regard the atmosphere is a bit more democratic than at fine dining restaurants as each party is afforded more leeway to individualize their experience. At the same time, this is a tradeoff since there isn’t the sense of collective experience that one finds at some tasting menu-style restaurants (at Next, for example) where people are served at a similar pace to others in their seating time. Upon entering, there is no indication that Boda is a Thai restaurant; the exposed brick walls and the wood tables and chairs impart the casual-chic vibe characteristic of many Portland restaurants. The ambiance is quite youthful, and our serveuse was a young, tattooed local. The dual structure of the dining room is echoed in the menu design, which is divided into a tapas/skewers section and a larger plate section. While this might suggest a typical starter/main dish dichotomy, the separation is actually quite different since many of the skewers and tapas do not organically support the heavier main dishes and are more appropriately consumed within an exclusively tapas setting. Boda is also not the type of restaurant in which people would have a multicourse meal, so in some ways the restaurant is bipolar, offering two very different dining experiences. In past visits, we have gone exclusively with the main dishes or with the skewers, but on this visit we wanted to sample more of the menu and therefore started with several selections from the tapas/skewers section and then two heavier plates. We chose the chicken, beef, and shrimp skewers and the quail eggs, and then the fried rice with shrimp and crab and the stir-fried glass noodles with chicken.
Our small plates arrived as they were completed, starting with the chicken, beef, and quail eggs, and then the shrimp skewers and a second round of chicken and beef. The chicken breast skewers were grilled in a sweet soy sauce and served with a sweet chili sauce; these were cooked a bit less than I’m accustomed for grilled chicken and there was not much smoky flavor, although this did keep the bird from overwhelming the sweet chili sauce. The beef had been marinated in lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves, garlic and soy sauce. There was no accompanying sauce, yet this was not a problem since the combination of flavors was sufficiently complex, contrasting citric/acidic (lime, lemongrass) and bitter (ginger, soy) flavors.
To my mind, the quail eggs are Boda’s specialty; they are prepared with scallions and while cooking are doused in soy sauce. The crackling consistency of the eggs is perfect for the egg/soy combination. It is, however, a bit unusual to be served a plate of eggs, and this dish reflects how the tapas selections really aren’t proper appetizers but are meant to be served alongside a vast group of other selections from that portion of the menu. The shrimp were served with a spicy garlic lime sauce. These were delicious although it was unusual to encounter smoky flavors in a Thai context—if I hadn’t been in this particular restaurant I would not have known that this was a Thai preparation.
The fried rice with crab and shrimp is the most Maine-specific item on the menu as they use local Jonah crab meat and shrimp, onion, garlic, and green onion. It is served with a side of spicy fish sauce, cucumber slices, and—in the Thai street-food tradition—a wedge of lime. In the past, this fried rice preparation has been served with Jonah crab claws and no shrimp, and I prefer the aesthetics of the prior presentation since the claws added a bit more ‘wow factor’ than the shrimp. The benefit of the current iteration is that the crab blends in more with the rice, the amalgamation of which contrasts nicely with the texture of the shrimp.
Our other main dish was the “Kee Mao Noodles”: stir-fried glass noodles with onion, tomato, bamboo shoots, Chinese broccoli, egg, and Thai basil. I did not select this dish and I wouldn’t have ordered it since the noodles were a bit soft for my liking (and I don’t care for noodles in general), but the mix of spices was intricate and flavorful.
Boda is an example of a restaurant that really benefits from its location in a semicircular restaurant row in the Arts District, and the energy of each restaurant builds off of each other. There is a French restaurant in Hyde Park (Chicago) whose motto is “Hyde Park to Paris and Back” and I think this is the sort of philosophy that characterizes many ethnic restaurants in this country, which market themselves as though they were transporting the diner to a foreign culture. In the case of Thai restaurants, this involves assenting to an Orientalism that makes the restaurant nothing more than a cliché. I appreciate how Boda is able to avoid such artificial exoticism, introducing a new facet of Thai cuisine to Maine while at the same time integrating seamlessly within the geographical setting.