I’m going to beat The New York Times to the punch; Uncle Boons will be impossible to walk into without a three hour wait as soon as Pete Wells review comes out. This two-month old Nolita restaurant is already making waves in its infancy and will continue to do so once people look past the confusing name and venture inside.
The name seems a bit deceiving. Uncle Boons is not a Southern Restaurant. It’s not a dive bar. Uncle Boons — named after owner Ann Redding’s own Uncle — is one of the most authentic Thai restaurants to hit the New York culinary scene in years. The husband and wife chef-owners met at the legendary Per Se, honing their culinary skills before opening their first restaurant on Shelter Island. After five years, they returned to Manhattan and Redding’s Thai roots to create Uncle Boons.
My Dad is the source of my foodie roots, and for my birthday dinner, he spent hours searching for the perfect spot to impress me. Uncle Boons made its’ way to the top of our list, partially for the Per Se background and also because Thailand has topped our dream trip list for years. The two of us love trying the most adventurous dishes everywhere we go, so he couldn’t wait to challenge me to a great, unusual dinner.
We found parking on the street with ease, and skipped past piles of garbage bags lining Spring Street. Uncle Boons is tucked between two very happening bars, with crowds of young, well-dressed individuals marking the area. We walked down the stairs, away from the hustle of the noisy, dirty streets. The interior completely contrasts the atmosphere outside. The staff at Uncle Boons are some of the warmest, kind, attentive individuals I have encountered during a dining experience. They make you feel as if you are in your own home away from home. The decor matches the warm attitude with family pictures and Thai posters lining the exposed brick walls.
The front area of the restaurant contains the hostess table, small bar area and three high-top tables. The main dining room is secluded off to the left side of the restaurant with a larger dining area towards the back for crowded evenings. The place was crowded without being overwhelming, as the hostess offered us a high-top table for a shorter wait time. We happily accepted, as we snagged two seats at the bar to wait for our table to be set.
While sitting there, we watched a intricately designed wooden bucket twist back and forth as the bartender grabbed bottles of beer out of the container, tap the bottom with a spoon and place the bottle into a metal tin. I inquired about this unusual process and was told he was creating Beer Slushies, a Thai treat made by chilling beer in salted ice, to bring the temperature of the liquid down to a nearly frozen state, creating the a slushie mixture. Of course, my Dad and I needed to try.
Small batches of the slushies are created with much care and precision. Unfortunately that sometimes means waiting for a fresh batch to chill to the ideal temperature before being prepared and served. We didn’t mind the waiting, as our waiter led us to our high top table towards the entrance of the restaurant. With the drink selection out of the way, we could turn to the point of our visit.
The menu at Uncle Boons is not for the faint of heart. You’ve come to the wrong Thai restaurant if you’re trying to get a bowl of Pad Thai Noodles. Instead, authentic dishes from Thailand utilize every protein you would never think of; Frog Legs, Sweetbreads, Dried Shrimp, Blowfish. The more adventurous you choose to be, the better the culinary experience you will have. I highly doubt such dishes will be replicated anywhere else in the city.
Being the adventurous duo that we are, we decided to start the meal with Frogs Legs, followed by Grilled Blowfish Tails, and finally Beef Cheeks.
Sticky, sweet, finger-licking good, frog legs. They’re eaten in a similar fashion to chicken wings, picking them up and eating them off the bone. The delightful soy-ginger sauce on the outside added layers of a spicy-sweet to the crisp skin. The inside of the frog legs have a similar consistency and flavor to dark poultry meat. It’s moist and tender, easily falling off the bone with one simple bite. If people would get past their fear of the unknown protein, I could easily see traditional wing joint trading their chicken for frogs. The lemongrass, cucumber and herb salad underneath provide a necessary contrast to the hearty, sweet legs. Lemongrass added an earthy quality to the salad, with the cucumber providing a nice crunch. The addition of chiles in the salad gave a mild heat, contrasting with the sweet richness of the frog legs. This dish hit every note, creating the ultimate appetizer.
This dish is served with a bowl of wet naps, since you’re meant to get just a little bit messy. After licking the ginger-soy sauce off my fingers, I washed them clean, ready for the next round of food.
Next, we decided to put our lives in the hands of the kitchen, literally. If prepared wrong, blowfish can be deadly. By offering grilled blowfish tails on the menu, Uncle Boons challenges all of its patrons to trust them and take the ultimate culinary risk. Luckily, we survived to tell the tale.
