For years I have been the beneficiary of the hospitality of a group of friends from Benin, and since they moved to New York five years ago we’ve sampled Gotham’s upscale ethnic spots in search of a place where I could repay the lavishness of their teranga, as the Senegalese call a warm welcome. I’ve avoided the cheap and cheerful neighborhood spots I love with a culinary snobbism that assumed my friends deserved fancy as well as tasty. So I was delighted to hit a home run at a local hangout in their own Upper East Side ‘hood. With a decor that the Zagat quote on the menu proclaims “a bit tattered,” Sala Thai is the kind of eatery where three bicycle guys work double time to keep up with deliveries. But there my friends found their bliss in a lowly condiment tray. Although a native of the New World, the chile pod has seared not only the food of Thailand and much of Southeast Asia, but also—thanks to the imperial relentlessness of Portuguese explorers and the botanical inquisitiveness of many a Roman Catholic friar—the palates of Africa. The cuisine of each area vies for the title of the world’s hottest. If I’d remembered that, my problem would have been solved years ago.
We arrived late and ordered rapidly, keeping it simple. The assorted appetizer plate included two each of less-than-astonishing curry puffs; rather heavy steamed dumplings filled with bits of chicken, peanuts, shallot, and radish; fried spring rolls stuffed with shrimp; and a toothsome, vegetable-filled steamed spring roll brimming with crisp cabbage, vermicelli, and mushroom ($11.50). The generous five skewers of chicken sate arrived sizzling and flaming ($9.50). From other outings I knew my companions would push away the accompanying sweet-and-sour sauces that the French and their former subjects hate. I also knew they would ask for hot sauce. But I was amazed when the waiter brought a lazy Susan containing four different kinds: a zesty chile paste, the hot dust of powdered red pepper, a fiery sauce of minced green chiles, and an incendiary mix of bird chiles, one of the main components of Tabasco.
Albert, who has an ulcer, listened to his doctor and gazed on wistfully as he enjoyed his tempting but chile-less gai yarng, grilled chicken ($10.95). But Theophile said damn the doctor and began doctoring up his own gai yarng, and the lightly charred fowl took on piquant new life. Aimee’s goong rad preed, fried jumbo shrimp ($15.95), and Theodora’s pla rad preeg, fried red snapper filet ($16.95), both appeared under a sweetish tamarind, chile, and garlic sauce that was advertised on the menu as three-star hot. But even that wasn’t enough for my African sisters, who felt the need to bump it up a notch with a dab or two of bird chiles. I too succumbed, tentatively spritzing a dose of the chile paste into my tom jerd gai, transforming the delicious bowl of chicken broth brimming with scallions, clear vermicelli, and bits of tofu into something that left a satisfying little tingle at the corners of my mouth ($10.95).
The Singha beer flowed and the evening stretched out languorously as my old benefactors savored a restaurant meal in a way they hadn’t since our old days of dining out in Dakar and Cotonou. On a second visit, a replay of the soup preceded slices of pork in holy basil and an expanse of mushrooms with ginger and peppers, both of which had a decided mouth burn and confirmed Sala Thai to be an uncommonly good local joint. But for my African friends it felt special, because it offered the taste of home—a taste that needn’t always honor national boundaries or continental divisions.