Union Square’s landlords and tenants don’t always get along, but Henry Patterson (landlord) and Ronnarong “Ronnie” Saksua (tenant) are practically collaborators. Saksua’s eponymous Thai tapas bar Ronnarong (255 Washington Street) combines Thai cuisine with tapas concepts, and it is also a meshing of Saksua and Patterson’s food-service skills.
But more on that later. First, the tapas – called gap klaem, or “drinking snacks,” in Thailand – include nua sawan, thin marinated strips of chewy yet tender beef; szum tum, a papaya salad with string beans and tomatoes, topped with ground peanuts; and tod mund, homemade curry cakes served with cucumber sauce. There are also traditional appetizers such as soups and fresh rolls. Tapas are $3-$6, entrees $9-$12. In addition to beer and wine, the drink menu features flavored sodas and signature cocktails prepped with house-made syrups. Thai Sangria, for example, contains Ronnarong’s own ginger and lemongrass syrups, along with orange bitters, rosé and sake (served with muddled lychee). You can enjoy the drinks at the cozy bar (it seats seven) or your own table. There’s outdoor seating coming this summer too.
Though Ronnarong launched in late March, its origins date to 1999, when Saksua opened the Great Thai Chef in Patterson’s building next to The Independent. Patterson was no stranger to restaurants – he’d founded Bel Canto in 1976, growing it to six Boston-area locations. In 1991, he sold the company but kept the property on Washington Street. For the next eight years he partnered with Mark Mooradian (owner of MEM Tea Imports, 316 Highland Avenue), vending coffee and tea to Boston-area eateries. Since then he’s worked as a consultant, landlord and mentor to restaurateurs like Saksua, assisting them the way his landlords used to assist him, back in the Bel Canto days.
In November, 2008, Saksua approached Patterson with a problem. “He told me, ‘I have no cash,’” recalls Patterson. Saksua couldn’t afford to renew his liquor license – unless he missed rent. There were other issues: Passersby walked right past the “invisible” awning; those who entered often found a half-empty, music-less place with a miniscule drink selection. The Great Thai Chef was in danger of going under. For the next few months, Patterson floated Saksua through his cash crunch and plotted a turnaround. He’d savored Saksua’s food – and company – for ten years, and he didn’t want to lose it.
In early March, the Great Thai Chef closed for renovations. What followed was like something from a sped-up movie sequence: “We did a year’s worth of work in two weeks,” says J.J. Gonson, whom Patterson hired to oversee a front-of-house redesign. Patterson’s pals woodworked the bar and banquette and performed the carpentry; Gonson’s friend Linsey Herman, whose resume included stints at Sara Lee and Artisanal Cheese, mix-mastered the syrups and authored the cocktail menu. Another pal of Gonson’s, fashion designer Miriam Rooney, reupholstered chairs, silk-screened pillows and helped repaint walls. Camp Street Studios in Cambridge, longtime fans of Saksua’s food, donated the sound system. Gonson herself designed the Ronnarong logo and led a team redecorating the bathroom with a decoupage of Thai images.
Then there was the food: initially, the team used “tapas” as verbal shorthand. “Before we branded around it, we were using it to describe a smaller portion,” says Gonson. Out of curiosity, Patterson googled “Thai tapas.” A few restaurants deployed the concept – but none in New England. He was hooked. At first, Saksua didn’t grasp the notion; large portions were the Great Thai Chef’s bread and butter. But when Patterson explained that what he wanted, really, was gap klaem, Saksua got the picture. Nua sawan debuted shortly thereafter. The Great Thai Chef had become Ronnarong.
Saksua is developing ten new tapas dishes for summertime. Patterson says sales in May 2009 were double what they were in May 2008. He’s enjoying his position as Saksua’s temporary benefactor. “I’m at the point where I only want to be involved with people I genuinely like,” he says. The restaurant, he insists, belongs to Saksua.