Sunday, June 4, 2023

Brooklyn Brings the Heat with Ugly Baby

“Next time you come back you can handle it even spicier,” our server said with a smile, as he dropped off the check. My husband’s eyes widened, and he exhaled audibly as a single tear rolled down his cherry-red left cheek; conveying that this would not be true.

Ugly Baby is an acclaimed Thai restaurant in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The name stems from a Thai superstition that evil spirits only want to harm attractive children and thereby will leave the ugly ones alone. It is around the corner from Other Half, one of the hippest craft breweries in Brooklyn- if not all of New York.

The restaurant is helmed by Sirichai Sreparplarn, a Bangkok native who has racked up cooking accolades stateside, including #3 on the “Best New American Restaurant 2018” list from Bon Appetit. He is known for authentic Thai dishes from the north and south that often can’t be found at any other Thai restaurant in the city. You’ll never see spring rolls or pad thai here. Sreparplan also doesn’t care if you can’t stand the heat- he unapologetically makes the dishes without any modifications.

The rap music, construction-paper menus, and the cartoon colors worn by the chef and staff made it immediately obvious that this is an unambiguously cool Brooklyn restaurant. The 24-seat restaurant was around a 45-minute wait when we arrived at 6 pm.

During our wait, we walked around the neighborhood. We observed the long line outside in 35-degree weather for Lucali, often touted as the best pizza in all of New York. In this part of Brooklyn, it is an act of reverence to patiently wait in line for your food. We returned to Ugly Baby and awkwardly stood against the technicolor-painted wall directly behind the diners. We hungrily eyed their dishes, salivating, urging them to settle up with our eyes.

When we sat down one hour after putting our names down, we realized we truly were in uncharted territory. The menu explained in only the vaguest sense what the dishes would entail, which gave me a thrill. We were in for an entirely new experience.

We explained to our server that I love spicy food, but my husband can only handle medium spicy dishes at best. During our 10 years together, he only recently stopped ordering mild when given a spice option. Our server pointed out three dishes, offering a range of spices, that we should share. 

Brooklyn Brings the Heat with Ugly Baby

When we agreed with his suggestions and ordered his recommended dishes he smiled and asked, “Are you sure?” before he reminded us how spicy everything can be. I hesitated, knowing I would be thrilled, but wondering if my husband needed to sign a waiver.

Our server then reminded us that we “Waited so long to get in here and now we needed to live in the moment”. Taking a server’s suggestions can often feel like the trust game. This felt like he was not about to catch us, but that we would enjoy the fall.

The wine, beer, and cider offerings were esoteric in an approachable way. I was excited to see some fun sweet wines available by the bottle. Chilled off-dry wine is the perfect pairing to a spicy dish, effectively slowing the burn.

Complicated table Tetris was the only way we were able to keep three dishes and our drinks on the small table when the dishes arrived. Our favorite of the night was Kao Tod Nam Klook, a dish consisting of crispy curried rice, pork skin, peanut, and ginger with a side of lettuce wraps. The layers of soft and crunchy textures and bold flavors of fresh lime juice, chillis, and fish sauce were transcendent.

The spiciest dish we ordered was Kanom Jean Kiew Warn with rice vermicelli, spicy chicken green curry, & fresh bird eye chillis. It was pungent, herbaceous, and brutally spicy. I felt like a fire-breathing dragon eating it. Our server placed a bowl of refreshing, chilled cucumbers on our table, sensing we needed a reprieve.

We also ordered a northern Thai dish made with spareribs and a dry red curry paste. The meat was richly flavored, falling off the bone. We ate these with our hands, silently reminding ourselves to scrub our hands with soap before touching our faces or eyes.

As the evening wore on the wait ballooned to two hours for those who arrived after us. This likely won’t be your experience, though. In response to the pandemic Ugly Baby now offers reservations, takeout, and delivery.

Overall, Ugly Baby lives up to the hype and unabashedly serves delicious, spicy Thai food. So Brooklyn spice-lovers rejoice: Ugly Baby will set your tastebuds on fire. And if you can’t stand the heat then someone else is always willing to take your seat.

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Jessie Newton
Jessie Newton
Jessie Newton is a wine writer, Certified Sommelier and DipWSET, and regional manager for Jackson Family Wines.


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