Tonight, Ann Redding and Matt Danzer — the married chefs behind Nolita’s Uncle Boons, the Thai hit with a killer khao soy — open the doors to their newest restaurant, Thai Diner. The Mott Street corner spot is a marriage of their interests in Thai cuisine and mid-century diner cooking. For Redding, who grew up in Thailand and would eat exotic delicacies like chicken-and-Bisquick when visiting her dad’s parents in America, it’s a marriage that just makes sense. The restaurant also takes inspiration from one very specific place.
“In terms of the concept I look to something like Veselka, where they’ve been doing it for 50 years and it’s this beautiful mix of Ukranian food and, like, a cheeseburger,” Redding says, adding that she practically lived at the restaurant when she first moved to New York. Danzer broadens the scope a little. “I think the framework of a Greek-American diner is probably the inspiration a little bit as far as the thought process for the menu. Where you have some super-classic American dishes and then some kind of classic Thai street food,” he says.
At Thai Diner, the menu offers an unapologetic mix of food: some classic American, some straight up Thai, and other dishes that blend the two. The 65-seat space was designed by Redding and her sister May. It borrows some elements from Uncle Boons, but is also influenced by places like the mid-century chain Schrafft’s. Given Redding and Danzer’s past successes, Grub Street asked the chefs if they’d kindly take us through the menu and explain how stuffed cabbage ended up in green curry sauce.
Breakfast All Day
Okay, there isn’t a laundry list of egg dishes, with 14 different omelettes. But you can eat breakfast any time you want, and the trio of morning meals includes eggs your way. Those come with a choice of avocado, bacon, or Thai herbal sausage — not breakfast sausage! — and a potato-and-taro hash brown. “We just wanted to bring that ingredient in, but still have it be a classic potato hash brown,” Redding says.
The other dishes include a steak and eggs with a touch of Isaan, the Thai province where Redding was born. “Steak and eggs isn’t a thing in Thailand, but having a meat with jaew sauce and sticky rice is a very Isaan dish,” she says. There’s also toasted rice powder for good measure.
Rounding out the breakfast menu is some good old-fashioned Thai-Jewish fusion: a Thai tea babka French toast with condensed milk butter. “That one we almost surrendered,” Danzer says. As for the flavor, Redding adds, “I always ate chocolate babka. You’re looking for something to pop, to hit you over the head.”
There are two sandwiches on the menu, both American standards. There’s a hamburger — “just a classic American burger,” Redding insists, no frills — and a fried-chicken sandwich with pepperoncini, lettuce, mayo, and turmeric-pickled red tomato. Danzer and Redding had talked in the past about opening a Thai fried-chicken spot. But a TFC sandwich this not. “The fried-chicken sandwich is American style,” Redding confirms.
There are two salads on the menu: one a classic som tum with tomato, peanuts, and crispy dried shrimp, the other a fusion-y house salad of romaine and avocado with Thai herbs, toasted rice powder, and spicy coconut-milk dressing. “Usually at diners, the voice is always the owner’s,” Danzer says, which helps explain why the dressing is coconut milk and not, say, Thousand Island.
Redding is so obsessed with khanom krok, little coconut-rice pancakes, that she and Danzer cut down on Diner’s menu just so they could serve them. The pancakes are one of three snacks, and cooked in a specialized cast-iron skillet that’s dimpled and “almost looks like a takoyaki machine,” as Danzer puts it. They were a challenge to perfect. “My mother looked at me like, You’re nuts, when I told her we’re putting them on the menu. That in turn scared me,” Redding says.
Steamed Oysters and Chopped Liver
The snacks section of the menu is rounded out by a land-and-sea combo. There’s spicy chopped chicken liver, more Jewish-Thai fusion with pineapple, Thai herbs, and roti. “The liver is seasoned with red curry paste, caramelized onion, and chopped boiled eggs,” Redding says. The seafood is steamed oysters by the half dozen. Those can be had with either lemon nam prik, Doilly Prat sauce, or both for an extra $2, and were inspired by a place in Virginia that Esquire critic Jeff Gordinier told Redding about. “I’d always been obsessed with doing a version with Thai nam prik,” she says. “I’m turning into my mom in some ways because she’ll always be like, ‘That would be great with nam prik.’ She’ll take any dish, like Thanksgiving turkey? Nam prik!”
