I love spicy food. I put sriracha on my eggs and Marie Sharp on my pizza, I can’t eat pasta without red pepper flakes, and Indian food is my go-to Sunday night delivery meal. To me, heat enhances the flavors in an already flavorful dish. Spicy Thai food, however, is a whole other level, where an accidental chili can send you into a sweaty tailspin. Ugly Baby, a newish restaurant in Carroll Gardens, is no different. The unusual name is reflective of a Thai superstition that evil spirits will reject an ugly baby, and so an ugly baby is valued and praised, and as far as restaurants go, well-remembered.
The space is narrow, with tables spaced only inches apart, but brightly painted walls remind me of an up-beat yoga studio. When you inhale deeply, you can smell fish sauce and bird eye chilis and coconut – all my favorite aromas that indicate a wonderful Thai meal is about to commence.
Several menu items are prefaced with warning labels such as “stay away spicy” and “brutally spicy”, which is always an interesting way to start a meal, but even courses without a “go away” precursor still pack quite a punch.
One of the great aspects about Ugly Baby (and there are many) is the geographical hopscotch played out on the menu. The “stay away spicy” Laab Ped Udon (duck larb salad), a sinus clearing dish, is a popular mainstay in Bangkok.
The next dish to come out of the free-flowing kitchen was called Tue Ka Ko, and was delivered by a thin, kind man who bowed frequently and spoke very little English. Four miniature fried coconut cupcakes, speckled with black bean and tar and topped with crumbled, fragrant peanuts.
It was nutty and earthy and sweet all at the same time. It was a welcome respite from the lip-numbing bites of the duck larb we’d already eaten. It’s also one of the best snacks I’ve had in a long time.
Roving about the invisible but implied map of Thailand, the Tom Som Pla Kra Pong moves us toward the center of the country by serving up a savory red snapper basted in a ginger & tamarind broth. Unlike the previous few dishes, there’s no warning label here, but don’t be fooled – the ginger packs a punch. The fish is fall of the bone tender and tastes as if it were fished out of ocean just a few hours prior to dinner. The broth, fragrant and rich, was addictive, and I couldn’t stop eating it until every last drop was in my belly.
Bopping up north to the Isan region, we ate Mee Kati Isan, piles of thin, slippery rice noodles made irresistible with a shimmery peanut curry of ground pork and shallots. As a fan of meaty, spicy noodles like Dan Dan, this was my husband’s favorite dish of the night.
I’m ashamed to admit we weren’t able to order the brutally spicy meat entrée, mostly because I wimped out after the snapper, but I CAN say I will be back to sample it another time. When you get here, prepare for a long wait, and give yourself a good pep talk for what’s in store. You won’t regret it.