Steam in Great Barrington: The hottest noodle shop around
If you look closely, you can see Chef Jem Ezinga behind the counter.
Khao Soi Gai — ramen in chicken curry
There are the noodle shops in New York, and the national noodle franchises like Noodles & Co. (not exactly authentic, to be sure), and Yum Yum Noodles in Red Hook, New York and the Catskills. But a noodle shop in the Berkshires? We’ve been bereft of that pleasure, until now. We finally have one of our own in Great Barrington, Mass., and it’s a keeper.
Steam Noodle Cafe opened just last month at the Barrington Place and Atrium Shops. It’s one of those hole-in-the-wall places made mostly for takeout (although there are a few tables in the small space, and a cooler with takeaway items). The kitchen claims the other half of the square footage. That’s the kingdom of the owner and chef, Phornphimon (“Jem”) Ezinga, who brings with her a following from her years vending pad thai at the New Lebanon, New York farmers market.
Despite her multitasking behind the counter, she's happy to talk to her customers. “I’ve been cooking all my life,” she said. She grew up in Thailand, and in our part of the world, she’s been a caterer in Columbia County, and worked at Chocolate Springs Café and Canyon Ranch in Lenox, and the Berkshire Co-op Market’s kitchen. Steam is her business — she’s chief (read: only) cook and probably bottle washer, too, but her husband, Robbin Ezinga, was bagging orders when I was there. Pad thai is not on this menu, but everything else, whether of Chinese, Japanese or other origin, is infused with Ezinga’s Thai tradition.
Knowing my husband and I would want to try a lot of menu items, I invited some friends to join us and on a late Sunday afternoon made a takeout run down to GB. I placed my sizable order at around 4:30. By 4:45 there was a line going out the door, with regulars recommending their favorite dishes.
We began with the steamed rice dumplings ($6.99 per box). The selection varies daily, and it was easy to discern that it was the day for the sweet radish, coconut milk and peanuts version, a sweet rather than savory start to the meal. Next up: the steamed buns ($2.50 each). The day’s selections were a roasted pork and a sweet egg custard. The dumplings and buns made for a sweetish start to the meal, and one guest suggested these might make better desserts. But they were tasty, and as someone with a voracious sweet tooth, I didn’t mind.
The next two appetizers elicited raves from the group. The curry puffs ($5 for 2) are “the original snack that made Jem famous,” notes the menu. Both the chicken and vegetarian versions are stuffed with curried potatoes, butter-sauteed onions, turmeric and paprika. Fried they may be, but you almost wouldn't think so; they are light, fluffy and not at all greasy. What it is about curry and turmeric that leaves you wanting more? As for the gyoza, fried Japanese wheat dumplings, we loved the “gyoza pie” ($9.99), a dozen of them fried together in a whimsical pinwheel shape. Filled with cabbage, shitake mushroom, scallion, ginger and garlic, these are familiar starters but Ezinga’s hold together with an appealing toothsome texture.
l am mad about kimchi, so it was with particular anticipation that I dipped into the kimchi ramen ($11.99). Here is where I needed to yield to Jem’s Thai stylings, since I didn’t taste the traditional Korean kimchi flavors. It’s spicy — and our group loved that — even if, as Chopped judges often comment, it could have used a dash of salt. But oh! the Khao Soi Gai! Again, raves for this ramen in chicken curry, with red onion, lime, cilantro, chili paste, crispy wonton and pickle radish. There is a depth of flavor in this curry broth — like a good chicken soup, said one guest — and the chicken fell right off the bone. I should’ve ordered two.
To finish, we enjoyed the noodle salad ($12.99), with classic Thai elements including peanuts, lime and crispy wonton wrappers. At room temperature, it was a refreshing end to our Asian expedition.
The verdict? We’ll all be regulars at Steam, especially when temps fall and our bodies and minds demand hot comfort food. At this point, there is no call-in service for takeout — that may be added in time. But coming face to face with Jem’s ever-present smile and watching her ballet with pots, pans and ladles is part of the fun. I'd suggest getting a group together like I did. You'll never be more popular.
Steam Noodle Cafe
284 Main St., Great Barrington, MA
Open 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Closed Wednesdays and Thursdays
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