Budsi’s Authentic Thai, a vibrant and buzzy newcomer in the Marigny, steps into two niches simultaneously. It is both unfamiliar (with a distinctively singular regional Thai menu) and rooted in the pleasures of home (i.e. the cooking that owner Budsaba Mason grew up with). Launched by the wife and husband team of Budsaba and Jared Mason, Budsi’s got its start as a pop-up in a series of bars before striking a major chord at Pal’s Lounge. Patrons there swiftly developed fierce cravings for the complex and fiery fare which made few concessions to Americanized tastes. “We immediately went from selling about 25 plates a night to over 100,” Jared recalled. “It just exploded.” At the end of its pop-up run they had multiple cooks, runners and even front of house staff. “We were essentially a miniature restaurant at that point,” he said.
Such pop-up roots are not unusual; several area bars have served as proving grounds for eventual brick-and-mortar establishments. Budsi’s cuisine does set it apart. Sliders and tacos are no-brainer bar foods. “Mushroom Larb”…Who knew? In any case, the bar owners doubtlessly backed it – it takes a lot of IPA to smother the flames of raw Thai chili. And while you will find crowd pleasers like “Pad Thai “on the menu, the heart of it flows from Budsaba’s native Isaan. “Issan is essentially country cooking,” Jared explained of the inland region in the northeastern part of Thailand. “It is characterized by really fresh flavors – like fresh squeezed lime juice, herbs and mint. It is poorer than Bangkok, so the food is generally simpler, but the flavors are incredibly complex.” Assertive ingredients like a thick fermented fish sauce (different from the thin and clear nuoc mam) play a prominent role and ingredients like vegetables are not cooked all the way through to emphasize the freshness. This approach contrasts with the more familiar “Night Market” style of Bangkok cuisine, where everything is cooked hot and fast on a wok. “This is the food that Budsaba’s family would serve guests,” Jared said, which pretty much sums it up: Home cooking.
A case in point is the “Waterfall Pork.” Marinated pork shoulder is grilled then sliced thin and sauteed with fresh lime juice, mint, red onions and red peppers muddled with a mortar and pestle. A surprise ingredient – baked raw rice that is crushed and added during cooking – lends an unfamiliar texture and nut-like complexity. The result ricochets across the palate and compels one to eat one bite after another. Another characteristically Issan dish of “Somtam Papaya Salad” (served in the Upcounty iteration) draws its complexity from aforementioned fermented fish sauce and brined crab. If your taste leads you to soup, try the “Tom Kha,” where fragrant slices of galangal with tofu and oyster mushroom are laved in coconut milk scented with lemongrass and Kafir lime leaves.
If you are thinking, “Enough of this, where are my Drunken Noodles?” don’t fret – you can find this here as well. Just don’t be surprised by its use of skinny strands. “This is how you get them in Thailand – you’d never find a place there that uses wide noodles,” Jared said. “That’s always struck me as what was strange about the American version.” Dumplings are made by hand as well – a rare thing given the labor involved. Desserts are simple – juicy cubed mango accompanied by sticky rice – and the food travels well overall for takeout and delivery – a big plus in these troubled times.
Budsi’s Authentic Thai, 1760 N. Rampart St., The Marigny, 381-4636, Budsisthai.com, D Tues-Sun, Closed Mon.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Jared Mason met his wife Budsaba while living abroad in Thailand and their restaurant seeks to bring their shared love of the cuisine back to New Orleans. It would be hard to overstate the central role than food played in Budsi’s life – a visit here captures the joy she feels when cooking for others. With a regional emphasis on Thai cuisine as well as a close network of expat purveyors, Budsi’s Thai’s menu is singular in its authenticity and homage to Thailand.