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Thai - Khao Sarn - note on authenticity

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Had dinner at Khao Sarn in Coolidge Corner on Friday (4/11). I don't usually eat there. Place was packed with no free tables until 9:30 or so.

Drinks. I ordered a g&t because the other drinks I tasted from people already there were too sweet. I know people like sweet drinks but I prefer a balanced taste. The g&t wasn't expensive but it was also a bar brand - New Amsterdam, I think - so it didn't taste very good. I wasn't asked if I wanted a brand, which surprised me, so I went with that. A friend had a sidecar. I thought it was poorly balanced - well, actually, yucky. They don't have a cheap bar brand for cognac so the drink was overpriced for the taste.

The food is the main point and that showed what's meant by the recurring discussions about authenticity. In a word: not. The food was tasty, but everything was sweetened, and every dish used almost the same vegetables - all fresh and clean tasting and cut in the same ways. Only the sauces were different. One dish has some fire but it too was sweet beyond the chili taste. It's a little strange to order four dishes from four different sections of the menu and have three of the plates arrive looking nearly identical. Only the pad see you looked different and it was very sweet.

In most places, this would be good Thai food. It was fresh. It was reasonably priced for the portions and the quality of the ingredients. The service was ok. The food has been sweetened for American tastes and in most cases the only part of the dish which made it Thai was the sauce. You could easily imagine a setup in back with a bunch of sauces and a bunch of prepped veggies. It's not that the food was poorly made but that it wasn't very Thai in taste and little effort had been made to differentiate the dishes.

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  1. What thai spots do you recommend?

    2 Replies
    1. re: DoubleMan

      The usual suspects: Brown Sugar, S&I, Dok Bua, Rod Dee.

      1. re: DoubleMan

        I went to (OK, OK, ordered in from) Coconut Cafe in Newton last week and was pleasantly surprised, especially given a recent dismal experience at Bangkok Bistro. Ordered steamed pork dumplings, which were tasty if pretty standard, fresh spring rolls (with two nice dipping sauces), and duck pad see yew, which was great. Even after sitting in the delivery driver's car for half an hour, it wasn't overly heavy or sticky and had just the right amount of spice for my hungover palate.

      2. i know exactly what you mean, and agree with your sentiments. it's as if it's a math problem: given x vegetables and y sauces, how many variations on the same thing can we come up with?

        i do have one caveat, and that's that i'm not sure this has anything to do with authenticity per se. i mean, i think, say, wagamama in harv square manages to avoid this phenomenon, but that's certainly not because i think they are "authentic."

        1. I have found that a lot of "highly regarded" Thai restaurants in Boston are in fact "highly Americanized." Kao Sarn is no exception, as is Brown Sugar. I have eaten at Brown Sugar a couple of times and found a recurring theme within the name of the restaurant and the flavor of the dishes. I have been going to Rod Dee in Brookline for probably about eight years, and find it consistently authentic and delicious. In my opinion it blows the doors off of any other Thai place around. Their pan-fried rice stick noodle with duck and scallion gives me thoughts and reactions that would get me thrown out of church (along with about 20 other dishes on the menu.) Rod Dee II seems to be just as good as well.

          5 Replies
          1. re: RandMan14

            can you give me two or three more dishes to have at Rod Dee? am planning on going next weekend with the Kid.
            tia,
            SS

            1. re: ScubaSteve

              Hey SS,

              There are a bunch of dishes not on the menu, but written on a white board behind the counter (they never change.) There is one called Kai Himmapan that is absolutely amazing, as well as the Spicy, Crispy Squid and rice plate (the squid is coated in a mildly sweet, salty spicy sauce after it's fried. As far as things on the paper menu, the Rod Dee Noodle is great, as well as Star Noodle. Their Larb is also terrific (salty, sour, SPICY ground pork.) Pad See You (thick rice noodles with meat and veggies) is out of this word. That should get you started

              1. re: RandMan14

                I agree with you about Brown Sugar in part; their menu is large and they do have creditable versions of basics like larb.

              2. re: ScubaSteve

                Try the Indonesian fried rice :)

              3. re: RandMan14

                I never went back to Rod Dee after I found Dok Bua. But I do miss the crab fried rice.

              4. I haven't been to Khao Sarn for a while and never been to Rod Dee. I like Dok Bua but again, it's been a while since I've been.

                Most of my recent Thai eating has been at Montien on Stuart. Their Thai menu has some excellent dishes.

                Anone who's tried Montien, Rod Dee and Dok Bua want to offer opinions/comparisons re them?

                I'm somewhat of a regular at Montien (I live nearby) and pet pet gets a small smile and maybe that helps in getting the food cooked in a more authentic fashion??

                I know they have a lot of Thai patrons and throw a Thai NYE party every year.

