Restaurant Review: Little Big Diner
A buffer-than-life Kurt Russell rises like a mullet-topped phoenix from his movie-poster perch on the bathroom wall at Little Big Diner, sporting an assault pistol, a corded “mobile” phone, and all the goofball swagger of a guy just back from rescuing green-eyed maidens. On the other side of the toilet, an actual vintage telephone sits on a table next to a copy of The Action Hero’s Handbook. We are all Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China, if only for a few private moments at a time.
That upbeat, kooky-camp spirit animates every inch of David Punch and Daniel Scott’s quirky ramen shop, giving the 20-seat Newton Centre storefront an airiness that belies its cramped dimensions. From the graffiti-style noodle-bowl mural to the puckishly lo-fi orange-octopus logo, Little Big Diner taps into a very specific downtown, Tokyo-soul, urban-cool vibe I associate most strongly with lower Manhattan’s wealth of indie Asian eateries (Ivan Ramen, the old Fatty Crab). More to the point, it lands it—in an effortless and pitch-perfect way.
No small feat in Boston, where our robust mod-Asian scene forever defaults to loungey glitz-fests that feel vaguely dated a week after opening, where even our legit-cool exceptions (Banyan, Uni, Tiger Mama) exude a produced sheen more Flatiron than Lower East Side. For a certain subset of dining scenesters—the Myers + Chang regulars, the plugged-in crowd who “got” Shōjō and Hojoko from day one—Little Big Diner represents an exhilarating expansion of that tonal universe.
The 14-deep menu of small plates, rice bowls, and ramen sparkles with a curatorial confidence befitting a kitchen helmed by co-chefs of such pedigree. (Scott was Punch’s sous a block away at Sycamore, long the only restaurant I’d travel to Newton for.) The flip side to that minimalist poetry? Every last dish has to bring it.
And therein lies the problem. Knockouts mingle with wobblier offerings.
Solidly in the former category, the LBD Flat Patty ($9), a salty, burnished-crust disk of ground chuck, arrived still dangerously hot and juicy. Served on a toasted King’s Hawaiian bun—with its appealing distressed-leather pillowiness—and lavished with cool mayo, fiery-sweet grilled-pineapple sambal, and a feathery pile of crunchy fried onions, it reminded me of the legendary Radius burger, newly slimmed down and accessorized for a Maui vacation.
Meanwhile, steamed pork dumplings ($9), doused with black vinegar, sesame, and crispy-chili oil, had terrific flavor—and a tightly packed, leaden filling. Grilled chicken wings ($10) were tossed with a garlic-and-black-pepper sauce that hit the flavor bull’s-eye, but the skin was flabby one meal, underbrowned and spotty the next.
Then, epiphany: a stunning green papaya salad ($7), hand-pestled to order. I liked how the shreds of astringent raw fruit got bludgeoned just enough to facilitate absorption of the fish sauce and lime juice. I liked the drier style, more akin to Burmese tea-leaf salad. And most of all, I liked how the aggressive showering of toasted chopped garlic gave the flavor profile a savory allium prominence, bullying the acid off center stage. It was better than the versions I’m obsessed with from Somtum Der, the East Village Thai spot so good it earned a coveted Michelin star.
The funny thing about modern ramen joints is that the soups themselves are often secondary. At Little Big Diner, that’s only somewhat true. Fans of Yume Wo Katare’s gut-busting pork-fat style should not expect that here, but the kitchen shows solid footing in a smattering of other varieties.
The strongest entry was the chicken paitan ($15), as much for the bone broth’s deep complexity as for the tender, grill-charred thigh meat. Since my visits, Little Big Diner has swapped in a lighter shio (salt-based) broth style. The miso ramen ($15), a heavier style that hails from cooler Sapporo, was also worthy. Scott’s rendition—with black garlic oil, nori, ajitama egg, sweet corn, and chili-spiked ground pork—was an umami showcase, though its stewy, granular texture won’t be everyone’s cup of matcha.
Here again, though, you’re at the roulette wheel’s mercy. A dish of chilled spicy noodles ($13) with avocado, cashews, orange segments, and elusive heat landed uncomfortably close to mall-chain “Asian salad” territory. Likewise, a section of rice bowls lived or died on their protein’s star power: charred Heiwa tofu ($12, A+), chicken ($14, A), chashu pork ($15, B), Arctic char ($16, B-), and so on. I suspect Ivan Ramen would pick one and just nail it to the floor.
The drink program is fun, a short list of craft-y draft cocktails that incorporated theme-appropriate inflections like yuzu and Thai chilies but leaned sweet. Has it become a cliché to offer off-dry Teutonic wines with spicy Asian food? Maybe. But it doesn’t stop me from wishing Sycamore’s sparkling reds and Kabinett Rieslings were on offer here. The sake and beer selection is limited but right on the money for the context.
While writing this column, I was torn on the fairness of subjecting Little Big Diner to a full review in a magazine that publishes only a dozen a year. By the prospect of giving destination-restaurant scrutiny to a lovely neighborhood spot that happens to hit above its pay grade. But I’ve since come around. As the first spinoff from the Sycamore folks, Little Big Diner is more than an oasis in a culinary desert; it’s the first rumblings of a David Punch mini universe in Newton Centre—making it destination-worthy in ways beyond the opening menu’s highs and lows. Anyone who remembers when the Butcher Shop first opened across from B & G Oysters may also remember the unique energy that arises when a beloved and successful restaurateur branches out in the same neighborhood. It more than doubles it. It’s partly the optimism that reinvesting in the neighborhood implies; the sense of prosperity, of upbeat forward motion.
But there’s a heightened hospitality component as well. My first visit to Little Big Diner, we were quoted a 30-minute wait, so we stopped in at its sister restaurant to pass the time. Fifteen minutes later, as we were just getting our drinks, my phone rang. Panicked apologies: We’ll be fast! The host stammered for a half-second, then…it clicked. “You’re at Sycamore? Huh…well, no rush, then. We’ll hold your table!”
In the spinoff, there is magic. We walked in about 10 minutes late, feeling like we’d just strolled down the red carpet—a welcome worthy of the bumbling action hero in all of us.
1247 Centre St., Newton Centre, 857-404-0068, littlebigdiner.com.
Green papaya salad, $7
LBD Flat Patty, $9
Charred Heiwa tofu rice bowl, $12
Critic Jolyon Helterman’s work has also appeared in Hemispheres, Cook’s Illustrated, and The Week.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor