Unlike their first restaurant, the perpetually packed, Michelin-starred Uncle Boons, Ann Redding and Matt Danzer’s sophomore effort, Mr. Donahue’s, wound up being more novelty than neighborhood fixture. The neo-retro lunch counter, named for Danzer’s late grandfather, was briefly the city’s coziest destination for culinary Americana like crab imperial, fried onions with ranch dressing, and nostalgically idealized roast beef dinners. The charming experiment was ultimately deemed unsustainable, closing last August after only a year in business — a short-lived but brightly shining star.
By September, the enterprising couple had shifted their focus back to Redding’s roots, transforming the snug Nolita space into Uncle Boons Sister, a pared-down offshoot of their lauded modern Thai hit. Out went the doily placemats and crocheted window draperies, to be replaced with bright orange trays, multicolored neon signage, and a takeout joint–style lightbox menu plastered with glossy food photos. The new dining area crams in a dozen seats around a few café tables that hug walls adorned with herringbone wicker panels and vintage Thai artwork, including a movie poster for James Band 007 The Real Thai Pepper, a James Bond spoof from the Eighties. Shelves brim with Thai candies, shrimp chips, and spicy squid jerky, and next to the register, a refrigerated cold case holds refreshing papaya and watercress salads (the latter spruced up with cashews, tart grapefruit, and chile-coconut dressing) and beverage imports like Milo chocolate milk and Singha beer. Though casual in its approach, from aesthetics to execution, Sister exhibits the same kind of attention to detail and creative spark as its older sibling.
This Uncle Boons is inspired by Redding’s mother and five maternal aunts, and their rural central Thailand upbringing partially informs the food offerings here, a riot of contemporary home cooking and comforting street stall classics sporting a few proprietary tweaks. The menu tops out at $16, and even small snacks manage to make major impressions. To wit: curls of puffed, crisp pork rinds, which achieve greatness when swiped through nahm prik noom, a coarsely ground garlic and roasted chile relish with a pleasant lingering heat. Mataba, paunchy griddled roti pancakes folded around yellow curry potatoes and supple shreds of lamb, are supernal. Looking like the noblest of Hot Pockets, the buttery pastries are divided into wedges for easy dunking into accompanying cups of ruddy pepper sauce. Moo ping, skewered hunks of pork shoulder marinated in fish sauce, pick up loads of char and caramelized lacquer from the grill. And there’s plenty to love about the way fork-tender oxtail lends bovine depth to bowls of tartly herbal tom yum soup, the murky broth aromatic with lemongrass and galangal.
Fried chicken laab is inspired by a salad served at Thailand’s KFC franchises. To make it, the chefs coat nuggets of marinated thigh meat in a mixture of panko, flour, and roasted rice powder, delivering a crunch so fierce it would make Colonel Sanders blush. The morsels are presented whole atop an incendiary jumble of herbs and chiles, but the dish works best when everything’s broken up with utensils and mixed together. Sai oua, northern Thailand’s fragrant pork sausage minced with herbs, also flaunts a bit of fast-food flair. While the grilled links can be ordered with rice, they’re a blast to consume when cradled in hot dog buns and buried under heaps of zesty papaya salad.
Embracing the limited price point rather than being stymied by it, Redding and Danzer, who met while working at Per Se, seem invigorated by the challenge of developing recipes within their self-imposed parameters. As such, triumphs abound among the larger dishes. A fillet of striped bass steamed on the grill inside banana leaves is so delicate that it barely held its shape under a deluge of garlicky curry. Splayed-out crescents of deep-fried skate wing served with lemony chile sauce, a winter special, had an audibly brittle crust. Breaking into them revealed flaky, just-cooked flesh suffused with a clean, gentle sweetness. Noodles are particularly notable — namely, plates of kanom jiin, springy fermented rice noodles that are a joy to slurp whether paired with red curry kabocha squash, green curry with rainbow chard, or a Southern-style coconut crab curry studded with bits of fresh pineapple. Phat thai can be made vegetarian, though its most alluring draw is the quartet of head-on shrimp that accompanies the standard version. The heartiest proteins — fancifully butchered duck legs and pork shanks — get braised in a sugary sauce heavy on soy and star anise. Both come with pickled mustard greens, though I preferred the duck version, which also included a marinated soft-cooked egg replete with jammy yolk.
Desserts are deceptively complex. Burnt to a burnished golden brown, milk toast is easy to love, made by fashioning thick slices of condensed milk–soaked brioche into something akin to bread pudding brûlée. And in a bold move, there’s a brilliant handheld rendition of the Uncle Boons toasted coconut sundae. The Rama Cone is an homage to both Thailand’s kings (who are depicted in a poster behind the takeout counter) and Good Humor’s classic King Cone, enrobing coconut gelato in a white chocolate–coconut oil shell caked in crushed peanuts and toasted coconut. A hidden cache of the same topping sits at the bottom of the sugar cone. Reaching it is a lot like venturing to Uncle Boons Sister — a thrilling reward.
Uncle Boons Sister
203 Mott Street