Restaurant Review: Tiger Mama
My ordering game is pretty tight. Not to brag, but in my prime I once negotiated an entire four-person meal from the Douzo dinner menu—basically, the Ulysses of Back Bay sushi—without so much as stuttering or breaking a sweat. But the menu at Tiger Mama, Tiffani Faison’s funked-out Fenway tribute to Southeast Asian fare? Jesus.
The problem here isn’t the number of items. It’s that vital details about them are missing. Or understated. Or presented in an unreadable font with broken-topped a’s resembling u’s—turning dish names into culinary cryptograms ranging from easy (“Chili Crub”) to expert (“Chu Cu Lu Vong”) to excruciating (“Bruised Pork Pud See Ew”).
Take, for instance, pad gra pow ($13), a stir-fry of ground chicken laced with fish sauce, chilies, garlic, and Thai basil. This one’s the real deal—as amped up as any you’ll find in Bangkok, where a heaping pile of rice diffuses all of that concentrated flavor into harmonious balance. Eaten alone, though, the dish becomes a full-frontal assault of sodium and fermented-fish funk.
Menu guideposts like this never made the cut. Instead, pad gra pow is listed as though it’s an à la carte small plate, under the rubric “Rich & Earthy”—benign and comforting, like mushroom-barley stew, not a sucker punch to the taste buds. It does not come with rice, nor do the eight or nine other dishes calibrated to similarly potent heights. Which ones? Good luck. Instead of getting sequestered in a section called, I dunno, Crazy Hopped-Up Rice Toppers, they’re scattered haphazardly around the page like salty land mines.
“So salty it was unpleasant,” one victim of the un-riced stuff groused online, before accidentally nailing Tiger Mama’s existential problem on the head. “There are loads of restaurants that do small-plate dining well in Boston, and this is not one of them.”
Bingo. But that’s because Tiger Mama isn’t an Asian-fusion small-plates spot—like Blue Dragon or Banyan—where items are engineered to be mixed and matched at will. It’s a neo-traditional Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese eatery where context is crucial. The good news is the food, all in all, is fantastic. A few guidelines: Ask your server to keep you in rice and water until you give the all clear. Unanticipated salt bomb? Add more rice. Drink more water. (Repeat.)
The beef crudo ($13) was a genius carpaccio revamp featuring handkerchief-thin swaths of gorgeously marbled short rib. Kicked up with black-vinegar-dressed herbs, charred leeks, and the pulverized dregs from house-steeped chili oil, the delicate white patches of fat melted instantly with the heat of the tongue—like brothless shabu-shabu. Trouble finding it? Right there under “Cold & Fresh” because…I give up. Maybe they meant “Cold & Flesh. ”
Faison’s nuanced handling of vegetables may be unmatched in Boston. Not to impugn the excellent barbecue, but her best dish at Sweet Cheeks is called “Farm Salad”; previously, at Rocca, it was a carrot-and-peas set. No surprise, then, that Tiger Mama’s garden game runs strong. A stunner, the seasonal lettuce fried rice ($12) resembled a pot of tulip buds, the barely fired endive and radicchio cups maintaining their jaunty concave shapes. Wok-charred pea stems ($14) were cooked till tender, yet still intact enough for tendril Jenga. Even the texture-squeamish would swoon over the yu shiang eggplant ($8) with green herbs and a sweet-savory sauce; or crispy okra ($8), a rhapsody in garlic and shrimp paste.
A few other favorites: crispy chili potatoes ($8), sort of a hush puppy–latke hybrid, laced with chili mayo; and the Tiger Duck ($70), one of three large-format platters. Marinated, wood-smoked, then wok-fried to a burnished mahogany, the whole bird comes out carved with tamarind sauce, a heap of herbs, and “house mo,” a brilliant cross between bao buns and English muffins.
With few exceptions, the only food problems were balance-related. The kitchen plays it too safe with chili heat. Exhilarating capsaicin heights are a huge draw for lovers of these cuisines, and it’s not easy to get that fix. They’ll be looking for it in the laap ($10), a salad of ground pork, lime, and fish sauce. This one was too vinegar-driven, maybe to make it what the menu calls “southern-style.” But the sort of diner who seeks out this dish wants the Isaan version that makes you cry. Beef rendang ($19), the classic Malaysian curry, didn’t just want more heat, it desperately needed it to justify the madcap richness lent by so much “cracked” coconut cream and toasted flaked coconut. It tasted like dessert.
Service was terrific, often going above and beyond. I especially liked the way servers described dishes—not like functionaries but evangelists jonesing to eat them again on their next day off.
And the dish they plugged most fervently was hokkien mee ($14), an aggressively savory Malaysian food-stall staple. One of the best things I tried, it was a high-octane layering of chewy, wok-charred noodles, crispy cubes of fried pork fatback, caramelized onions, and a molasses-y sludge of dark soy and oyster sauce. A buddy and I wolfed it down in between swigs of Far from the Tree’s Sprig Dry Hopped Mint Cider ($18 for 16.9 ounces), a Salem-brewed refresher redolent of spearmint and green apple. (You could teach a course on an Asian-food-savvy beverage program with Tiger Mama’s pitch-perfect roster.)
That dish is gone now—a casualty of the salt police. “I just couldn’t bear to see one more hokkien mee come back to the kitchen,” Faison told me, shortly after showing it the door. A chef favorite, staff favorite, and critic favorite…unceremoniously expunged.
Yet sadly understandable. Boston has never been quick to branch out palate-wise. There’s a reason behind the furious red color-coding of the standard Chinese-takeout menu, behind your favorite Thai spot’s secret “authentic menu”—the one you have to tap-dance to see.
That said, we’ve always been good students. On the restaurant’s website, Faison and co-owner Kelly Walsh, her wife and business partner, lay out Tiger Mama’s two-pronged mission: to offer a “tribute” to the food they fell in love with during their extensive travels to Southeast Asia and a “primer” for those who haven’t yet discovered it.
The tribute? Good stuff. Could use a tad more primer.
★ ★ ★
1363 Boylston St., Boston 617-425-6262, tigermamaboston.com.
Short-rib crudo, $13
Wok-charred pea stems, $14
“Tiger Duck,” $70
Critic Jolyon Helterman’s work has also appeared in Cook’s Illustrated, Hemispheres, and The Walrus.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor