I’m a big fan of Thai food, and living in Portland gives me an overwhelming number of options. But when it comes to Thai food and Thai cocktails, there’s really only one choice: Boda.
Boda is on the corner of Congress and State, across from Longfellow Square. The main dining area and an open grill are on the street level as you enter. The bar and some additional tables are up a few stairs. The décor is simple and elegant, with heavy wood accents; tables are constructed of salvaged wood from Thailand.
Boda’s late-night bar menu, served until 1 a.m., includes more than a dozen tasty and inventive tapas options (ranging from $3-$9) and nearly as many varieties of grilled skewers($4-$8). The food has earned rave reviews, but the drinks deserve a shout too.
There’s a solid selection of micro-brewed beer on tap, including Maine Beer Company’s Peeper Ale and Peak Organic Summer Session. The wine list is also strong, and is well matched with the entrees.
The cocktails and infusions at Boda are creative and well conceived, but have not necessarily been concocted with the rest of the menu in mind. The Thai Tea Margarita, for example, may not pair well with the robust flavors of your Kee Mao Noodles. Don’t count on the Lotus Flower Spritzer to bring out the subtle delicacies of the Beef Panaeng.
When I’m at Boda’s bar, I start most evenings with a Thai Basil Tom Collins ($9). It’s a visually attractive drink with a soft, opaque, yellow-green hue, served in a stemless martini glass with bits of the muddled basil dancing throughout. The flavor is nice and round. It fills your palette and leaves a hint of sweetness on your lips. This Collins tastes strong, but no single ingredient is overassertive. The base is Tanqueray gin. The juniper has little chance of cutting through the lemon and basil, but its glimmer tells you why gin is the obvious choice for this daring variation. A Thai Basil Vodka Collins would certainly be too thin.
The base of Koko’s Marina ($8) is a Thai liquor called Mekhong that’s made from distilled sugar cane, molasses, a rice spirit and Thai herbs. The bartender muddled cilantro into the Mekhong. This gives the cocktail a bite that attacks the roof of your mouth with an almost nasally punch. The Mehkong’s robust sweetness counterbalances the cilantro’s sharpness, slightly rounding it out, but this drink definitely has an impact. The other ingredients are lime, simple syrup, and soda.
Boda offers its take on a trend that has been making inroads in Portland for the past few years: infusion. There are four house infusions on the cocktail menu. I chose 11 Tigers, a house-infused bourbon. I asked the bar manager for the recipe, but he held his cards close. He did explain that the spices are infused into a “common well bourbon,” because the higher-shelf bourbons tend to lack the sweetness needed for proper balance.
The spices give the bourbon a reddish hue, with a heavy aroma and body, but when ordered as a shot you’ll find 11 Tigers surprisingly smooth and consistent. It can also be a bit overwhelming — the menu suggests pairing it with ginger beer. This gives the bourbon a buoyancy that results in a sweet, crisp drink. It’s light on the palette, and would make a good accompaniment to tapas.
What tips can the home bartender take from Boda? For one thing, always stock a bottle of Tanqueray. It’s got a classically bright botanical blend that makes it suitable for the majority of mixed drinks, and tastes delicious in a hefty gin and tonic. Its weakness is apparent when served neat, but then again, how often do you find yourself entertaining a gin sipper? (If it’s often enough, you’ll want to keep a bottle of Hendrick’s in stock, as well.)
Boda also reminds us of the power of a muddler. The muddler is an oft-neglected tool on the amateur’s home bar. Muddling unlocks the flavors of many classic recipes, and opens up all sorts of options when experimenting.
The most common professional muddlers are made of wood. They have a larger, rounded end for crushing and a tapered shaft that thins to a flat butt for mixing. They resemble a small bat. Muddlers may also be made of stainless steel or plastic, and some have teeth, rather than a flat surface, on the mixing end, but I recommend the wooden models over these.
Using a muddler to release the oils and juices of fruits and spices adds depth and layers to a drink. At home, using a muddled sugar cube instead of simple syrup allows you to retain the texture essential to drinks such as the Old Fashioned or Sazerac.
— Carl Currie