In Boston and cities of a similar size, restaurants featuring food from other countries have long defaulted to the broadest of categories, more often than not. There are exceptions, to be sure, but hungry diners are more likely to find a restaurant that serves general French or Japanese food than a restaurant that draws direct inspiration from Burgundy or Kyoto.
Traditionally, Boston’s Thai scene has followed a similar pattern; local Thai restaurants, for the most part, serve large menus that hit a lot of the same notes, from build-your-own curries to the same five noodle dishes that every other restaurant serves. Until recently, it was rare to find deviations from the usual formula, at least for non-Thai-speaking diners who couldn’t access the Thai menus at some of Boston’s mainstays.
Since opening in June 2018, Dakzen (195 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville) has been leading the charge in changing the conversation around Boston Thai food. Not to discount some longtime pioneers — S&I Thai and Thai Place in Allston; Pad Thai Cafe, which recently relocated near Berklee; Thai North in Brighton; and more — but with a team of young owners with an eye for marketing and an appetite for risk, Dakzen has hit on a winning formula.
The restaurant brings a tight, focused menu to Thai and non-Thai diners alike, serving the street food the Dakzen team craves and wants to share with compatriots as well as those who may be less familiar with khao grapow, khao rad khana, or ba mee moo dang.
Why is Boston’s Thai scene evolving now? The last couple of years have seen a number of Thai restaurants open or revamp their menus to showcase food that is less familiar to American diners or more regionally focused, and the momentum isn’t slowing.
Thai restaurant owners had a lot of doubts in the past, says Dakzen CEO and president Panupak Kraiwong. “‘American people don’t eat crispy pork belly,’ [said restaurant owners of the past]. ‘They don’t want fish sauce, they don’t like this, they don’t like that.’ Then we proved them wrong, and now they see that American people love authentic food.”
It was never for lack of talent: “A lot of other restaurants have good chefs, good employees, and good food — usually employee food. It’s been around, but they don’t put it for sale because they have these doubts,” says Kraiwong. “We want to change their mindset: American people really love what we eat, and that’s how they shift from being Boston Thai to being authentic Thai.”
For the Dakzen team, who range in age from mid 20s to early 30s, it’s about escaping the comfort zone, according to executive chef Faye Prapawicha. “We love the risk. While [other restaurants] have good chefs who can create good Thai food, they don’t get out of their comfort zone. It’s generational, too. We’re kind of new, and we try to sell it to a new generation. We don’t say, ‘This is authentic.’ We say, ‘We eat like this.’”
Dakzen serves the type of food the team craved as college students not long ago — studying hard, or drinking, and popping down to the corner store to get something fast and filling, like khao grapow, a satisfying stir-fry of meat and holy basil over rice, ideally topped with a fried egg.
Before opening Dakzen, Kraiwong and Dakzen marketing director Nutthachai Chaojaroenpong were working together, and Chaojaroenpong knew Prapawicha from Johnson & Wales; the trio ended up hanging out and realizing that they could never find Thai food in Boston that suited their cravings.
“We became friends and started cooking together,” says Kraiwong. “One day we were like, ‘Why don’t we sell this and educate people?’ That’s how we got together to form this restaurant. It started with drunk college students who wanted to have good food.”
And so Dakzen doesn’t stick to a specific region but doesn’t attempt to cover the entire country, either. There are a few northern hallmarks, like khao soi and sai ua, but the general theme — along the lines of what drunk college students want — is a focus on casual street noodles, such as a hearty boat noodle soup or a fiery tom yum packed with fish balls and barbecue pork.
While Dakzen continues feeding hungry Davis Square crowds, the team’s not done, not by a long shot.
“We want to change the culture of Thai restaurants in Boston,” says Kraiwong, “so we’re going to open different concepts. We don’t want a restaurant to have everything and not be specialized; we want to specialize in one thing, and then we want to move and specialize in another thing. We’re trying to create a true environment of street food from Thailand, where every restaurant specializes in what they make, and customers can expect a real taste. They want to have good food, and they go there, spend money, and walk out with their belly happy, because they got what they need and they got what’s good for them.”
Kraiwong is coy on the details, but there’s a future project in the works. “Nothing ever happened like this in Boston or even in the United States,” he promises.
His long-term goals are lofty: “I want to keep exploring the food and the culture, giving the message to people across the United States and even globally if we can. That will happen in five to 10 years; I want it to happen.”
In the meantime, head to Dakzen for a bowl of khao soi — its sunny yellow color inspired the restaurant’s branding — and enjoy the restaurant’s take on Thai food, whether it’s a dish that’s new to you or one that reminds you of home.
• Dakzen Coverage on Eater [EBOS]