“I’ve been to a lot of Thai restaurants,” says Boret Lonh, who’s just put in a takeout order at Jeera, “and this one is really up there.” It’s also really down there—in size (tiny) and location (downtown on Crown Street, between College and Temple).
It’s small enough inside, with a few tables and a counter, that the place feels packed with just eight visitors. In addition to myself, there’s Lonh, who is waiting with his 21-month-old son after placing an order for himself and his wife; a group of four finishing up a late lunch; and a young woman who tried the Green Emerald Dumplings (filled with steamed vegetables and served with roasted sesame dipping sauce) yesterday and liked them so much she’s back for another order. No, make that two; her mom’s on the phone, and she wants some. Outside on the sidewalk there’s a two-person table that no doubt serves as a pressure-release valve during peak times.
Jeera’s size means it predominantly serves take-out customers, perhaps there to pick up an order of Shrimp Mango Curry, served with fresh chunks of fruit and red sauce, or the Running Lamb, stir fried with lime, onion, chili, Kachai root and Thai hot basil. Both are featured in the “Chef’s Specials” section of the menu.
Lonh has ordered, among other items, the Somtum Kora, a spicy green papaya salad, the type of traditional dish you don’t find on many Thai menus in America, he says. Because his family’s from Cambodia, he counts himself a capable critic of Southeast Asian cuisine and keeps an eye out for the real thing.
Which is exactly what Daraporn Sourivong was going for when she opened Jeera in 2011. “I wanted to make Thai food that was authentic,” the owner, who is from the Khon Kaen Province in the northeast part of Thailand, says. She moved to the United States in 1992 and, before starting her own venture, helped her family open and run their Son Siam Thai restaurants in Guilford and Old Saybrook, both celebrated by critics in “best of” polls and reviews.
Crafted alongside chef Janthana Yuilue, Jeera’s menu sports flavors and combinations Sourivong herself likes to eat. The restaurant always uses fresh-squeezed lime juice, never bottled, and the ginger-like Kachai root (used in the lamb dish and others on the menu) adds a special touch from her homeland.
Sourivong also remarks on the restaurant’s high-quality soft tofu, which, the way it’s prepared at Jeera, still has some bite; I’d recommend trying it in the Mussaman Curry (also available with chicken, shrimp, duck or vegetables) which features potato and onions in a mildly spiced coconut milk-base—and, like many dishes on the menu, comes with an exotic red jasmine rice.
Due to a number of meat-free dishes, including a dedicated section on the menu, the restaurant is very popular with vegetarians, says Sourivong. It further helps that meals are made to order; if a customer is vegan or needs to avoid a certain ingredient in the standard version of a menu dish, Jeera can often accommodate.
Other popular dishes include Pad Thai with shrimp, a refreshing version of the traditional dish with springy noodles, whole peanuts, egg, bean sprouts, tofu and scallions, as well as the spicier Drunken Noodles, with wide noodles, egg, garlic, vegetables and hot basil. The latter carried some potent heat despite only registering on the menu as a two-pepper dish on the scale from not-spicy (no peppers) to very (three). Brave diners might try the Jungle Curry, a “very spicy” coconut-milk-free curry. (There are no coconuts in the middle of the jungle, after all.)
Appetizers can get a little playful, such as “Nuwings”—Thai Buffalo wings with spicy pomegranate dressing. Beverages include a few sorts of tea, along with coffee and coconut water.
Portion sizes are solid, and prices feel reasonable. Appetizers range from $4.95 to $6.95; two soups are available for $3.95; salads start at $7.95 and main dishes average around $10, with the priciest dish—the Tuna Green Curry—only $13.95.
There’s something more than food about the special dining experiences that linger in our minds, though, and in this case it goes beyond good service. Sourivong is friendly, inquisitive and caring. On my way out of Jeera on a hot day, she pushed a water bottle into my hand. Another diner reports that, after he mentioned he was feeling stressed, she gave him a meditation CD.
Sourivong says that she “loves making people happy.” Those who dine in can enjoy both the food and the company—if they can find a seat, anyway.
216 Crown Street, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 11:30am-10pm, Sun 4:30-10pm
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.