Energy and authenticity define Portland’s always-bustling Thai Restaurant.
Every restaurant has a mood, usually evident the moment you walk in the door. At Boda, the mood is charged with energy—not the frenetic kind, but the sort that sweeps you up and confidently pulls you in. On any given night, with the rattle of ice-filled cocktail shakers punctuating the hum of happy conversation, everyone at Boda—both diners and staff—seems to be having an especially good time. Depending on when you arrive, you may have a chance to take in this energetic scene. Boda does not accept reservations and is perpetually busy, but the cheerful hosts are adept at handling those waiting for a seat.
I’ve enjoyed many memorable evenings at Boda, so it’s a treat to visit in the afternoon, when sun pours in through the large windows facing Congress Street, and to talk with co- owner Danai “Dan” Sripasert. He and business partner Nattasak “Bob” Wongsaichua bought the restaurant in 2007, when it was Bangkok Thai, and two years later relaunched it as Boda. (I might be the last one to figure out that the name is a combo of their two American monikers.) The partners also own two locations of the vegetarian restaurant Green Elephant, one a few blocks away and the other in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Boda’s menu stands out from the Thai restaurant crowd, and not because the kitchen takes creative liberties with the cuisine—in fact, it’s just the opposite. “There is so much more than pad thai that people should try, and I’m going to introduce them to it,” says Sripasert, who regularly returns to his native country for culinary research, and sometimes takes members of his staff along. “Everything on the menuis a staple in Thailand,” says general manager Zak Taillon. “It’s super traditional, and I didn’t realize that until I went there and saw the quail eggs being cooked on the street.”
Cooked and served piping hot in a cast iron kanom krok pan with indents for each tiny egg, quail eggs seasoned with soy sauce and scallions are undoubtedly the most popular dish at Boda, followed closely by the Thai sticky rice ball, a deceptively basic-looking snack that is especially tasty. So too are a parade of skewers from the grill bar: just-crispy pork belly with tamarind dipping sauce, shiitake mushrooms brushed with sesame oil, tender flank steak marinated in lemongrass, garlic, lime leaves, turmeric, coconut milk, palm sugar, and galangal, a heady mixture that infuses the beef with extraordinary depth. “Thai food has a lot of flavor and it’s all about balancing it,” says Sripasert.
The cocktails served at Boda’s ten-stool bar are as lively as the food. Taillon figures he’s made thousands of the signature Thai Basil Tom Collins, a refreshing blend of gin, lemon juice, homemade sour mix, and muddled Thai basil that goes down perhaps too easily on a warm evening. It’s easier to take my time with the complex Fuge’s Dilemma, a bright red, herbal spin on the Manhattan made with whiskey infused with Eleven Tigers tea. The bar also offers a variety of local, often unusual beers, always a good match for Thai food.
Pad thai is among Boda’s entrees, but it’s prepared in the traditional Bangkok street-food style. Instead of a pile of noodles, the various ingredients are wrapped in a thin omelet, with crunchy raw bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, chili flakes, and lime as accompaniments. Another traditional dish, often available as a special, is khao kluk kapi, a pretty arrangement of ingredients—crispy fried pork and slices of Chinese sausage; thinly sliced mango, cucumber, shallots, and omelet; diced green beans and Thai chili; fried dried shrimp—surrounding a dome of shrimp-paste-flavored rice. When everything is combined, the flavor is at once intense and sublime, with a range of textures that makes me lift forkful after forkful to my mouth. Chicken curry noodle soup is similarly astonishing. A bone-in chicken breast and thigh are submerged in a rich, coconut milk-based curry broth with egg noodles, topped with strands of crispy wonton. I tell Sripasert the broth seems almost like savory caramel and he nods knowingly.
Gluten-free diners will find plenty of options at Boda, including the quail eggs, rice ball (both made with gluten-free soy sauce), and my favorite dessert, sticky black rice pudding with coconut cream. While Taillon sometimes has to educate first-timers about Boda’s food, vegetarians and those with dietary restrictions are pleased to find there are so many options, he says. Anyone looking for takeout, however, will be disappointed. “We want people to have the food hot off the grill, the quail eggs in the pan that it comes in,” says Taillon. “We want to make sure that everyone who comes in is seated, gets the drink that they like, the food that they like, and has the real experience. The coolest thing that lets me know we’re doing a good job is that the entire Thai restaurant community from Portland comes here.”