Mookata at Mr. Baan's: Phoenix Thai food we didn't know we needed | Phoenix New Times

Mookata at Mr. Baan's: The Thai food Phoenix didn't know it needed

With their newest concept, the duo behind Lom Wong shows off another side to Thai food.
Gather a group for a mookata feast at Mr. Baan's.
Gather a group for a mookata feast at Mr. Baan's. Dominic Armato
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Here’s a little exercise.

Google “Thai restaurants near me” and pick one at random. Doesn’t matter. Now look at the menu.

What’s there?

Pad Thai, certainly, alongside pad see ew and usually pad kee mao or lad na. You’ve got crispy fried spring rolls and rice paper-wrapped fresh rolls, chicken satay with peanut sauce, crispy shrimp and crab Rangoon. There’s a green papaya salad, a noodle salad, a ground meat salad and a grilled beef salad. Curries come in green, yellow, red and Panang. Maybe a Massaman curry, too. You’ll see a range of stir-frys that invariably include one garlic, one ginger, one sweet-sour, one eggplant and one spicy basil that may or may not go by its Thai name, phat kaphrao. Plus a few Chinese stir-fry dishes for good measure. And of course, a bit of tom yum or tom kha to slurp alongside.

Even when made in traditional fashion (which is rare), these are an infinitesimal subset of the thousands of dishes one might find in any region of Thailand. And the fact that we see this same list over and over again speaks to the limited window through which we view countless cultures and cuisines — a boilerplate menu of Americanized favorites presented with unerring predictability.

Not to assign judgment or blame. Restaurants offer what people order, people order what they know and hey, you can’t know what you don’t know. But when the local presentation of a cuisine becomes this homogenized — stagnant, even — sometimes what you need is a swift, playful kick in the pants.

That’s where Mr. Baan’s Bar & Mookata comes in.

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Alex and Yotaka “Sunny” Martin launched Lom Wong in 2022. Their newest concept finds a home in the original restaurant's backyard.
Mary Berkstresser

Made for Phoenix?

It’s hard to believe mookata didn’t crop up sooner.

Sitting squarely at the intersection of grill-it-yourself meat and swish-it-yourself soup, mookata involves cooking marinated meats over live coals, while the drippings fortify a moat of bubbling broth that you load up with vegetables.

In a city that can’t get enough Korean barbecue and Asian hot pot, this would seem a total no-brainer.

And yet, so far as owners Yotaka “Sunny” Martin and Alex Martin can determine, theirs is not just the first mookata restaurant in Phoenix, but only the second mookata restaurant in the entire country. How is that even possible?

“I don’t know,” Sunny says. “I’m kind of surprised, too.”

Wildly popular throughout Thailand, mookata is a style of casual, fun dining that crosses regional preferences and boundaries and seems tailor-made for Phoenix. But however perfect the match, the Martins are well-versed in the challenges presented by nudging diners out of their comfort zone.

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Mookata is a unique blend of grill-it-yourself meat and swish-it-yourself soup.
Mary Berkstresser

Defeating the resistance

After generating some buzz running a pop-up from their home, the couple launched their first restaurant, Lom Wong, in early 2022, serving regional Thai specialties previously unseen in Arizona. They’ve racked up the accolades ever since, including a semifinalist nod from The James Beard Foundation for Best Chef Southwest in 2023. But while Lom Wong is a critical darling, the praise from the hoi polloi has hardly been universal.

“People would be angry with what we were doing,” Alex explains. “We had people telling us it wasn’t Thai food.”

For Alex, who came to Thai culture through travel, study and marriage, working front of house and carefully bridging that gap between the public’s perception and the broader reality of Thai cuisine is an academic challenge. For Sunny, faithfully preparing the foods of her native Chiang Rai, it’s a simpler equation. This food is who she is. Why should she cook any other way?

So, when the opportunity arose, the Martins chose to do what they’ve always done: Share the foods they like to eat, exactly as they’ve always made them.

