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Playing Thai-alai

Fast-moving small plates engage at Boda
By BRIAN DUFF  |  June 16, 2010

SURE-HANDED Duck and pork belly over egg noodles at Boda.

The writer Stephen Metcalf recently suggested that the cult of cultural authenticity has reached a tipping point analogous to our desperate search for oil. Forced to look farther afield for a fix of something that feels both genuine and exotic, we court excess and invite debacle. Restaurants are not immune and in New York these days they compete to see who can serve the biggest, fattiest unadorned pork-butt, or whose menu can fit brains into the most dishes. The idea was potentially concerning as the pre-opening hype regarding Boda promised "authentic" Thai street food. But we hoped that the owners of Boda, whose sure hand oversees the Green Elephant and formerly Bangkok Thai, would not push things too far in pursuit of the illusion of the real.

BODA | 671 Congress St, Portland | Tues-Sun 5 pm-1 am | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.347.7557
They don't. The first word on the menu reassures that Boda won't be taking itself too seriously: "Tapas" is not part of the Thai language, but it's a fine description of the interesting variety of small plates at Boda — which range from the very meaty to the very veggie and from the simple to the complex. Overall Boda does not suffer from a rigid loyalty to a theme, but rather seems more like an eclectic collection of favorites from across the national cuisine.

An eclectic collection of flavors animates the Miang Kum — a useful amuse-bouche with which to jumpstart your palate. Single betel leaves hold an eat-in-one-bite pile of diced pummelo, toasted coconut, shrimp, and shallots. In Thailand Miang Kum often comes as folded up little bundles on a stick, but we liked the presentation at Boda, which lets you see the ingredients as you cradle them up to your mouth. The bitterness of the fruit and leaf mixes with the sweet dressing and coconut and the sharp onion. It's terrific and unfamiliar — exactly the combination Boda wants to achieve.

Most of Boda's small plates were pleasing, if not all so unfamiliar. Among the best were seven little fried quail eggs, which delivered a shot of hot, creamy yolk spotted with scallion, with just a little crunch of crisp fried-egg. Jalapeno stuffed with ground pork were grilled just long enough to moderate the heat and add a delicious salty-smoke. Bacon-wrapped skewers of asparagus and dates were more familiar — the date version elevated by the use of fruit which had not yet ripened into a sweet mush. A beef skewer was tender and sweet due to a long marinade, but revealed a bit of heat as you reach the chewier interior. Better still is the meltingly soft Thai sausage, infused with lemongrass and served with a sour relish. A plate of steamed vegetables offers the chance to make your own little stuffed cabbage filled with a creamy, peppery relish.

While pork belly has become common on menus, you never encounter it quite as you do in a sour Goi Moo salad. Rather than cook the fatty meat to a crunch or slowly until it's completely fall-apart tender, Boda lets you confront the meat's essential fatty chewiness — contrasted with the crisp fresh romaine you scoop it up on, and the sour, limey, fishy sauce. A fiddlehead salad with noodles was all spice, lime, and fish sauce, with little sugar added to accommodate American palates.

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