Can’t go abroad to find some great street food? Night Market will bring the street food to you. The six-burner kitchen at Night Market isn’t that far off from the carts in Southeast Asia that this Harvard Square basement riffs on.
This is a casual, hipstery spot in a basement lit with Edison bulbs, colorful metal chairs, brick walls and floors, and lots of support poles, in a Harvard Square basement tucked away on Winthrop Street, off JFK Street. Inside the menus are equally secretive. In addition to the regular menu and nightly specials, there’s a constantly changing secret menu you can get at the bar, and, in the reserved “Boom Boom Room” there is yet another special menu.
All of the dishes are based on Asian street food, based on months of in-person research by Chef Jason Tom, who lived for months in Southeast Asia taking notes. Before that, Tom did a 180 in his career; he left his job doing numbers at State Street Bank to work with chefs including Barbara Lynch and Steve Johnson; kitchens included the Hutong Provisions pop-up at Abigail’s, at Stir and Moksa, locally, and in the Hamptons, Nantucket and San Francisco.
He was fascinated that most of the street vendors only sold one item, which they made perhaps three different ways. He took these recipes, mixed in his parents and grandparents’ cooking, and now makes magical dishes at Night Kitchen, owned by Ash Chan.
Chef Tom brings fun and passion to his dishes, which makes this place so fun to order a dozen dishes to share among friends and play “guess that ingredient.” Chef Tom spends days preparing much of his food: three days slow-cooking the carnitas for the tacos, two days marinating the daikon for the fries, three days for the ribs. “It’s beautiful chaos in the kitchen,” he said. His prep chef “is my prep beast, all persnickety and chatty. We can say to each other, ‘What are you thinking?!’ We push each other hard.”
He is especially in love with his Som Tam salad, which he found “everywhere” in Bangkok, with different variations.” Warning: many of the dishes are varying degrees of spicy, and they will go full on spicy if you ask for it.
The menus are clearly designated with symbols for gluten-free, vegetarian, and for dishes that can be made vegetarian (for example, substituting fish sauce with a mushroom and tamari sauce, or mushroom for pork). Vegetarians should pay attention, because the kim chi isn’t always vegetarian, and the spicy daikon fries are fried in duck fat.
“I want to push the envelope of the Boston food world,” said Tom. “I’m a student of the game. There is nothing else I’d rather do every day. I cook very fiercely, and I try to be better than I as the day before.”
Bahn mi bites
This wasn’t the classic sandwich, but it still rocked, with chicken liver pate on a crostini, with Vietnamese pickle relish, citrus mayo and cilantro.
Mixed pickles are assorted vegetables — tonight we had green tomato, okra, and beets, the perfect way to start a meal or cleanse the palate in between dishes.
Fried chicken wings
Tebasaki, or sweet garlic glaze, chicken wings. This also came in “numb” flavor, with Sichuan spice. $8.75. Another chicken fave on the menu is Hainan Chicken, the official dish of Singapore, with garlic ginger rice, cilantro, ginger dipping ($13).
Som Tam salad
The chef is especially in love with his Som Tam salad, which he found “everywhere” in Bangkok in different variations.” Som Tam salad (GF and, with an adjustment in sauce, vegetarian) is green and ripe papaya with Chinese long bean, tamarind, fish sauce, dried shrimp, peanuts, tomato and cilantro, so it’s the tartest, richest salad you can have here.
They don’t sell Vietnamese coffee, but they did offer on the specials board their BBQ ribs with a Vietnamese coffee tang. So good, I hope they bring it back often.
Seasonal nosh for winter is a braised beef brisket, with turnip, pickled green papaya, and 62-degree egg, served over rice. ($12.50). This dish changes, but for the winter months, this really hit the spot.
Shaky Shaky Beef
Beef tenderloin in a citrus soy marinade, with fish sauce, with watercress, tomato, and jasmine rice on the side, served with a dish of salt and lime. $14.50. I think this was my favorite dish here.
On the secret bar menu was this spicy pork ragout on French bread, with B&B daikon and risky shallot. It’s messy, so they recommend a bib. I licked my fingers, it was so good.
Feeling that we didn’t have enough veggies, we ordered the bok-choy ($6) with a garlic, chili and fish sauce. For strict vegetarians, they can make it without the fish sauce.
Okinawan purple sweet potato
This skewer of Okinawan purple sweet potato ($3), with bacon jam, and a ginger egg cream, is the cure for anyone who claims to dislike sweet potato.
This was the secret beer on the menu, for $12. Other beers include those from CBC, Downeast Cider, H.P. Lovecraft Reanimator, Hitachino Nest White Ale, Orion and Raincloud.
The Wasabi Mary sake cocktail, made with pickle juice and lime. It’s the only Bloody Mary I ever want now. There’s sake by the shot and bottle, too, all served cold.
Peach Jelly Sake
There’s no dessert at this place, but this is a great ending to the night; the Ikezo Peach Jelly Sake for a sparkling and fruity finish. The wine selection was minimal, but a bottle goes for under $30. I had a glass of Laboure Pino Noir to warm myself from the arctic chill. My son enjoyed a hand-muddled virgin Thai basil Mojito (hold the sake). Also popular are sake slushies — pineapple coconut punch, yamoto mule and slush du jour — but again, too chilly for me, at least until spring comes along.
The Boom Boom Room
This cozy little dining area, dubbed the “Boom Boom Room,” is set aside at the right of the bar. It features its own special menus, and is available by reservation.
Chef Tom speaks with some loyal customers. The restaurant was full on a Thursday night, with seats only at the bar. But that was a great place to be, because I wanted to try the izayaka-style “secret bar menu” with an additional six dishes, along with a “secret beer of the moment.”
The walls of the restaurant are decorated with striking Asian images by local graffiti artist Rene Gagnon, to add to the funky feel of the space.
Other menu highlights:
- Skewers of chicken, sukiyaki skirt steak with caramelized onion soubise; vegetables like shishito peppers with ponzu, and zucchini with sesame chili sauce; and “oddities” such as chicken hearts and chicken skin, are about $2 each.
- Curry carnitas tacos with Thai green curry, Napa cabbage and radish ($7)
- Tartare bites ($2 each) of hand-diced beef, shallot, lemon grass, chili, and cilantro on a crostini with a “just a little bit of foreplay”
- Bread service ($3 each) is housemade garic flat bread with brown butter; add sauces such as smoked tomato and ginger ketchup, charred eggplant, raita, tamarind chutney, Rendang, or a 62-degree egg.
- Chips and dip are fried wonton chips with hot and sour mushroom dip ($5)
- The bar snack Numb Nuts, which are sweet and spicy peanuts with Korean chili and Sichuan peppercorn, garlic, and palm caramel ($2.50)