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The Haripunchai (left) is a Thai riff on a Tom Collins, while the Mengrai (right) has the soul of a piña colada, but with jackfruit rather than pineapple.
Dominic Armato

When one door closes

Khla — the Southeast Asian-themed cocktail bar that previously occupied Lom Wong’s back patio — closed in September 2023. Presented with an unexpected vacancy, the Martins opted to bust out the mookata plan they’d stashed in their back pockets.

The space is so perfect you’d never guess it was repurposed. On a spring evening in Phoenix, I am delighted to discover there are few places I would rather be than perched at one of Mr. Baan’s outdoor hi-tops, sharing cocktails, skewers and a zippy peanut mix with a handful of friends.

Mr. Baan’s lives on the outskirts of Roosevelt Row, close enough that the hum and bustle of the city provides a muted backdrop, but not so close that the noise intrudes upon good conversation and the chill tones of laid-back Asian pop and electronica. The alley entrance leads to a serene little urban oasis with jet-black walls punctuated by vivid floral prints and colorful drinks.

Mookata may steal the headlines, but Mr. Baan’s — named after Sunny’s fun-loving uncle — is just as much a full-fledged bar. The cocktail menu is courtesy of Dustin Doan, Khla’s former bar manager, who the Martins flew back to Phoenix to consult on the project.

Thai-influenced riffs on the classics are thoughtful, creative and well-executed. The Haripunchai is a perfect drink for a hot evening, the soul of a Tom Collins spruced up with the herbal scent of makrut lime leaf and Thai basil. The Mengrai, meanwhile, is creamy and tropical, a sherry-laced piña colada that subs in the mango and banana notes of jackfruit for the traditional pineapple.

Those seeking something stiffer would do well to give the Puu Tao a spin, a straightforward bourbon concoction with just a hint of mango sweetness and a swarthy hit of densely layered Thai bitters. Plenty boozy, but sweetly so, is the Phed Yaang, a duck fat-washed Manhattan that sports a subtle tropical lift from a touch of mangosteen and longan.

The section of the cocktail menu labeled “Drink Your Dinner” isn’t hyperbole. The Mon Dahm is Doan’s take on a bloody mary, its tomato and vodka base spiced with sambal and Thai chile and darkened with an intense shot of fish sauce and squid ink. And I’ll confess that I like the Som Tum Smash more in theory than in practice, a liquid riff on a papaya salad topped with a bit of actual som tum and brimming with Thai fermented fish paste. I like to consider myself deeply in touch with the funk, but this one’s a little too funky for me.

If drinking your dinner is a bridge too far, fear not, you can eat your dinner, too.

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The grilled skewers are perfect for those looking for a snack to pair with their cocktails.
Mary Berkstresser

Nibble and nosh

In keeping with the joint’s laid-back vibe, Mr. Baan’s grillmaster hangs out in the corner, slinging skewers for anybody who’d like a nibble to go with their drink.

Chicken is a solid option, and the most that can be said for grilled tofu is that it’s tofu. But the latter’s true destiny is to act as a vehicle for a brilliant peanut sauce, sweet and sticky and none too shy about showing off some chile heat.

The pork skewers, however, are an absolute must, a luscious cut sliced thick and sizzled to a crisp, bathed in grill smoke and a splash of nam jim seafood, a spicy-sweet blend of herbed fish sauce and lime juice. Bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms are just as wonderful, their delicate chewy-crisp texture cocooned in glistening, smoky pork fat.

It’s a modest (if tasty) list, but reinforcements are on the way. I happened to catch a beta release of Mr. Baan’s hot dog, a Fripper’s all-beef frank with green mango slaw, fried bamboo, Thai sriracha and other accoutrement that’ll quell the munchies in style. And the Martins hope to expand Mr. Baan’s list of late-night booze food in the coming months.

In the meantime, there’s enough on the bar menu to make a meal of it. But you’d be a fool to miss the main event.

