Until recently, Gotham's Thai food lovers had a difficult choice: hang their heads in shame or move to Los Angeles. Then Sripraphai appeared, and we had at last one place to brag about. Now, more great Thai eateries are accumulating in Queens. Latest is Kway Tiow, a modest storefront on a side street off Elmhurst's humming Broadway. Decorated with tons of carved wood and Buddhist iconography, the tan dining room starts out wide and narrows almost to a point. The walls are peppered with antique sepia-tone photos, including a water buffalo pulling a sledge, headdressed royal children, and a pair of handsome elephants threatening to swamp a thatched houseboat.
Watercrafts are a motif at Kway Tiow. The elegantly simple appetizer of fried bean curd lands in a ceramic sampan garnished amidships with carved vegetables, a sweet chile sauce stowed aft. Also afloat is the ethereal peek-gai yat sai ($5.25), a brace of outsize chicken wings stuffed with mushrooms and delicate bean-thread vermicelli. It's worththe price just to see how it's done. Bright, clear flavors dominate a plate of steamed Chinese broccoli that comes smothered in chopped garlic and frizzly fried onions. Salads make great starters, too, especially the shredded green papaya crunched with peanuts and dried baby shrimp ($4.95) and a wonderfully spicy toss of bamboo shoots and purple onions in a woozy fish-sauce dressing.
An acid test passed with flying colors is tom yum ($3.50), a soup that's become so tired at Manhattan Thais that most people pick out the shrimp and button mushrooms and scuttle the broth. If you like tart, this soup will make you swoon. In it float lime leaves and slender reeds of lemongrass, the sourness further amplified by lime juice and astringent green chiles. At the bottom lurks a thick plug of galangal, a woody, gingerlike rhizome imparting a perfume that orchestrates the other bold flavors. The large size ($5.95) is so shrimp-rich and chile-potent that it can bathe a tableful of diners in sweat.
The four too-sweet curries are not where the action is. Order instead pad prik king ($7.50), a "dry curry" of pork and yard beans in an aromatic brown sauce. Or turn to the Xeroxed specials at the rear of the menu, featuring dishes you won't see elsewhere. One day there was luad moo ($6.95), a pig offal soup featuring liver, heart, and intestines flavored with blood. Another time we tried a wonderful dish of shucked mussels fried into an eggy pancake and offered with a spicy dipping sauce, the orange-lipped shellfish making a dramatic color contrast against the yellow egg. Less compelling was an underdressed salad of fibrous fried catfish heaped with raw vegetables; Sripraphai's version is superior.
There's no liquor license, so bring your own beer, which complements the food better than wine. Or enjoy such house beverages as toasty coconut nectar ($1.15) or the supercaffeinaceous Thai iced coffee with milk ($1.50). The perfect meal at Kway Tiow ends with a very strange dessert, sangkaya steam bread ($2.95). It features a Stonehenge of white bread like a superdense Wonder arranged around a pond of sweet green goo. One dip and you're addicted.
KWAY TIOW 83-47 Dongan Avenue, Elmhurst, Queens, 718-476-6743. Open Wednesday through Monday noon till 11 p.m. Closed Tuesday. No credit cards. Bathroom wheelchair equipped. SRIPRAPHAI 64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside, Queens, 718-899-9599.
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