As Found in Allston, MA - S&I Thai
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Three small tables, humbly nestled inside an atrium, wedged between the larger, in my opinion overwhelmingly huge markets of Brighton Avenue. There it stands, nearby those classic college hangout spots – Tavern in the Square and White Horse -- but easily evading the eyes and the tummies of college students who transport themselves from their campuses to these same hangouts – from their comfortable campuses to an enclave of that same campus. I too had never heard of this place until last weekend, when, scurrying in the rain I walked northward along Harvard Avenue until approaching the street I view as Allston epitomized: Brighton Avenue. I knew I wanted to eat somewhere on this street. It’s one of those strips I’ve both perused through and eaten on countless times, but upon leaving the street I always stumble into yet another promising-looking venue and add it my mental ‘to-go’ list; however, like most mental lists, I quickly forget the specific destination, and my memory dilutes to but the encompassing place, the street. So here I was, the street, yet again.
I hesitated some more as I brushed past Blanchards, the infamous liquor store that by some miracle has yet to go out of business despite the fact that each and every (underage) alcohol-wielding BU student frequents either the place or its products – a bottle of red, or two, which once resided on the store’s (probably fake) mahogany racks. As I froze on the corner I contemplated, “to turn right or left?” all the while my blue, paint-splattered puffy coat suffered yet again at my stubborn expense -- with each extra second standing in this chilly rain my coat lost a couple minutes, maybe days, of its already-dwindling insulation.
I made the right, then the left, only to quickly stop, stutter step, and proceed with my way (older passerby’s likely disgusted by my frantic, millennial-minded indecision). My stomach grumbled and I almost settled, no, not on a Burger King, but at the first somewhat respectable restaurant with at least a three-star FDA rating; normally, as I battle hunger, I try and restrain myself until I’ve found just the place that’s twinkled my eye. As I scanned the street’s options, I finally resolved on one and stepped myself inside. In the spirit of making some, in my opinion, quite awful Thai food the night before, I had decided that some restaurant-Thai food might best relieve my taste-buds and my throat, which had been scratched at with each successive, yet reluctant bite of chunky peanut-butter as I confidently looked my dubious roommates square in eyes and said, “no, its actually great!”
Photo of the curious Thai food I had made the night prior. As you can see from this photo, I clearly needed to rectify my palate's understanding of Thai food.
Within a few minutes, I was reminded why sometimes it’s important to eat out at restaurants. As a college student battling seemingly never-ending debts, constantly trying to save a buck-or-two, I’ve settled into some financially restrictive habits. For better or worse, this has inspired me to do a whole lot of cooking the past year-or-so. To some extent, I can confidently say I’ve improved in the kitchen. Exempting my attempt to make the before-mentioned spicy peanut-butter rice-noodles, most of my meals are pleasantly edible. I think those same critical roommates would agree. Yet, to some extent I think I’ve become somewhat obsessed with cooking, with mastering spices and combinations of spices, coordinating specific proteins with veggies, and developing color-schemes to compensate for the fact that my chipped, hand-me-down plates betray my naïveté. Rarely, if ever, do I eat out these days.
To reiterate: a place like this reminds me why its important to eat out at restaurants, and let me preface the following discussion by saying, no, I’ve by no means become a culinary hermit so financially meager that I never eat out at restaurants. As the waiter gently swooped the Thai-textile drape to his right, emerging from what looked like a small, but two story kitchen – yes, a two-story kitchen for a 20 square foot hole-in-the-wall – I realized just how satisfied I was to have made the decision to eat here, and the following observations only affirmed my enthusiasm:
A group of people scurried in from the torrents and the waiter dutifully flocked to their service, taking their orders immediately. Although trying not to snoop, but given no choice but to do so because of the restaurant’s size, the waiter informed them, “it will be about 20 minutes for your food.” This pleased me. “Good,” I thought, “a small place with a small kitchen. They take pride in their food, they do not rush their creation.” Quickly, my speculation was confirmed. As the waiter travelled to and fro the kitchen, through this sort of Thai-draped portal, I realized that only two voices held-shop here: the waiter and the cook. Having now analytically eaten the carefully curated Som Tum salad – Papaya strands, tomato, smoking hot chilies, fringed with lightly burnt peanuts and soaked in a tangy lime dressing -- I realized that a recipe like this can’t be found online, because, despite what I’m sure is a consistency in this Som Tum soup, or any other of S & I’s recipes, some recipes simply don’t exist.
