I'll admit it: I'm confused.
Dok Bua Thai Kitchen, nestled in on Harvard Street, has the feel of a roadside Thai joint—plain wooden tables and chairs, with the kitchen enclosed in a wooden hut. It’s one of those much-lauded local favorites, proclaimed a "hidden jewel" with great value, and the for best Thai restaurant.
If you're familiar with good Thai food, you'll know that it balances four core flavors: salty, sour, sweet, and spicy. This balancing act is key to the complexity in such famous Thai dishes as, say, a bowl of Tom Yum soup, or Som Tum, that remarkable papaya salad, crunchy and soft and sweet and spicy all at once.
It’s well-known that Dok Bua has many bright spots on the menu, like the pork dumplings, which had excellent savor and real substance inside, instead of mush, to sink the teeth into.
Panang curry, brimming with pieces of surpassingly tender chicken, was silky and creamy with coconut milk, with a gentle, delicious burn.
Crispy Duck with Tamarind Sauce, Onion, Pineapple and Ginger is delightful to eat. The thick, sweet ginger sauce, a pleasant accompaniment to the meat, lends it a beautiful shine even as the crispy duck skin crackles under your teeth.
But I can't defend other dishes, like the Tom Yum soup―a clunky affair, weighed down under a heavy saccharine burden. My first bowl, besides being too sweet, tasted strongly of peanuts despite the fact that peanuts shouldn't be on the ingredient list. (Did a tub of peanut sauce fall into the pot that day?) A second bout with the Tom Yum soup, on a different day, offered more nuance and distinct lemongrass flavors, and the ever-present underlying sweetness was somewhat alleviated by a nice touch of chili. The Tom Kha Gai presented a similar problem, though; it was a cumbersome bowl of soup, made even more cloying with the addition of coconut milk.
Then there's the Pad Thai, which on one visit tasted one-dimensional and overwhelmingly peanutty; the sauce, far from the usual blend of tamarind, chili, and fish sauce with a faint touch of sugar, added little to the dish, and it all became tedious after only a few bites. A second order on a different day fared much better: it was a nice plate of noodles, to be sure, with excellently cooked chicken, but this time, the sugared sauce overwhelmed the plate. This is where the do-it-yourself condiment tray came in handy, to balance out the sweet with some other flavor―any other flavor will do, really.
Perhaps my first visit was an off day (on a Saturday?). Dok Bua has a reputation among the best Thai places in town, so why did I find such unpredictability? Another day, another time, I’ll be back—and I hope the food lives up to its shining reputation.
Dok Bua Thai Kitchen is open Monday through Saturday 11:00am-10:30pm; Sunday 11:00am-10:00pm. 411 Harvard Street, Brookline. MBTA: Green Line (C) to Coolidge Corner.