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The marinated meats and vegetables for mookata arrive in ice-chilled plexiglass boxes.
Dominic Armato

Taming the fire

You might be able to walk in and snag a mookata table if you’re lucky, but this isn’t one of Thailand’s monster mookata dining halls where a staff of four or five people are dedicated solely to tending the charcoal. The logistics of managing live-coal fire in a tiny restaurant necessitate reservations.

Once you arrive, however, Mr. Baan’s has made a relaxed process of the experience. You’ll spend 15 minutes, give or take, with a drink or a nosh while the staff makes final preparations. And once the fire is ready, the scene shifts to a wooden deck where the full setup awaits.

It’s impressive.

On the table, a brick slab supports a small brazier loaded with red hot coals, atop of which rests the mookata grill, a large aluminum pan with a raised, perforated dome in the center. Two ice-chilled plexiglass boxes sit nearby — one loaded with fresh vegetables, the other with marinated meats — plus cooking tongs and a pitcher of pork broth. Scattered about you’ll find bowls, chopsticks and a pair of dipping sauces — the same bright and fragrant nam jim seafood that adorns some of the precooked skewers, and nam jim suki, a spicy sweet-sour condiment that’ll get the chile junkies fired up.

The staff — a friendly, laid-back bunch — will walk first-timers through the basics, and then you’re off.

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Raw eggs cracked right into the boiling broth enrich the flavor and produce thin ribbons of egg whites as they cook.
Mary Berkstresser

A mighty, meaty feast

Start with large chunks of pork fat, best placed at the apex of the dome where gravity can do the work, lubricating the cooking surface as the fat slowly melts. Slivers of marinated beef cook quickly, and crushed coriander seeds in the sweet sauce lend a citrusy scent to the smoke when it hits the grill. Soy-marinated pork belly — the “moo” in mookata — is bound to grab attention, as pork belly does, but the chicken thigh is not to be overlooked. Plied with garlic and a heavy shot of black pepper, it’s equally tasty charred on the grill or simmered to a silky smooth consistency in the soup.

Speaking of, the soup might be my favorite part of the meal.

Sunny’s broth is a clean, clear, understated brew built on pork neck and a touch of scallion for sweetness. But that’s just a baseline to add to.

Start with garlicky minced pork, simmered in the soup to add fat and a bit of meaty texture. Add a couple of raw eggs, enriching the liquid with their yolks and producing thin ribbons of cooked egg white. Load up the moat with tender egg tofu or vegetables like Napa cabbage and mushrooms.

Pro tip: Be sure to periodically spoon some of the broth over the dome, deglazing its charred surface and dripping all of that concentrated meaty essence back down into the soup, turning it a deep bronze color and building up a flavor so wildly intense that it rivals the meat itself.

Devotees of all-you-can-eat barbecue may squawk at Mr. Baan’s finite format, but I’ve yet to bring a crowd that could finish the job. (You can leave with your leftovers, provided you cook them first.) And if you somehow manage to empty the ingredient bins, lingering over some skewers, another drink and maybe a banana ice cream sandwich for dessert is a mighty fine way to round out an evening.

I can think of few places in Phoenix where I’d rather spend an evening, period.

The meat would be more than enough, but Mr. Baan’s allure isn’t limited to the grill. As rare as mookata is in the United States, restaurants this easygoing feel almost as sparse. The Martins have cultivated a vibe, so to speak, and if I take a moment to sit back and disengage my critic’s brain, I keep returning to the same thought. Relaxing with good food, good drinks and good friends at Mr. Baan’s is the most I’ve enjoyed a restaurant in a very long time.

That makes it one of the rarest restaurants of all.

Mr. Baan’s Bar and Mookata

218 E. Portland Street (entrance in alley behind Lom Wong)
5 p.m. to midnight Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Cocktails $16-$18; Skewers $8-$12; Mookata $59 per person.
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