Classic film and Broadway buffs know The King and I as the swirling, romantic Rogers and Hammerstein musical based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam. Beacon Hill dwellers know King and I, riffing on that classic 1951 title about a time in Thailand—formerly Siam—long gone by, as a rare Eastern culinary retreat on the otherwise white-bread Charles Street.
Despite living in Beacon Hill for ten months, it was only recently that I discovered this gem that brings a slice of Indochina to a neighborhood known more for its mark on American history than the breadth of its culinary diversity. Another exception to the rule solidified by masculine watering holes like The Sevens and brunch mainstays like the Paramount Cafe is Lala Rokh on Mount Vernon Street, specializing in Persian cuisine. However, King and I stands out as a haven for adventurous eaters on a budget, where none of the generous appetizers cost more than $7.00 and are imbued with traditional and exotic flavors and textures.
The clean but dated interior doesn’t scream “Thailand!” any more than it does “Beacon Hill!” Which is to say, the faux-exotic decor feels as a restaurant at this price point might in Chinatown or Allston. Nevertheless, I was greeted in the early evening (around 6 p.m.) by one friendly host and server after another. I dined alone, a reality of maintaining a studio apartment during the summer, when Boston becomes something of a collegiate ghost town. And while their generosity of spirit might have been to comfort my pitiful loner, the service was incredibly eager and accommodating.
My experience with Thai cuisine is limited but affectionate. Overwhelmed, as one is when confronted by a broad menu of untested dishes, I knew the best place to start was with a cold Thai beer. I decided on a Singha, a pale lager with a light, sweet flavor that complimented what was to come.
While I deliberated over a poured, bottled Singha (in a matching Singha glass—how often does that happen?) my server brought a basket of complimentary prawn chips with a nutty brown dipping sauce. The melt-in-your-mouth lightness of the chips crackled and popped against my tongue as each multicolored cracker absorbed the sauce and dissolved. In America, there are pork rinds and Funyons; perhaps we don’t deserve for these unfussy and delicate prawn chips to garner mass appeal. Though they should.
Finally, I decided to order an appetizer as my entree, and selected the spicy yum seafood with lemon grass with a side of sticky rice. Translated from the Thai yam, it would be far too easy to play on the word “yum”—a spicy and sour Thai salad—in any review of the dish. This particular yum came with shrimp, scallops, and squid tossed in a spicy lime sauce with added bitter citrus notes from the lemongrass.
All three seafood proteins tasted delicious in a bed of onions, peppers, greens, and spices. Held in a kind of leafy lettuce “bowl,” the warm salad contained a variety of textures. From the chewy squid to the buttery scallops, my dinner had a lot to offer seafood lovers. In fact, I’ve never had such excellent scallops at such a great price. For vegetarians, King and I will substitute tofu or vegetables in any dish, though I would recommend tofu in the yum seafood. However, the cilantro-averse should beware this dish and many others. Despite not being as spicy as its name led me to presume, the coriander flavors were impossible to ignore. Paired with the lemongrass, the overall effect was bitterer than expected.
As for the sticky rice, get the sticky rice. Don’t expect a bowl of stickier-than-average grains like a sushi rice, but rather a flat, dense patty of tenacious, absorbent carbohydrates. The roundness of its texture complemented the grassy, citrusy bitterness of the dish to perfection, and vice versa. It also made for a welcome vehicle for the warmer flavors of my leftover prawn chip sauce.
As a meal that so diverged from the average dinner outing-on-a-budget, King and I’s offerings did not disappoint. My food alone cost less than $10, and my one imported beer was priced between $4 and $5. While its decor is dated and some flavors might alienate the unadventurous, this underrated gem of Indochina on Charles Street offers generous portions, friendly service, and a touch of the unexpected. I recommend it for dining alone or in a group, and especially for takeout, when the Southeast Asian staples of Chinatown or Allston leave you wanting to try something new.
King and I
145 Charles Street Boston, MA 02114
-Hayden Wright, Future Boston Intern