A tour of Cambridge’s Thai food scene
Missing home less and becoming more proud of my home country
Being an international student quite literally from the other side of the world, I find myself missing the life I take for granted at home: the sights of the energetic morning market overwhelmed with scents from streetside stalls, the oil grilling and frying pork-on-a-stick, corn cobs, meatballs and dumplings, and the aromatic stir-frys paired with rice; the thunderous cacophony of cars and buses carrying the population of Bangkok, a city that never sleeps, to home, work, bars; the smell of an imminent rainstorm ready to feed the hungry tropical trees. Despite all that I’ve said, I feel that describing the scenes in English does them no justice. Attending college in the United States threw me into an entirely new society, and I spent months disoriented by the smallest details of “normal life” here. Amidst such an upturn, the one thing that provided a slight remedy for my homesickness was food — I was relieved to see a surprising number of Thai restaurants in the greater Boston area, including quite a few in Cambridge. Over the years though, the culture shock subsided. I’ve grown more comfortable in Cambridge, and now I’m proud to call Boston my second home. When I do miss the bustle of Bangkok though, I always find myself wandering to a local Thai restaurant, in search of the spices and tastes of home.
Thai food got a foothold in U.S. society following a diplomatic ploy. Dubbed Thailand: Kitchen of the World, Thai diplomats hoped to attract people to Thailand and boost tourism by impressing restaurant-goers in the states. The Thai Ministry of Commerce crafted three different formulas to take a piece of the country abroad, each one detailing ingredients, logistics, and everything else one would need to know about establishing a restaurant. The formulas differ in their specification of authenticity and luxuriousness. While I’m not sure if any of the Thai restaurants here actually use these formulas, it is nearly impossible to meticulously replicate a Thai restaurant in Cambridge, as it requires not only the most skillful chefs, but also the best artists and designers to decorate the interior and exterior, lay out the silverware, choose the materials, furniture, and so on, and perhaps also climatologists and linguists to populate the place with hot and humid air and Thai chatter. In short, a restaurant is more than the food it serves — it is also the ambiance that is inevitably served as another side dish. Despite that note, the Thai restaurants I’ve tasted here are surprisingly authentic. I’ve been able to converse in Thai with Thai restaurant owners, waiters, and waitresses, which is always a good sign of authenticity, because outside of Massachusetts there have been times when I have embarrassed myself.
It’s only right to start with the most commonly-known Thai restaurant around MIT: Pepper Sky’s. As evidenced by its popularity among student-run free food events, Pepper Sky’s is in the hearts of many MIT students. Tucked in what I would call a soi ซอย, a small alley, leading in from the Target in Central Square, this restaurant offers large portions of the most well-known Thai dishes at a student-friendly price. To me, the dishes have been altered to satisfy more American appetites, leaving the food a bit devoid of each and every flavor it is supposed to have. Their catered pad thai is average, lacking the sweetness of the sugar, the sourness of the lime, the punch of the tamarind, and the presence of the garlic chives or chai po ไชโป๊ 菜脯. However, Pepper Sky’s is not bad for a casual free food run.
If you walk south along Massachusetts Ave. and turn at the new Toscanini’s onto Main Street, you’d find yourself at Maê Asian Eatery แม่, a restaurant with a commonly mispronounced name that translates to “mom.” The mispronunciation is warranted once you look at our language — 44 consonants, 32 vowels, five tones and just a headache-inducing writing system. I love Maê for their main course and soup lunch sets, which keep me very full, but their food is a little polished. What I mean by polished is the opposite of a hasty street food meal made to order within a minute using an enormous wok, cooked with the most basic of bottled sauces. Neither end of the axis translates to less deliciousness though, as both taste incredibly delicious and saucy when done right. That said, I would recommend Maê for any casual meal or even something bigger — like a birthday dinner for twelve (speaking from experience).