The chefs made sure to get another diner must on the menu, in the form of their tom yum spicy chicken and rice. It’s one of two soups available by the cup or bowl, the other being the Asian greens chowder. “It’s a vegetable stock with bok choy, potatoes, morning glory greens, and lots of garlic,” Redding explains.
There are eight mains, which are all Thai in spirit. One of the more traditional is a muu ping (top left), a popular street skewer, though it’s not exactly what you’d find on the corner. “We are not grilling it. It is broiled,” Redding says. Theirs is made with marinated pork jowl served with nam jim dipping sauce and sticky rice. In lieu of the khao man gai served at Uncle Boons Sister, they’re serving braised chicken and rice with coconut milk with galangal and lemongrass. Then there’s the haw mom talay. “It’s a steamed red curry custard with mixed seafood,” Redding explains. It comes with fish, mussels, prawns, and a side of jasmine rice. (Not pictured is the vegan khao man yuba, a riff on the chicken and rice dish khao man gai. “Anytime we are able to do something Thai and vegan we go for it,” Redding says.)
Should you wish for a bigger serving of soup, there’s kuaytiew pet, a duck noodle soup (bottom right). “The duck leg is braised in a soy and anise-scented broth. It comes with rice noodles, Chinese celery, and bean sprouts,” she says. For another dish, they brought new life to stuffed cabbage (bottom right). “I might have a mild obsession with Veselka,” Redding confesses when asked about their version. The chefs stuff the classic Eastern European dish with chicken, rice, and “the Thai trio” of garlic, black pepper, and cilantro root. “It’s classic Thai flavoring rolled in cabbage,” Redding says.
There’s even more seafood, and neither dish is traditional. One is the hoi frites (top right). “My mom’s favorite Thai dish is yen ta foo, which is a Thai noodle soup dish, it’s typically seafood, and it’s pink because of red bean curd,” Redding explains. They took the broth and morning glory greens that go with the dish for a Thai-style mussels and frites with garlic aioli. Finally, there’s a riff on puu phat pong karee (top left).“The crab cakes, the flavor profile is based on this Thai dish where you take whole crab in the shell and stir fry it with onions, yellow curry sauce, and lots of egg,” Redding explains. “We just kind of took that flavor profile and do a more classic American preparation of crab cakes, but we’re still serving it with rice and the yellow curry sauce and the celery and onion you typically get in the Thai dish.”
Some old favorites are featured in the enthusiastically named “From Our Woks!!” They’re all recognizable to anyone familiar with Thai cuisine. “Three of these are our most popular dishes at Sister. We wanted to still be able to give that to our guests,” she says of the phat Thai (center bottom), rice noodles with peanuts, radish, and dried shrimp in tamarind sauce; phat see eiw (left), a rice-noodle stir-fry with soy, egg, and Chinese broccoli; and phat bai horapha (center top), a stir-fry usually made with beef, Thai chili, garlic, and basil, with a fried egg. The last of these dishes is the khao phat rot far, “train style” fried rice (right) with tomato, garlic, and Thai basil. “Fried rice is comfort food for me. It’s like mac and cheese,” Redding says. The savory menu is rounded out by a handful of sides, including a kale fai dang stir-fry and rice Thai disco fries. “We’re putting Massaman curry on top. Peanuts, onion,” Redding says. “If you think about Massaman, there’s typically potato and onion in it. So we’re basically just putting it on French fries.”
The Thai tea babka won’t be the only sweet thing on the menu. At the bar, they’ll have a display case of various desserts. Like the rest of the menu, it’s a mix of traditional and fusion-y items. “We have the guava crumb cake for breakfast, and the banana pudding,” Danzer says. Redding adds that they’re using Uncle Boons Thai rum for the pudding, which gets topped with a Thai lotus cookie. Pointing to the coconut monster cake, she adds, “You can see we take ourselves very seriously.”
Thai Diner, 186 Mott St., at Houston St.; 646-559-4140