Boon Cafe’s Thai Food Feels Vital to Sydney

Boon was spearheaded mainly by Palisa Anderson, Ms. Chanta’s daughter, who wanted to present food that spoke to her generation. On Boon’s daytime menu, the spicy Thai herbs and pork sausage come mixed into a plate of fusilli, and you can get your nahm prik makua — the spicy eggplant relish from northern Thailand — over brown rice or as a sourdough sandwich. This isn’t fusion as much as it is the food of two fused cultures, one in which second- and third-generation Asian-Australian kids operate comfortably.

At night, the menu turns more exclusively toward Isaan, the region in northeastern Thailand that heavily relies on fermentation and chiles. With the move to more traditional cooking, nothing is dumbed down or purposefully altered for Western tastes — quite the opposite. There’s something punk rock about this daytime playfulness matched with an evening menu that pulls zero punches. Many Thai-Australians revel in the uncompromising heat and aroma of the food of their heritage, and there is no lack of either at Boon.

Dinner is sprawling enough to be overwhelming, and best suits large groups willing to share. In the “grilled and fried” section, you can find skewers of chicken gizzards and sai ouah, the pungent, meaty, fiery pork sausage. There’s a large selection of larbs and other warm salads, and nine variants of spicy green papaya salad.

I’ve eaten so much at Boon, over so many visits, and not yet scratched the surface of what’s available. Certain dishes stick out in my memory: the padt mee kha-ti, stir-fried thin rice noodles with tofu, omelet, tamarind and coconut milk, the combination of which is mild and sweet on the palate and has the side effect of turning the noodles bright pink.

There was a whole fish doused in a flurry of chiles that I’m tempted to reorder every time I go. But the dish that haunts me is the green mango salad with pickled field crabs and fermented fish, which my waitress warned me about repeatedly, stressing that it might be too spicy. And it was spicy, enough to send me into one of those sweaty trances, but also bracingly sour, delicately tropical and with a funk so alluring as to be primal. It is a study in extremes and balance and beauty.

Photo



The retail side of the business has all the aesthetic consideration of an upscale deli, with all the hidden-treasure clutter of the best Asian grocery stores.

Credit
Rachel Kara for The New York Times

The retail side of the business has all the design sense of an upscale deli, with all the hidden-treasure clutter of the best Asian grocery stores. Most notable is the refrigerated room off to one side, which holds all manner of common and uncommon fruit and vegetables. Most come from the family’s organic farm, in northern New South Wales near Byron Bay.

The farm was originally planned so the family could grow ingredients that were hard to find, especially as their restaurants proliferated: holy red basil for a certain stir-fry; apple eggplant for curries. In the five years since Boon Luck Farm began operation, it has become a much larger project, managed primarily by Ms. Anderson, who grows specialty produce for her family’s businesses and other chefs and restaurants. On a recent afternoon in Jarern Chai’s cold room, there were bundles of chive flowers, piles of galangal, knobby bitter “small bird” melons, tiny eggplant and boxes overflowing with red oak lettuce.

Boon Cafe is a restaurant, a cafe and part of a grocery store, but also so much more. It is the meeting of two worlds, a middle ground that many young Australians inhabit. It is the physical embodiment of a generation of people claiming their space, which is Asian and Australian, queer and straight, as casual as can be but home to dead-serious food.

That Boon is so very much fun while embodying all of these things is a testament to the value of letting people tell their own stories — in this case, through food, and a space so personal and specific and inclusive it feels revolutionary.

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