In fact, the environment around me was not a restaurant, at least not in the traditional sense; instead, it resembled that of a home, and we had been welcomed into the home’s foyer, not as a consumer, but as a house-guest, narrowly separated from the rest of the home by the portal softly separating the kitchen, where confident culinary innovations, and maybe even family recipes, endured. I snooped around the restaurant and I quickly discovered that this place was in fact not a restaurant and several small medals revealed this fact, “Boston’s best take-out 2014.”
Image from EaterBoston
Image of interior from Yelp.com
As I chewed the spicy Som Tum salad, I closely appreciated the venue around me not as a profit-wielding machine, but as an inspiration for my approach to food, and more broadly speaking, as an example of a restaurant cooking food for foods sake. On one end, the food-business can be extremely exploitative. Well, not exactly taking advantage of others, but rather, taking advantage of other’s laziness – lets be honest, going grocery shopping and cooking our own food can be time consuming, and most obviously, challenging; yet, a lot of restaurants serve only mediocre food – scrambled eggs with some peppers, rye toast, and fried potatoes – and turn a profit. Although many restaurants open only to quickly close, the food business can be extremely lucrative. Take, for example, one tailgate last semester when I tossed together some ostentatious-sounding burgers and was quickly swarmed by a handful of drunk Seniors, selling those (beauties?) for $6 a pop. Many restaurants function similarly.
I don’t mean to romanticize this restaurant entirely, or prop it up against those restaurants which have somewhat spoiled a foundational tenet of a restaurant – the ability to make food worthy of its price -- but this place mastered the art of its art, its ability to cook its food. Despite food critics valuing a place based on its service, its environment, its ‘charm,’ among other sometimes pretentious factors, at the end of the day a restaurant is about its food; maybe some restaurants have evolved – or devolved - into socially-oriented venues, but nothing beats something you can’t make at home. As conveyed by this place’s being a take-out venue, this place was more of a home than a restaurant; and so I wondered, isn’t good, homey food what we want out of a restaurant in the first place?
And there, atop the wobbly table I sat at, alone in the foyer, arrived the most simple, and maybe Americanized dish which I've had from so many other Thai restaurants in the past: Pad Thai and Chicken Satay. Within a few bites, I realized the vacancy of what the tongue-smothering oiliness which I often feel ruins the Thai food I've eaten. Clean, sharp, vegetables crunched between my teeth. In and out scrambled uber-eats drivers, taking and fleeing, as I sat and enjoyed what felt like pure ingredients, a truly nourishing meal.
This place made good food, and for me on this specific rainy evening, coming off a self-inflicted maltreatment of my taste-buds, this really mattered. I won’t rush to conclusions about this place, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these recipes have either been around for generations, or have been slowly but surely developed by the chef. Likely, this chef practiced giving and taking. He or she demonstrates that as productive and educational as it may be to follow recipes, its just as important to find what spices and foods work for you, and to cater to those observations. Over time, this chef likely found his/her groove, discovered the proper combinations and ratios of specific components, and above all, trusted him or herself above the rest. But, no recipes or mastery of cooking, just like no ideas or beliefs, develop in isolation; as distinct as this chef’s food was, the chef still respected either culinary traditions, those which his/her predecessors innovated on their own dime. The progression continues, and the search for other creation succeeds.
Above all, this chef mastered his/her craft by adjusting to – seizing -- his/her environment. Those foods that people want, those foods that people trust, that people value, are often not those in a cookbook, not those which tell the aspirant chef, “a quarter cup of this,” “half a cup of this,” and “slow cooked at 300 for 85 minutes.” Listed recipes completely disregard those factors not included in recipe books – where the food is purchased from, in what environment the food is stored (a fridge simultaneously stocked with something pleasantly overbearing), or the power of a specific stove. A restaurant and its chef’s strengths lie in its ability to master its context, and this chef at S&I had mastered the art of balance. Through the other side of this portal, this chef lives as a microcosm; he/she hears the bustling streets of Allston just outside this home’s front door, and it is through this portal this chef distributes an exemplar approach to an art, an approach to a life.