Spice & RiceCambridge, MARestaurant
4-Star Restaurant (our ratings)
Great for a date: Upscale atmosphere and presentation with midscale prices.
Spice & Rice is a work of art. This is not your Chinatown hole in the wall. It’s modern and brightly colored, with shapes that avoid the rectagonal. “If we’d had the space we would have built a traditional Thai tea house in here,” the manager, Mookda “Sammi” Suppanisanuwong, told me. It is filled with the sound of easy listening music, and seats almost 50 people, including a bar area that is separate from the restaurant. The decoration of the room is impressive, and the highlight is a fish tank that’s built into one of the walls.
Although it is a Thai restaurant, Spice & Rice includes sushi and Korean food, too, and they have a greater variety than most of their competitors. Sammi tells me that the owner of Spice & Rice, Penjan Janburiwong, grew up selling pad thai on the streets of Thailand with her mother and grandmother, who were sidewalk vendors. Now that is a competitive market for Thai food! Then Penjan got married and moved to Boston around 1990. Now Spice & Rice has become a popular spot known for its accessible food.
It certainly seems accesible to me. I’m a white bread boy used to more asian cusines that are tilted slightly for American appetites. Spice & Rice used to draw me in all the time with its comforting food when I lived in Inman Square, which regrettably is not close to the subway and rarely has adequate parking. Now Sammi and Penjan are trying to build the business in two ways: by expanding their catering business — what could be more unique than having Thai food at your wedding, with a chef who stands right there preparing sushi for your guests? — and by expanding their menu to include new dishes that are more authentic, to draw in ethnic Thais and those who want a more daring ethnic experience.
Sammi got me a number of dishes from the new menu. The salmon taktarki is an appetizer, a hearty salad with sushi, cucumber, and carrot. It’s spicy and will clear out your sinuses. The sushi is smooth and melts in the mouth almost without chewing. I prefered it to the mango maki, straight up sushi with raspberries, which was solid but bland. Of course, you can spice your sushi to taste with wasabe, ginger, and soy sauce.
What struck me more than the food itself was its presentation. Look at the photographs! As well as having a modern, arty, interesting atmosphere, Spice & Rice has a unique, eye-catching look to each dish. For example, the “crispy duck” had broccoli dyed in different colors. I avoid deli meat that’s sliced so thinly that you can barely tell what it is. The crispy duck at Spice & Rice is the opposite. Flavorful and with a bit of crunch, the chunks of thick juicy bird reminded me of a thanksgiving dinner. The only reservation I might have is that, with the duck skin left on, the dish is a little tough.
I also tried the tomyum fried rice, which I just had to admire for a minute before digging in. Look at the photograph! It’s an egg fried rice, with lime, shrimp, scallops, and pepper. It’s interesting and spicy, but very pungent and perhaps too heavy. Despite its small size, this is definitely a meal.
And Sammi brought out some sticky rice with mango. It’s a desert. Yum! It has a wonderful coconut smell, and it’s not really “like” anything in my experience… rice pudding I suppose… it’s chewiness is in-between custard and taffy. It’s not too sweet. It’s a great balance between being a unique food you won’t find elsewhere and an accessible food that it’s safe to try if you’re not very daring.
Finally, I had the pad thai from the new menu, the spicy version. Wow! Pad thai is normally so greasy that it tastes great going down, but then you regret it later. Lovers of oily Indian food will know what I am talking about. But this new pad thai, with shrimp and a wedge of lime, was somehow not slimy. Instead I found it wholesome, transformative. It energizes instead of saps you. The oil that covers it tastes more like a sauce.
All told, I found the food Spice & Rice slightly on the bland side, but with some exceptional stand out meals. Although I cannot give it the very highest rating, in its price range it is unsurpassed in its presentation and atmosphere. It’s very much the impressive restaurant you can actually afford to bring a date or your family to.
1172 Cambridge Street, Cambridge MA