It’s been an exciting couple of years for the Boston area’s Thai food scene, with openings like Dakzen (Eater Boston’s 2018 fast-casual restaurant of the year), 9Zaab, and more, not to mention the upcoming Hen Chicken Rice, which will focus exclusively on the chicken-and-rice dish khao man gai. The era marks a bit of a departure from Boston’s earlier Thai food scene, in which non-Thai diners would be hard-pressed to find much beyond the omnipresent pad thai, drunken noodles, and assorted curries. There was always more to find, but much was present only on menus written in Thai or at a very small number of regionally specific restaurants like Thai North in Brighton, which specializes in northern Thai dishes.
As the Dakzen team told Eater last year, the mindset among Thai restaurant owners in Boston used to be that non-Thai diners weren’t interested in ingredients like crispy pork belly and fish sauce. While the restaurants had good chefs who could cook food that tasted like home, it was usually served only as food for the employees; they were afraid to try selling it. But lately, there’s been a realization that plenty of non-Thai diners are interested in, as Dakzen owner Panupak Kraiwong put it last year, “authentic Thai” rather than “Boston Thai.”
It’s a sentiment the Mahaniyom team is echoing this week after opening the doors to their restaurant at 236 Washington St. in Brookline Village (the former El Centro space).
“In Thai restaurants, there are [often] two menus, Thai and English,” says Akira Sherman, Mahaniyom’s marketing representative. “Usually Thai people eat from the Thai menu, the ‘hidden gems.’ [In the past] Thai people here would think that farang [Westerners] might not like the taste or are unfamiliar, but with our society now, people are more sophisticated and willing to try things. With our menu here, we want to bring this true flavor of Thai and show people here that it’s not just pad thai, tom yum, som tum. We have other things from all over Thailand.”
Mahaniyom co-owners Chompon (Boong) Boonnak (a longtime Shojo alum) and Smuch (Top) Saikamthorn, along with chef Suparerk (Pao) Thampitak and the rest of the team, are eager to highlight specialties from a number of Thai regions, including quite a few dishes that are hard or impossible to find around the Boston area — for which they have to carefully source elusive ingredients like betel leaves, holy basil, and makrut lime leaves.
Boonnak and Saikamthorn have known each other since they were four years old, growing up together in Phetchabun, a north-central province north of Bangkok but not as far up as, for example, Chiang Mai. Boonnak has always felt the drive to own his own business, growing up in a family that owned a department store. This is his first ownership endeavor, but he’s been in love with the restaurant industry, especially bartending, for quite a few years now. Saikamthorn previously owned a restaurant in San Diego, and farther back, his family used to own a restaurant.
Mahaniyom is inspired by ran lao, casual Thai bars where you can hang out with friends, share some small plates, get some drinks, and “feel at home,” says Sherman. The dishes at Mahaniyom remind the team of the good times in Thailand — “flavors we miss; the flavors of our home.”
But in a broader sense, the Mahaniyom team hopes to help people connect over food.
“Food is the best thing that connects people together,” says Sherman. “It’s also something that tells our story and helps share emotions. Food is something that is rooted in our life and culture, and it’s one of our passions. We hope this could be a good place for people to hang out and also share emotions and stories.”
Here’s a closer look at several dishes from Mahaniyom’s opening menu.
Yum som-o: Mahaniyom’s pomelo salad, a central Thai dish, is a nod to Thai royal cuisine from a long time ago. Topped with shrimp, a traditional Thai dressing, thinly sliced bird’s eye chiles, and lots of crispy accoutrements (fried shallots, roasted coconut, cashews, and fried shrimp), the salad is best when mixed up together and then wrapped in one of the accompanying betel leaves, says chef Thampitak. Yum som-o is available on the dinner menu.
Nam prik platter: The dinner menu travels north with the nam prik platter, featuring three different kinds of nam prik, which function as dipping sauces for the provided vegetables and crispy pork belly. (It can also all be wrapped up in the lettuce leaves.) Each has no added sugar; all the sweet flavors (as well as sour and more) come from the ingredients themselves. One is made from ground pork and tomato, another features longhorn peppers, and the other showcases baby jackfruit.
Hat Yai fried chicken: This one’s available at both lunch and dinner (served with sticky rice at lunch to make it more of a stand-alone dish, whereas it’s meant to be one of many small plates when eaten at dinner.) The southern Thai recipe is extremely popular throughout all of Thailand; it includes marinating the chicken in a blend that features cumin, among other ingredients, and — this is absolutely necessary — the chicken is topped with fried shallots. At Mahaniyom, it’s served with a sweet chile dipping sauce.
Kang poo bai cha-plu: Coastal areas of southern Thailand, like Phuket and Krabi, understandably serve plenty of seafood; this crab curry, served with bundles of vermicelli noodles, comes from that region. Turmeric gives it its yellow color, and the curry paste is made in-house from scratch. Betel leaves add a distinctive flavor. This one’s only on the dinner menu, but curry lovers will find a panang curry over rice on the lunch menu.
Goi nuaa tartare: This raw beef dish on the dinner menu is a typical larb from northeastern Thailand, says Thampitak, but he’s serving it tartare-style in a vertical column. There are crispy taro chips on the side.
Kang kua kradook moo: Mahaniyom’s pork ribs, available at dinner, are a southern Thai recipe. “You’ll feel a little spice,” says Thampitak. “We put five kinds of chile in it, so it’s hot, spicy, and flavorful.”
Other dishes: Mahaniyom’s lunch and dinner menus are fairly compact, but there’s more available than what’s pictured above. A few other lunch dishes include a pork tom yum noodle soup with pork meatballs, barbecue pork, and crispy pork in a spicy pork broth; chicken ka-praw over rice (ground chicken with Thai basil and a sunny side up egg); and plaa hed, a grilled mushroom and herb salad. At dinner, there’s a green papaya pad thai that the team is particularly excited about. It’s pretty rare even in Thailand, says Sherman, to replace the usual rice noodles with green papaya, but it adds a crunchiness that “makes it a lot more enjoyable.” There’s also jang-lon, grilled fish ball skewers with green and red curry paste; salt and pepper pork cheeks with scallions and chile; pla tod nam pla, deep-fried whole sea bass with green apple salad; and more.
The bar: As Mahaniyom draws inspiration from casual drinking spots, the cocktail list is a major focus, especially given Boonnak’s time behind the bar at Shojo and Golden Temple. There are classic Western cocktails, such as Manhattans and Negronis; classics with Thai twists, such as a gin and tonic made with chrysanthemum-infused gin and a Sazerac with Thai tea-infused rye; and some Thai specials, such as shots of 11 Tigers, a traditional Thai herb-infused spirit. There are also some beers (including Thailand lagers Singha and Leo) and wines, as well as sake, soju, and non-alcoholic drinks, such as Thai iced tea with lime and a hibiscus soda.
Mahaniyom is open for lunch and dinner daily — 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., with later hours potentially coming in the future. Note that the lunch menu is a little smaller and different than dinner, focusing on one-plate meals ideal for quick business lunches. Dinner, on the other hand, is meant to be more of a family-style experience, sharing a variety of tapas-inspired small plates over drinks.
• Coverage of Mahaniyom on Eater [EBOS]