You walk into Mao Mao from the corner of Broadway and Willoughby Avenue, leaving behind the bustle of the street and the screech of the subway to enter a Thai street-themed oasis. There’s a mezzanine overlooking a large film screen and a staircase that leads into the main dining area.
Mao Mao opened last year. The lease was signed two months before New York City shut down. The owner, Jugkrwut Borin, says it was hard to get through the year and that he almost lost the space, but Mao Mao is open now and serves incredible food in an unforgettable environment. The food is from all over Thailand, a combination of street dishes and traditional fare meant to be enjoyed while drinking. Borin was born in Bangkok but has been in the New York restaurant scene for a long time. He’s been involved with two other restaurants, including Lamoon Thai in Elmhurst.
The walls were decorated with Thai newspapers and movie posters, an action movie-style mural; red and yellow lights; plants and a string of brightly-colored flags. The two-story high room felt even bigger because of the street-themed décor: there was a coffee cart serving as a bar, thatched and metal roofs, corrugated steel walls, even a fake antenna that made the one story bathroom look like its own building.
Another reason the space felt huge is the film screen, which floated high above the dining area. A movie was playing with no sound—the space instead filled with Thai jazz and acid rock—but the visuals were dynamic enough to enjoy taking in. Watching extreme mustachioed closeups and smoke trickling from the tips of guns was a good excuse not to take out my phone.
When my friend arrived, we took off our masks and had a drink — inside and together for the first time in way too long. We started with a Leo, a brand of smooth and drinkable Thai beer, and a Ya Dong-style cocktail. Ya Dong is a drink traditionally made from rice liquor and herbs that have medicinal properties. Traditional rice liquor is too strong, one of the servers said, so instead Mao Mao uses sake or shochu. The server recommended one called Hard D_ck. It is made with sake and traditional herbs with medicinal properties, purportedly related to sexual health. It tasted tea-like, the sake sweet and the herbs giving a spiced aftertaste.
The fried peanuts (from the “Thai Drinking Snacks” section of the menu) were made with lime leaves, salt, and lemongrass. They were the perfect way to start the meal. The lemongrass added a firm but chewy texture that complimented the crunch of the peanuts. We also tried the pickled green mango with chili sugar, which was tart and sweet. Each bite began sweet but soon resolved to a more neutral flavor, reminiscent of a turnip.
As the night wound on, we kept drinking Leos and Ya Dong flasks while slowly ordering food. This, I found out later from Borin, is how Mao Mao is meant to be enjoyed.
“I want you to come in with friends and spend hours,” Borin said, a few days later. “I want a space where people can spend six hours … I want to show people what it was like to eat and drink in Thailand 50 years ago.”
The dishes are light and flavorful and often perfect for sharing. The fried “sweet, spicy, and sour” shrimp was delicate, with notes of vinegar and citrus. The best dish, hands down, was the laab neua khom, an Isaan-style laab made with thin slices of tender beef. The laab was full-bodied and bright, with lime, cilantro, basil, and onion.
One of the most popular dishes at Mao Mao is the slow poached chicken, which is served with chicken fat rice, chicken soup, ginger, chilis, cucumbers, and two dipping sauces. All the flavors meshed well when mixed together, creating an incredibly comforting series of flavors. But the most impressive part of this dish was the chicken fat rice, which was delicious by itself.
Less than a year after opening, Mao Mao was put on this year’s Michelin’s bib gourmand list, a selection of restaurants at which, in New York, you can get an appetizer, entrée, and a drink for around $40. But the food at Mao Mao needs no qualification. It’s affordable, but for some dishes, I’d pay three times what they cost—especially the beef laab, which rivals any laab (alternatively spelled larb) I’ve had in New York. And the prices just means there’s more room on the bill for drinks. This is important, because Mao Mao is as good a bar as it is a restaurant.
The rest of the night slipped by. My friend and I drank and talked as the restaurant filled up, letting ourselves get lost in the night and our glimpse of the new normal. Mao Mao offers unpretentious food in one of the best atmospheres I’ve seen at a bar or restaurant in New York. It’s a space meant for eating with friends, and drinking if that’s your thing. To be honest, the experience of drinking and dining with an old friend is hard to extract from the meal itself. While this review—and this column, Bushwick Eats — is about excellent food, it’s also about the experience of starting to dine again in New York in 2021. I can’t wait to go back.
Top photo credit: Nate Torda
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