Curry Noodle Soup with Tofu and Vegetables

Sit Tight

“I’ve been to a lot of Thai restaurants,” says Boret Lonh, who’s just put in a takeout order, “and this one is really up there.” It’s also really down there—in size (tiny) and location (downtown).

We’re talking about Jeera, on Crown Street between College and Temple. Comprising a handful of tables next to a counter, the dining area is 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 in warmer months, there’s a table adding another two seats to capacity.

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.

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Lonh has ordered, among other items, the Somtum Kora, a traditional spicy green papaya salad 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 owner Daraporn Sourivong, originally from the Khon Kaen Province in the northeast part of Thailand, was going for when she opened Jeera in 2011. “I wanted to make Thai food that was authentic,” she 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. Now she’s preparing to open a second Jeera in Westport, with a bigger kitchen and bigger menu to suit it, she says.

Here in New Haven, Jeera’s kitchen is just a few yards away from the furthest diner, who can see and hear its billows and sizzles thanks to a glassless window. Crafted with help from chef Janthana Yuilue, Jeera’s menu sports ingredients in 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. Instead of boring white rice, Jeera’s default is an exotic red jasmine.

Sourivong points out the restaurant’s high-quality soft tofu, which, unlike most preparations, has a skin with some bite to it. Those with low spice tolerance should try it in the mild Curry Noodle Soup (pictured above) or Mussaman Curry; those who get a kick out of kick should try it with the Kaprow, a medley infused with garlic, chilies and basil, or the “very spicy” Jungle Curry. Like most of the main courses on the menu, you can also get them with chicken, shrimp, duck or mock duck.

With a large number of meat-free choices, 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 menu version of a dish, Jeera can often accommodate.

Other popular dishes, I’m told, 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, cut wide and doused with egg, garlic, vegetables and hot basil. My portion of the latter carried some potent heat despite registering on the menu as a two-chili pepper dish on a scale from zero to three. Starters can get a little playful, such as “Nuwings”—Thai Buffalo wings with spicy pomegranate dressing. Beverages include a few sorts of tea, among them a zippy hot ginger option, plus coffee and fresh-tasting coconut water.

Portion sizes are solid, and prices feel reasonable. Appetizers range from $5.95 to $6.95; two soups are available for $4.95; salads start at $7.95 and main dishes average around $11, with the priciest dishes—a Tuna Green Curry and that Running Lamb—running $14.95.

The food isn’t the only part that makes Jeera a special dining experience. that linger in our minds, though, and in this case it goes beyond good service. Sourivong is friendly, inquisitive and caring. One time, 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 want to dine in can find enjoyable food and good company—if there’s an open seat, anyway.

Jeera Thai
216 Crown St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 11:30am-10pm, Sun 4:30-10pm
(203) 562-5856
Cash only.

Written by Cara McDonough. Photographed by Dan Mims. This updated article was originally published on July 2, 2013.

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