Farther along Mass. Ave. back north to Central Square, a little past Walgreens, you’d find a complicated intersection that I’m not sure if I should call a si yaek สี่แยก, ha yaek ห้าแยก, or hok yaek หกแยก, meaning four-way, five-way or six-way intersection, respectively. I always have to gamble on which street to take, but somewhere west along one of these roads is a tiny restaurant named Pai Kin Kao ไปกินข้าว, whose name literally means “go eat food” in Thai. It’s as small as a tuek taew ตึกแถว, shophouse, and the tin kitchen and basic decor reminds me of the shophouses that dot Bangkok — a narrow apartment with the first floor converted into a shop. The menu is quite small but extremely potent. One can find good kana moo krob คะน้าหมูกรอบ here, a classic dish containing Chinese broccoli with fried pork belly, stir fried with garlic, thick soy sauce, and, of course, some chili. It is quite hard to find a very “Thai” pork belly, let alone one that nails it with a crisp. This would be one restaurant that is more street-style than polished. As you travel farther from campus, the food gets better (unfortunately so for time-constrained MIT students).
A hidden gem in East Cambridge where people don't usually reach is 9Zaab, where saeb แซ่บ, stylized as Zaab, means delicious in a northeastern  Thai dialect. Here, you can experience a wider menu than at some other Thai restaurants in the area: papaya salads, or tam ตำ, and a type of meat salad called larb ลาบ, which are staples of Northeastern Thailand cuisine. 9Zaab also offers a wide array of street food, including my personal favorite, the hoi tod หอยทอด. Hoi tod is an imported dish, brought to Thailand by Chinese immigrants, which has since been naturalized and modified to be crispier and more peppery. The eggs, batter, and oysters merge together nicely with every oily crisp, and the Sriracha sauce served on the side always complements the texture. Tucked underneath the golden beauty and green garnish lies a soft bed of bean sprouts. 9Zaab is moderately priced, good for takeout, and though it is rather far, the authentic harder-to-find street food always serves as a reward for the walk.
A short walk from Porter Square is Sugar and Spice, decked out with Thai art and decorations, where an even wider range of regional food is realized in the menu as their own different sections, as well as some Thai desserts I haven't been able to find anywhere else around Boston . Although Sugar and Spice doesn't have desserts like the khanom krok ขนมครก I found in Thai Town in Los Angeles, it does have a rendition of bua loi บัวลอย that serves as a good introduction to Thai desserts, which feature ample amounts of coconut. Bua loi is a thick sweet creamy coconut soup with colorful flour balls and ground legume sprinkled on top. It is not overly sweet like some other kinds of dessert and a tad bit different from dessert you might find in C Fruit Life, a Taiwanese dessert place in Allston. Sugar and Spice has a homely atmosphere, and eating there transports me to the different parts of the country, including the less sweltering Northern Thailand, as I eat their kang hung lay แกงฮังเล, a rather mild and mellow pork stew with pineapples served with sticky rice. The dish is a spice break for me, different from the very flavorful punch Thai food usually gives. This restaurant is in the middle on a scale of street to polished. It’s quite a journey from campus but well worth it.
If you take a short walk or a T ride even further north to Davis Square at the edge of Cambridge, you’d come across Dakzen, which is technically not in Cambridge — but an inch away in Somerville. It is too good not to mention though, and before I ate there, I constantly heard my two other Thai-born-and-raised class of 2023 buddies rave about its authentic dishes. For a price as low as $8.95, you can get “a homely pad kaprao ผัดกะเพรา that tastes like your mom’s cooking,” a classic, stir-fried meat and holy basil dish with garlic and chili. Pad kaprao is about as Thai as Thai food gets. On any street corner in any Thai city you can find dozens of cook-to-order restaurants on the streets that make it. Though this rice dish is worth drooling over, the restaurant’s specialty is noodles, as the name suggests — daek แดก  means “eat” and sen เส้น, stylized as Zen, means noodles. Their noodles are heavenly and flavorful and surprisingly faithful imitations of noodle restaurants back in Thailand. Beyond the food, Dakzen has the imitation down to every detail — the spice rack and containers, the famous lampang ลำปาง  chicken ceramic bowls ชามตราไก่, and the steel soup spoons. Dakzen was rated Best in Boston 2019, and I agree.
If you trace your steps down Mass. Ave. south to Harvard Square, I would like to offer a eulogy to a now-closed restaurant that was my personal favorite freshman year. What’s an article in 2022 without a mention of the pain de mie or its consequences? Spicies was similar to 9Zaab in that it offered a wide array of street foods and crafted some of the most authentic dishes I could find near Cambridge. It went out of business after more than two decades of serving heavenly Thai food to the local community.
