Friday, June 14, 2024

The khao mun gai at 9Zaab in East Cambridge. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A lot of Asian eateries in Cambridge – and across the United States – focus on a narrow set of staples that appeal to mainstream tastes. (General Tso’s anything, for instance.) When it comes to Thai, you’ve got your essential soft-ply spring rolls, fried golden bags, pad thai noodle dishes, chicken satay and so on. They’re all delectable and desirable if done right, but you have to love the restaurants that go to the next level and throw at you spicy basil kapow (ground meat, seafood or tofu atop rice and soaked in a basil and chili pepper sauce – kapow!) or tom yum whatever (a spicy fish and tomato base as a soup or rice dish). At 9Zaab, management goes to the next, next level and maybe one after that. The menu is billed as street food, but its range would probably encompass every street from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. The food preparation and service are also on point in a space that is deceptively unassuming.

My last visit to 9Zaab was a lunch outing, when there’s an offer that lets diners choose an appetizer and rice dish at a set price – in other words, something you could get anywhere, anytime. I pick off the main menu and pretend the one for lunch doesn’t exist.

My last trip in, I ate well and was rewarded by beginning with an ample serving of delicately fried curry fish cakes (I believe tilapia or a red fish) with onions and veggies. It comes with a cool cucumber sauce that nicely cuts and accents the curry spice. It’s not something I would normally order, but I’m glad I rolled the die: Once you dig in, it’s hard to stop,  and I’d make it a regular starter on future visits.

For my main I had the khao mun gai, a poached chicken in broth served over moist, fluffy garlic rice with a brown peppery sauce to drip onto. This was some of the tenderest chicken I have ever had, and the dish is subtle and simple, with you in control with how you adjust it with that pepper sauce and rice. The skin comes on (remember, it’s poached, so it’s not crispy); if that’s not your jam, it peels off effortlessly. There’s a fried version of it, but this felt healthier and more authentic. 

The fried curry fish cakes appetizer at 9Zaab. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Similar in concept is the khao na gai, a chicken stew with Chinese sausage and a fried egg that comes in a gravy surrounding a mound of that garlic rice. It’s on the list as a next-time indulgence, and there’s a duck version too (khao na ped). Other future treasures on that endless list of wants are the salt-and-pepper crab; the pad woon sen (sautéed shrimp or crab with clear noodles, a ginger and white pepper sauce served Thai pot style); a pineapple fried rice that I have heard other diners rave about; and the nam fried rice, a super-eggy version with broccoli and sai ua (Thai sausage made from the pork underbelly). 

For dessert there’s shaved ice and mango sticky rice. If you go to 9Zaab, stray from what you know. Be bold and you won’t regret it.

9Zaab (569 Cambridge St., East Cambridge)

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.