                3 Replies
                1. re: 9lives

                  I have been to all three more than a few times now and Dok Bua is my favorite, mostly because the picture menu helps me immensely to try things I might not normally order. I love their duck larb, better than Montien Cambridge (have not been to the Boston branch). For some reason, have only tried more ordinary fare at Rod Dee. All three definitely are quality in my opinion. I just sort of dig the vibe at Dok Bua more, all things being relatively equal to this thai novice.

                  Also, re: Coconut Cafe in Newton - I agree that their noodle dishes with duck are a great deal - it's not super high quality but you get a ton of duck meat for the money.

                  1. re: 9lives

                    I used to love Dok Bua when they first opened, and they had all kinds of Isaan specials on the board pretty much constantly. Unforturnately, they had to Americanize a fair amount to survive.

                    I go to both Rod Dee and Montien, and don't really see them as competing: one is basically the Thai equiv of a good diner, and the other a decent sit-down restaurant.

                    1. re: 9lives

                      I've been to all three:

                      I prefer the noodles at Rod Dee - they do them really well, but many of their sauces just don't do it for me.
                      For overall great Thai, I like Dok Bua the best.
                      Montien when I need a bar to go with my Thai or Thai downtown.

                    2. I have always been intrigued/curious about the authenticity/not-authenticity debates or claims, with respect to ethnic foods how do we know what is and isn't authentic and what has been so-called "americanized", is it a "feeling" or does it come from actual knowledge? I am not being flip, it is something I have often wondered about.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: bakerboyz

                        i wonder the same bbz. the only thing i could say is "authentic" would involve comparing eastern european jewish and southern italian food (the food of my childhood) to modern versions, and even then its only authentic compared to my limited experience. I would love it if posters who use the term "authentic" let us know if they are thai, cambodian, etc., so we know they are comparing it to something that seems the "norm' to them. otherwise, it seems to me "authentic" should be replaced by "i like it!"

                        1. re: teezeetoo

                          I don't agree. First, you can tell when something's not authentic even if you don't intimately know another cuisine. Second, people from other cultures have palates, can travel, can be educated and can be aware of what tastes like actual - fill in blank - food. Third, people don't have to wear their ethnicity on their sleeve. A crazy example: a friend's family owned a Chinese restaurant but the kids grew up eating only American food at home. They make food with Campbell's Mushroom Soup!

                        2. re: bakerboyz

                          My (Thai) wife and I lived in Bangkok for 12 years and so we know Thai food. We now live in western NC and within reasonable driving distance have perhaps 8-10 Thai restaurants. None of them pass the authenticity test, but at our favorite place we have become friends with the owner so she will make the real stuff for us when we go there. Prior to moving here we lived in the D.C./Northern VA area where there is a large Thai population and an equally large number of Thai restaurants. There the indicator of authenticity was the number of Thai diners. No Thais - foods not real, Thais - it's the real stuff. Other than that, it's kinda hard to tell unless you have lived in Thailand for long enough to come to know what the real stuff is.

                          Lergnom's initial complaint in this board, food overly sweet, is a very common failing of stateside Thai restaurants. I have no idea why they do it here, they don't cook that way in Thailand.

                          1. re: bakerboyz

                            In the case of Thai food, if you spent a few months there, you'd have a pretty good idea when you got back (assuming you didn't eat all your meals in international class hotels).

                          2. One of the reasons why I don't love Thai cuisine as much as other Asia cuisines (strictly the versions available in the States) is precisely for that reason. I don't really have much of a sweet palate and I find Thai food tends to be too sweet for my tastes. I do think there are good dishes at a lot of the local Thai restaurants, but I have to say that my overall experience with Thai cuisine in the US has never wow'ed me.

                            I like Dok Bua the best of the places I've tried., though I also like Chilli Duck and Montien. Interestingly, I find Brown Sugar and The Similans have some good dishes, but also some of the worst I've tried locally.

                            1. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the dining public is not interested in authenticity, and for some reason Americans have indicated that they like their "Thai" food sweet. Most places, including Kao Sarn, will crank up the heat on dishes if asked, but turning down the sweet factor can be a bit tougher. See how many people will even order something other than pad thai! Not a lot, sadly. As noted below though, authenticity can be found in Boston Thai restaurants, and one clue is to see how many actual Thais are dining at a given place. Rod Dee and Dok Bua are frequented by local Thais, go to those places if you want the real deal and ask for the dishes to be cooked Thai style just to be sure. That said, I think Kao Sarn has great atmosphere and a nice bar, more a place I'd spend an hour or two over drinks and dinner than any of the other locations.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Zatan

                                the "sweet" factor seems to creep in to otherwise good vietnamese restaurants as well. Lemon Grass is a most pleasant destination: nice bar, comfortable, and the food is acceptable but it is almost always a little too sweet and not hot enough. i've learned they will increase the spiciness if i ask but i also notice that most of the asian places that thrive seem to homogenize even more over time, so they must be catering to american taste. often, as noted by many folks, if you ask for it, they will make it spicier but i'm not sure if they can make it less sweet.