In August, the crowds began to gather along a secluded expanse of Smith Street. Word was out: Sirichai Sreparplarn, one of New York’s most relentlessly adventurous Thai chefs, was back with Ugly Baby. Having made a name for himself cooking alongside Kanlaya Supachana in Red Hook — first at the now-defunct Kao Soy, and then at Chiang Mai, their pop-up a few storefronts down the road — Sreparplarn spent much of the last decade investigating northern Thailand’s cooking traditions via unabashed spicing and earnestly cheerful aesthetics. While Supachana has taken her considerable talents to North Carolina, New Yorkers should rush to welcome Sreparplarn back in his vibrant new home. Squirreled away on the outskirts of Carroll Gardens, he’s once again serving up some of the city’s most enthralling Thai cooking.
The narrow, oft-crowded newcomer’s quirky moniker is a reference to the Southeast Asian custom of calling newborns “ugly” as an ironically auspicious superstition. But rest assured, Ugly Baby doesn’t need much luck with Sreparplarn in the kitchen. Inside, the colorful walls are painted in ethereal brushstrokes, forming wild, phantasmagoric rainbows that look like pastorals out of some capsaicin-induced fever dream. It’s a fittingly eye-popping and breezy backdrop for this dazzling return.
Unlike his previous, more geographically concentrated kitchen exploits, Sreparplarn, who favors wearing T-shirts and backward mesh caps rather than chefs whites and a toque, highlights a broad range of regional dishes here. He pulls recipes from the country’s five culinary territories (central, southern, northern, northeastern, and metropolitan Bangkok — where the 45-year-old chef grew up before heading to the United States) while thankfully pulling no punches. The common thread among all but a few items on the concise yet comprehensive menu is incendiary heat and aggressive seasoning, so be sure to keep glasses of water, or, ideally, cool and creamy Thai iced tea (or even more ideally, your own booze, for as long as they stay BYOB), nearby.
Khao soi ($16) is back, making it the best version in town once more. The rich soup still comes shrouded in pickled mustard greens, gobs of chile jam, and Chihuly-esque clusters of wavy fried egg noodles, though now the broth is even more robust, with beef shank taking the place of braised chicken legs. Also hailing from the Burmese border up north is kang hoh ($17), vigorously flavored, slightly sugary red curry spareribs and dreamy fork-tender pork shoulder with greens, thin mung bean noodles, and pork rinds.
Isaan cuisine from the northeast, which has found favor locally in the last decade, is represented by outstanding salads of Laotian origin. One’s a fiery, sour laab ($17) of chopped duck, which is scattered with craggy curls of fried duck skin and raw vegetables to quell the spice. The other, kao tod nam klook ($16), hinges on crispy curried rice loaded with ginger, fried peanuts, and hunks of sour pork sausage and is meant to be eaten as a lettuce wrap with a DIY assortment of fresh herbs, cucumbers, snappy long beans, and dried chiles. You could sell each leafy bundle as edible potpourri sachets, so pervasive is the fragrance that hangs over the plate.
A quarter of the menu is devoted to the cooking of Thailand’s coastal south, where influences from Malaysia and Indonesia inspire boldly aromatic gems like bowls of kang kua supparod ($14), a fortifying pineapple-mushroom curry that’s far spicier than it is sweet. Kua kling ($20) turns out to be just as face-melting as you’d hope or fear, thanks to warnings that it is “brutally spicy,” both in writing and verbally from your server. The dry beef shank curry gets hammered with chiles, grapelike bunches of green peppercorns still on the vine, and floral, citrusy makrut lime leaves. Check your pulse if you don’t start sweating after a few bites; it’s easily among the most intense things you’re likely to taste this year. Skewered chicken thighs ($10) look innocently like satay but zap unsuspecting mouths with an unyielding chile pepper burn from the earthy dried chiles in their coconut curry coating. The other two southern offerings — coconut soup ($25) bobbing with head-on steamed mackerels and spongy lotus stems, and meaty sea bream ($20), which is dusted in turmeric, fried whole, and presented under a shaggy mane of fried garlic — pump the brakes on the peppers but maintain a seaside savor.
Central Thai dishes and Bangkok favorites also temper the heat somewhat. Brisket soup ($20) paved with pudgy slabs of deckle — the fattiest end of the cut — is smooth and savory, while tom som pla kra pong ($25), red snapper in a tamarind-inflected broth, features flaky fillets buried under a deluge of piquant fresh ginger. Gelatinous duck feet ($14) sluiced in gentle black pepper gravy, and mee kati isan ($20), a thick peanut and pork curry served over rice noodles, meanwhile, are deceptively plain-looking, but each has surefire rustic appeal.
Until recently, I would have recommended saving tue ka ko ($9), little muffin-shaped coconut milk cakes studded with black beans and matchsticks of taro, for last. Even with its sweet chile sauce, the appetizer could almost pass for dessert. Now, though, there is durian sticky rice ($7) flooded with viscous coconut cream. A bowl of vaguely white and yellowish mounds that smack with the controversial fruit’s abrasive flavor, it’s as profoundly sweet and cooling as it is ugly, baby.
407 Smith Street, Brooklyn