For more than 10 years, the Great Thai Chef held forth in Somerville's Union Square. Its cuisine wasn't the most authentic in town, just a bit fresher and fiercer than the average Westerner-friendly Thai joint. With new competition nearby and the economy sagging, chef/owner Ronnarong Saksua decided to mix things up, choosing a slightly more modest name and adding "Thai tapas," a selection of small plates. The pleasantly modern room got a facelift (including a colorfully decoupaged unisex restroom) and now features 20 table seats, another seven at the bar, and gentle, attentive service.
The small-plates idea is attractively frugal. It starts with a terrific papaya salad ($5) — shredded, unripe, rather jicama-like fruit with seeded string beans, tomatoes, ground peanuts, and a tart/fiery dressing. Paradise beef ($5) offers a goodly portion of boneless, jerky-like beef, air-cured and fried. Its sugary glaze is too sweet by itself, but a wonder with some chili sauce. White-mushroom salad ($5) features rice-vinegar dressing, red onions, sweet red peppers, and Thai basil on a fascinating fungus with the appearance of albino tree-ear and the vaguely gelatinous crunch of jellyfish: weird and delicious. Golden crowns ($5) are eight bite-size, open-faced, crisp-fried rice-flour shells filled with ground chicken, shrimp, corn, and peas, plus a cucumber/vinegar dressing for spooning on top. Steamed mussels ($6) deliver a sweet deal, nearly 20 bivalves in a broth rich with lemongrass and lime leaf, plus a fierce chili relish on the side.
Housemade sodas ($3) are fantastic: you can mix and match a variety of herb-infused syrups, like basil plus lemongrass or ginger plus chili. There's a good selection of Asian and American craft beers ($4–$7), sake ($18–$21/300ml), and sake-based cocktails ($7–$9). The rest of the menu is rather routine: appetizers of satays ($5), fresh and fried rolls (both $5), dumplings steamed and fried ($5), and soups like coconut chicken ($3). Big salads like larb gai (ground chicken) and spicy beef (both $12) make ample mid courses. There are no surprises among the various stir-fries ($9–$12), noodle dishes (all $9), and curries ($11) based on chicken, duck, seafood (a mix of squid, scallops, and shrimp), beef, pork, and vegetarian/vegan-friendly tofu. But it's far more fun to take advantage of Ronnarong's novel Thai tapas idea. Two diners can eat well on six small plates, a diverse feast for around $30. Given the now-commonplace, overly Westernized Thai places that dot Boston's neighborhoods and suburbs, it's enough to separate this freshened-up veteran from the pack.
Ronnarong, located at 255 Washington Street, in Somerville, is open Monday–Thursday, 11:30 am–10 pm, and Friday and Saturday, 11:30 am–10:30 pm. Call 617.625.9296.