Circling back to Central Square, a bit further west into the residential areas, you can find Nu-Do, a newly opened noodle restaurant. With a minimalist interior consisting of a gray wall and chalkboard, the atmosphere in Nu-Do is very cozy. I’ve tried their pad see ew ผัดซีอิ๊ว, stir-fried noodles in soy sauce mixed with eggs and vegetables such as Chinese broccoli and highly recommend it. The chef adds a bit too much sauce, resulting in excess water, and sometimes undercooks the dish, making the noodles a bit too thick and chewy. Overall, though, the meal leaves me feeling satisfied. This dish is pretty polished as well. Their kui chai กุยช่าย appetizer, fried dough with garlic chives in crispy a square-cut shape, is also worth trying. Both these dishes are Chinese-imported and Thai-perfected. I’d also like to mention their saucy and slightly spicy Kaprao Udon, a ridiculous but appetizing mashup that swaps the usual Thai rice with a Japanese udon.
You can complete the tour by heading towards the Kendall/MIT Red Line station, bending left onto Third Street, and continuing to walk in the same eastward direction (think Toscanini’s). Similans is housed within the same block and provides a neat dining experience. Again, wooden carvings and folk painting styles that scream Thai greet you upon entering, and the ornate tables and silverware are the cherry on top. It doesn’t boast a large or diverse menu reflective of the different cuisines within Thailand nor is it the most authentic, but it still serves respectable Thai food. This is a place where you might come with a group and share dishes family-style or a place where you can order to cater to some 140 Thai students in the Greater Boston area. Plus, must I remind you that a refreshing gelato dessert is right around the corner at Toscanini’s? I enjoyed their Three Taste Shrimp, also known as the koong sam rod กุ้งสามรส. The three tastes in the thick sauce are sour, sweet, and salty, with a hint of chili. Meanwhile, the shrimp was deep fried and flaky, which I personally am a big fan of. The dish also features rice and some boiled greens like broccoli and cauliflower. It’s the familiar mixture of the well-proportioned, bountiful flavors, a key characteristic of Thai food, that makes me fond of Similans.
As I write this on the Bangkok skytrain, I catch myself missing my second home from my actual home. In a week I'll be back on campus, this time bringing a piece of home to Cambridge, in the form of Thai dessert, to once again allow my friends to experience a taste of home. Thank you for joining me on this tour of the Thai food, and by association, Thai culture, of Cambridge in my debut article for The Tech.
Pepper Sky’s: Authenticity 3 out of 5, Price 3 out of 5, Accessibility 4 out of 5 (a short walk from campus).
Maê Asian Eatery: Authenticity 3.5 out of 5, Price 2.5 out of 5 especially for dinner, Accessibility 4 out of 5. If you’re departing from a class in Stata, it would be a shorter walk.
Pai Kin Kao: Authenticity 4 out of 5, Price 3 out of 5, Accessibility 3.5 out of 5.
9Zaab: Authenticity 4 out of 5, Price 3 out of 5, Accessibility 3 out of 5, though I’d give an extra point for the breadth of their menu.
Sugar and Spice: Authenticity 3.8 out of 5, Price 3 out of 5, Accessibility 2.5 out of 5, and a couple extra points for good regional representation.
Dakzen: Authenticity 4.5 out of 5, Price 5 out of 5, Accessibility 2.5 out of 5.
Nu-Do: Authenticity 3.3 out of 5, Price 4 out of 5, Accessibility 3.5 out of 5.
Similans: Authenticity 3.5 out of 5, Price 3 out of 5, Accessibility 3.5 out of 5, and an ice cream reward for being next to Tosci’s.
 I haven't been to this northeastern region of Thailand myself, and I should probably do so at some point. We are a relatively small country, only as big in area as France or a bit bigger than California, although it is almost 75% more populous than California at roughly 70 million people. We divide our country culturally to North, Northeast, Central and South, and each region has its own dialect, tourist attractions, and vibes.
 I recently discovered a great Thai dessert place in Thai Town all the way in Los Angeles, and I was in awe of what the tiny shop had packed within it.
 I don’t particularly like reading out the name of this restaurant because it incorporates a somewhat vulgar form of eat, meaning a more accurate translation of the restaurant name would be “fucking gobble up the noods.”
 Lampang is a province in northern Thailand, southeast of the more popular Chiang Mai เชียงใหม่, known for its hot spring, waterfalls, lignite mine, and chicken ceramic bowls. It is the hometown of a fellow Thai sophomore here at MIT.