Terrific traditional Sichuan cuisine hiding behind bad Thai
I don't read Chinese, but I do read Chowhound, where I learned that Thailand Café — a long-running Central Square purveyor of mediocre Thai cuisine — changed hands a couple of years ago. The English-language name didn't change, but the sign now also says "Authentic Sichuan cuisine" in Chinese. That reflects the extensive menu of traditional Sichuan dishes that the new chef added. The Thai food has gone from middling to bad, but the Sichuan fare is the real deal: fresh, bracing, and loaded with the lingering fire of capsicum chilies (both fresh and dried) and the unique, galvanic tingle of Sichuan peppercorns.
You don't need a high chili-heat tolerance to love staples like Sichuan wontons with chili vinaigrette ($5.95), minced pork in delicate wonton wrappers swimming in a smooth, oily, crimson sauce that balances fire with some sweetness and roasted-chili smoke flavor. Poached chicken with chili sauce ($7.95), better translated as "mouthwatering chicken," uses that same sauce to underpin pale drumsticks hacked into pieces, making for a fine, typically cold Sichuan first course. Westerners preferring warm apps might gravitate to sliced tender pork with fresh garlic sauce ($5.95), uncured, unsmoked pork belly cut into bacon-like ribbons in a mildly fiery sauce with bean sprouts, dotted with blobs of fresh garlic puree. Many vegetable courses, like shredded potatoes with green peppers ($7.95), offer a refreshing respite from the otherwise ubiquitous fire.
Most protein dishes run from mildly to stunningly hot, especially if you tell your server sincerely that you like it spicy. Smoky hot shredded beef with cayenne chili ($9.95) is relatively gentle with fresh green chilies, while Chengdu dry fried hot chicken ($8.95) piles crisp chicken cubes with leathery, searing dried red chilies. Double-cooked pork belly with spicy capsicum ($8.95) uses that bacon-like cut again to good effect with chopped leeks and a hefty dose of Sichuan peppercorns, which look like tiny Pac-Mans and taste a bit like mentholated lemongrass; this essential Sichuan spice will numb your tongue and lips with a cold fire that contrasts intriguingly with the hot heat of capsicum. Fish filet with cabbage in paste chili ($13.95) beautifully exemplifies this one-two punch, with chunks of tilapia in a fragrant sauce spiked with fresh cilantro. Drink options include bad hot teas ($1.25–$1.50), good Asian lagers ($3.50), and okay sake or junk wines by the glass ($3.95). Skip the gloppy, complimentary hot and sour soup and ignore the Thai menu, and Thailand Café competes wonderfully with Boston's new crop of traditional Sichuan restaurants. That's one cheap-eats trend we could do with a lot more of.
Thailand Café, located at 302 Mass Ave in Cambridge, is open Monday–Thursday, 11:30 am–10 pm; Friday–Saturday, 11:30 am–11 pm; and Sunday, 12–10 pm. Call 617.492.2494.
: On The Cheap
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