The simple preparation allowed for the high quality of the blowfish to shine through. It was my first taste of this deadly fish, and the experience was a good one. The waitress warned of a bone running through the entire back tail, so we were artful in our dissection of the fish. I opted to drizzle the lime on top, while my Dad took the more adventurous route dipping the fish into the spicy sauce. The blowfish had a similar flavor and flakiness to that of any whitefish. It’s a very subtle flavor, with the smokiness from the grill enhancing the simplicity of the fish. The delicate fish falls off the tail bone with ease, preventing the a boney mess from forming on the plate. My first experience with blowfish was a wild success.
Finally, the beer slushie was ready, just in time for our entree.
The drink was totally worth the wait. The refreshing beer slushie enhances the best parts of the beer by recreating that first, crisp sip time and time again. It’s icy without feeling watered down, creating a smooth, easy to drink beverage. Plus the addition of a straw in beer is usually laughable, but in this case, it works. I could dream of the days on the hot beaches of Thailand sipping this unbelievably refreshing drink.
Finally, it was time for our main dish, Beef Cheeks in Massaman Curry served with a side of Roti, a Thai flatbread.
The beef cheeks are so tender, that a knife isn’t even offered. They easily break apart with one simple touch of our fork, letting all of the curry seep into every pore of the meat. It’s a moist, decadent piece of meat, which is significantly lighter then most other parts of a cow. The curry at first tastes sweet, with the lingering spice creeping up on you bite after bite. Strong undertones of peanut mixes into the curry sauce, with toasted peanuts adding crunch and additional depth of flavor. Shredded pieces of potato give the illusion of noodles, soaking up all of the flavor of the curry. You twirl the potato around your fork, forgetting that the starch happens to be potatoes instead of pasta.
When most of the beef cheeks and potatoes were devoured, we turned to the Roti for an additional vessel to soak up the curry broth.
Roti is a flakey, buttery flatbread with a similar texture to that of Indian Naan. The Roti soaks up all of the peanut flavor with the simple, sweet taste counter balancing the spiciness of the curry. We licked the bowl clean with the Roti leaving nothing behind. It’s a delicious curry, especially for those who don’t generally enjoy overwhelming spice.
Midway through a conversation with my Dad, sparklers began to come our way, as a mischievous smile filled his face. My birthday celebrations continued, this time with a gigantic coconut ice cream sundae, the only dessert on the menu. I smiled with happiness as the extremely kind hostess, Kelly, rushed over to capture to money shot of my dad and I, sparklers blazing.
Now onto the Sundae. While the fact that there is only one dessert on the menu might be a little concerning, move past that quickly and order this to end the meal. It’s a playful combination of flavors and textures. The toasted coconut ice cream is creamy and decadent without being overly sweet. Toasted coconut and peanuts cover the scoop of ice cream, adding sweet and smoky flavors to the rich, beautiful ice cream. Even my dad who usually despises coconut helped me polish off the delicious sundae. You’d be doing yourself a great disservice to pass up this Sundae.
By the end of the meal, we found ourselves chatting away with our hostess and waiter, learning more about the restaurant and the food we had enjoyed. When it comes to service, Uncle Boons seriously prides itself on finding some of the kindest, most accommodating staff. They know so much about the menu and are sure to make the meal as wonderful as it can be.
The food ends up being slightly pricer then you might expect coming into a meal at Uncle Boons. However, the entire experience makes up for any reluctance you might have when paying the bill. The staff works hard to create an atmosphere worthy of a return trip to Nolita. If all goes well, Uncle Boons is planning to try their hand in authentic Thai brunch, which would consist of lots of stews, eggs and other ultimate hang over foods. I foresee this spot making a serious splash in the culinary world.
Try and snag one of the few reservations Uncle Boons accepts, and make it soon. Because the second The New York Times review is comes out, and we know it’s coming, this place will be so hot that you’ll be waiting hours not minutes for your first sip of Beer Slushie. But it will be so worth the wait.
Uncle Boons – 7 Spring Street – New York, NY
Location: Nolita, NY
Perfect For: Adventurous Eating, Date Night, Impressing Foodies, Authentic Dining
Reservations: Limited Available via CityEats/UncleBoons.com
Favorite Dishes: Beef Cheeks (Massaman Neuh); Frog Legs (Kob Tod Katiem Pik Thai)
**Pete Wells’ Review is finally out (July 2) — Two Stars and Critics Choice