I'VE REFERRED to my grandmother before. She had a tiny house, built into a hill and poorly ventilated, and she had no money, so she cooked the cheapest things. Walking through the front door meant getting hit full in the face with a cloud of whatever she'd been braising into edibility that day: knuckles, tails, a promising length of broom handle, what have you. I became very attuned to the baseline aromas of cooking meat.
The first dish of my first visit to Sen Yai was phat sii ew ($11), the ubiquitous Thai stir-fry of wide rice noodles, meat, and broccoli. As the plate was set down, the intense aroma of slowly stewed pork crept—bled into, even thickened—the air around it. It was almost a funk, almost too much, as it grew in intensity. It was pure and strong enough to jog a 30-year-old memory of my nana's poverty cooking, and because this wasn't her house, it was succulent, dressed in a rich, light-bodied brown sauce built on black soy, and tossed with tender, char-kissed noodles. Uncured pork is almost always a forgettable meat in these stir-fries, memorable only for its texture. Here, it seasoned the entire dish.
Let me back up a little. Sen Yai, located on the booming strip of SE Division, specializes in Thai noodle dishes. Andy Ricker, the creator of Pok Pok and the seemingly indefatigable traveler and student of Thai cuisine, opened the restaurant three months ago. It's casual, spacious inside and out, and decorated with a busy cyan and magenta Thai-pop sensibility. Service is fast, friendly, and knowledgeable. They need to play calmer music for people who are trying to teach themselves to enjoy jok at 8 am, but through the rest of the day it has good energy.
Many of the soup noodle dishes are offered with a choice of fat or thin, wheat or rice noodles. The "boat noodles" (kuaytiaw reua, $12) with thin rice noodles (sen lek) ate texturally like a pho, but with a genuinely spicy, deeply herbed dark broth. Stewed beef, poached beef, and meatballs added noteworthy textures and true beefy flavor to a bowl that finished as interesting as it began.
Kuaytiaw khua kai ($14 for the prawn version, with duck and chicken also available) is like an extremely tender chow fun, but stir-fried and lightly caramelized in rendered pork fat to create chewy, flavorful edges. Cuttlefish (similar in texture and flavor to calamari), egg, and green onions round out the modest flavor profile, but as they say on the menu, their dishes are seasoned to a baseline and meant to be corrected to taste. This dish in particular benefited from a custom dose of palm sugar and chili-infused vinegar (chili-infused fish sauce and dried chili flake are also available).
There are about a half-dozen vegetarian and vegan options, starting with a remarkably full-flavored "Buddhist vegan phat thai" (phat thai jay, $9) that didn't want for any of the blended nuance of sour, salt, and sweet of the original.
A few non-noodle dishes are available. Khao phat naem ($11) is a moist but not oily, intensely fragrant, wok-charred fried rice studded with too little of the delicious house-cured sour pork sausage. "Red fire water spinach" (phak bung fai daeng, $9.50) is a stalky stir-fry of leafy green water spinach, chilies, oyster and fish sauces, and the unusual preserved yellow bean, which here and there adds a light, lingering yeastiness that reminds me of a Czech pilsner. The little soy-like beans are not an ingredient you see at your average crinkle-cut-carrot Thai place.
Jok (served from 8 am-11 am) is one of many names for a soupy rice porridge. It's a common breakfast comfort food throughout Asia, and its closest analog here might be oatmeal (staple grain, cooked to mush, in water). Sen Yai's light and fresh-tasting version ($8) is mixed with a greaseless pork bone broth, and served with pork meatballs or fish. Its flavors are balanced, but I can't imagine eating the entire quart of it. Patangko, though—a half-dozen crispy little fry-breads for $3, with the $2 option of a sweet, silken coconut custard for dipping—was the more delightful, if less healthful, breakfast option. They're well paired with the full-bodied kafae boraan ($4), an "ancient, sock-brewed" sugary Thai coffee with condensed milk.
The only dish I'd advise a pass on are the thick-skinned, firm little deep-fried meatballs (luuk chin thawt, $6) with a spicy sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. They're needless filler with so much other dynamic food on offer.
I can see how the relatively high prices at Sen Yai will have some people grousing, especially in a town with a Thai restaurant scene this saturated. However, the difference in terms of quality of meat, intensity and cleanliness of flavor, and originality is worth it.
Sen Yai is open daily from 8 am-10 pm. Full bar with Thai-inspired cocktails, beer, and wine available.