By Steve Alcazari
11:30 AM EDT, September 25, 2013
Some Thai restaurants display all of their condiments — fiery pepper sauces, funky fish sauces and salty soy sauces — with the understanding that customers will want to jazz up the curries to inject more heat and maybe more depth. And some diners routinely douse their food with high-octane sauces — I've been guilty of it — before even really tasting. But think twice before pouring on the flavor-enhancers at Mae Kong, a very good Thai restaurant in New Britain, the only one, in fact. The food there doesn't generally need a lot of extra oomph. If you have a sensitive or delicate palate, you might even want to think about asking for a mild or middle-of-the-road heat level. Which isn't to say that it's a face-melting extreme-heat kind of place, just that they don't shy away from flavor.
Mae Kong sits at a corner on Main Street. It's small with lots of windows onto the street. The interior is decorated with Buddhas, elaborately arranged bamboo, and embroidered elephant textiles. We started out with two very intensely flavorful soups — the tom kha kai and the tom yum khoong. Both were defined by the distinctive flavors of lemongrass and lime leaf. Both impart a strong aromatic element to the soups, where you can practically breathe the dish in and enjoy it without having to taste it. The tom kha kai has a coconut milk base, which makes for a silky smooth texture, and a subtle sweetness. Galangal root — a relative of ginger, but with a milder, more rounded taste — also contributes to the soup's appeal.
If you're looking for something that covers a less colorful spectrum of flavors, but that's still tasty and satisfying, consider trying the Thai style sausages. The squat and plump sausages taste mostly of pork and garlic. They're pleasantly fatty, with a crisp casing and a slight sweetness. These would be at home in a mixed platter of Portuguese and Spanish sausages. Mae Kong also serves crab rangoon, dumplings, wings, calamari and other appetizers.
An order of spicy seafood from the specials menu lived up to its name, though it was probably a little less fiery than my soup. The seafood — mussels, scallops, shrimp and calamari — bathed in a chili sauce whose top note was the almost licorice-y aroma of holy basil. Strips of red pepper imparted another level of sweetness. Everything was confidently seasoned, with soy sauce and fish sauce delivering an earthy groundwork to anchor all the other flavors, which had been distilled and concentrated over the fire. Again, I'm someone who routinely requests that tray of condiments at Thai restaurants, but there was no need here.
Drunken noodles had a similarly intense flavor, with ample plump mushroom pieces and fried tofu mixed in with the noodles, which were thoroughly cooked and tenderized. In addition to the familiar Thai curries, the seafood specials and a variety of noodle dishes, Mae Kong has dishes that make use of cashews and pineapple, as well as items featuring wild boar, duck and fried whole snapper. There are desserts — mango with sweet sticky rice, fried banana, mochi ice cream and more — but I knew I wanted Thai iced coffee, which is about as dessert-y as coffee can be. Imagine a melted bowl of coffee ice cream poured on top of a stout double-shot of espresso and you've got an idea of the caffeine-and-sugar dual pleasure-point pressure this beverage supplies. As with everything at Mae Kong, there was no skimping on intensity. New Britain residents should consider themselves lucky to have this as the one Thai restaurant in town. People from around the region might want to plan a visit next time they're catching an exhibit at the New Britain Museum of American Art or a show at Trinity-on-Main.
Mae Kong Thai Restaurant
26 Main St. New Britain, (860) 505-0791, maekongthairestaurant.com
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