Orbiting Yum


You’ve never tasted yum this good before. Planted on a bed of unblemished Boston lettuce, the other ingredients of this amazing salad (yum hnam sod, $6.95) are equally pristine: shreds of purple onion and sweet red pepper, cilantro fronds, crunchy roast peanuts, tiny rings of scorching green chile, and pale clumps of mellow boiled pork that, in its grainy grayness, reads like an antique photo against the lush green frame of the lettuce. A shower of lime juice and little swatches of lime peel knock the flavor into orbit.

Historically, New York has been devoid of great Thai restaurants. Those we had limited themselves to a tired formula of carved vegetables and gooey sauces sometimes known as Royal Thai. Then gradually superior Siamese began to appear along a great swath of Elmhurst and Woodside about five years ago, looking from the air like one of those Andean petroglyphs created by alien spacecraft. At these places, less attention was lavished on presentation, and more on conjuring sharp taste combinations. While the menus overlapped with those of the old-timers, the livelier newcomers presented fare of working-class bent, with lots of budget noodle dishes and salads, fewer color-coordinated curries, and interesting regional fare, especially from the north. These places were often thronged with Thais, who seemed to be relishing what they ate.

If pork salad doesn’t turn you on, there are plenty of other exemplary yums, including a souped-up version of the standard green papaya salad improved with snake beans—foot-long green beans with a darker color and extra snap. The salad was so spicy we choked back tears as we fought over the remaining snatches. A rather unusual yum (pla krob, $8.95) features funky bits of sun-dried fish that are imported from Kampuchea, according to our jolly and informative host, while another (makhur pao, $7.95) combines shrimp, chicken, and squid with cottony white strips that we guessed might be fish maw or some unfamiliar fungus. They turned out to be pith torn from Chinese eggplants. Gourmet chefs take note.

No dish was a bigger hit on several visits than a pair of quail ($8.95), fried to a deep mahogany and gobbed with crunchy nuggets of caramelized garlic. The frying concentrates the flavor, and the birds end up sweeter and meatier than you’d expect. Another appetizer rarely seen in Manhattan is hoy taud ($5.50), a round omelet jammed with mussels and well browned on both sides, a popular luncheon dish in the home country. The soups—like poh taek, an aimless farrago of seafood, including fake crab, in a salty broth—failed to impress, but the noodles ruled. Most popular in Thailand are guay tieow, broad rice noodles so meek they recede into the other ingredients. You may recognize them as a close cousin of chow fun, and indeed they are regarded as a Chinese import, and often eaten with chopsticks as a result. Topped with broccoli, beef, and oyster sauce, pad rard naa ($5.50) is the most Chinese of the guay tieows, while kie mao—teamed with ground meat, chiles, and tomatoes—has a more Southeast Asian feel.

Plot the new Thais on a map and you’ll find that the rough semicircle has as its vortex Wat Buddha Thaithavornvanaram (76-16 46th Avenue), a golden-towered temple that rises in an obscure residential byway (you’ll find yourself driving in circles trying to get to it) just north of Queens Boulevard, the notorious Boulevard de Mort. The temple was constructed six years ago on lots that previously contained a pair of houses that had served as a makeshift temple. But did the gorgeous new temple beget better Thai restaurants, or vice versa? It’s your call.