Thai Diva Takes the Stage in Sunnyside
Tum kanoon, a stir-fry of young jackfruit
By now, New Yorkers are no strangers to the flavors of northern Thailand, or to the notion that Thai food extends well beyond pad see ew and coconut curries. Dishes like larb (a spicy, herbal minced-meat salad) and funky, fishy papaya salad are in vogue thanks to a wave of Thai restaurants like Pok Pok, Uncle Boons, Larb Ubol, Somtum Der, and Prospect Heights' recent Queens transplant, Look by Plant Love House. Too bad, then, that the owners of Sunnyside joint Thai Diva relegate their excellent show "northern Thai–style" dishes to a separate single-sheet menu, which they aren't yet in the habit of bringing to the table along with the heftier book of noodles, fried rice, curries, and other Thai takeout standards.
But do ask for it, because the entries on that menu are not only delicious but also distinct. Most of New York's trendy northern-Thai restaurants focus on the foods of the northeastern Isan region, with just a few nods to the cuisines of Chiang Mai and the far north. But Thai Diva does a deep dive into the latter, including some dishes not often found in New York.
Among them is a bamboo shoot "salad" that's actually more of a stir-fry. The tangled pile of shoots, fibrous yet tender in a way that almost mimics meat, is sautéed in the restaurant's nam prik noom, a mellow paste of charred green chiles and garlic, and comes with a side of pork rinds (as many offerings here do). It's best eaten with sticky rice. And there's tum kanoon, a stir-fry of young jackfruit (another great meat impersonator), red curry paste, and a little pork; shreds of kaffir lime leaves lend a floral citrus fragrance. The chile-garlic paste is also served on its own, salsa-like, with assorted vegetables and slices of boiled egg for dipping. Another version, nam prik ong — a hearty blend of ground pork, tomatoes, fermented shrimp and soybeans, and chile — is even better. (I couldn't help but think it'd make stellar filling for a sloppy joe.)
Thai Diva's owners, sisters Rattanaporn and Vasinee Jamtetaree, hail from Chiang Mai and learned to cook from their mother. Rattanaporn usually covers the front of the house, though she'll sometimes steal back into the kitchen to oversee the less experienced cooks, who are still learning the repertoire of unwritten recipes. "I taste everything," she tells the Voice, "and if it's not right, I make them throw it out and do it again." But Vasinee, she says, is the real chef of the two, and the specialist in northern cuisine.
Vasinee only cooks during the day on weekdays, but if you can't make it then, sample her handiwork in some of the dishes she preps in advance. That includes sai ua, a tender pork sausage flavored with kaffir lime leaves and enough curry powder to stain it yellow, made in-house and nothing like the sour Isan sausage more commonly found at northern Thai restaurants. Closer to Isan sausage is naem moo, a mix of sticky rice, ground pork, garlic, and pork skin wrapped in banana leaves and fermented for 48 hours before being grilled; the result is startlingly, refreshingly tart.
Even the larb distinguishes itself: The restaurant's larb muang, made from chopped chicken, beef, or pork, is drier than its lime-juice- and fish-sauce-sluiced Isan counterpart and comes tossed in a more complex blend of spices (including cumin and cinammon). The chicken version lets the herbs shine through, whereas pork offers meatier depth. And though it omits the traditional addition of pig's blood, it does contain slivers of liver and springy skin. Like most of the menu, the larb comes spicy, but not blindingly so.
This is the sisters' first restaurant (both previously worked at a spa in the city), and some growing pains are apparent. On a recent visit, Rattanaporn doubled as server and kitchen manager while also juggling takeout orders. Her sister, she explained, was in Thailand, stocking up on spices they'd had trouble finding in the States. As a result, service could be a little slow, and the food came out of the kitchen somewhat unpredictably. But the cooking didn't seem to suffer for it, and Rattanaporn was unflaggingly cheerful as she fielded questions from curious diners and picky takeout customers alike. Now, if only Thai Diva knew how pleased so many New Yorkers would be to encounter their Chiang Mai–centric menu, and would remember to bring it to the table.
Thai Diva Cuisine
45-53 46th Street, Queens
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