Who’d have thought a pile of grayish ground pork could taste so good? Yet that seemingly unpalatable substance is the heart of yum nam sod ($5.50), a steaming heap of ground pork, tomatoes, red onions, coriander leaf, and—crunch, crunch—peanuts, shellacked with a tart dressing of lime juice, ginger, lemongrass, and green chiles spewing fire (but only if you request “very spicy”). Underneath lurks a bed of shredded pork skin, an ingredient you’re more likely to find in Vietnamese restaurants, and a detail omitted from every other version of this Thai classic I’ve seen in Queens.
Meat and salad are oxymorons no longer, as Isaan-style Thai food grabs hold of Woodside and Elmhurst. First came Sripraphai, then Zabb Queens, sharpening the focus on the food of this impoverished region in northeast Thailand along the Vietnamese border. More recently, Mom Mam 1 Thai Cuisine appeared, a belabored name for a closet-size space with only a couple of tables. A bamboo screen barely shields the dining room from the kitchen, in which several talented cooks labor at once, dredging up raw materials from the basement as they cook. The counter seats are a pleasant place to sit, with a tranquil view of this mainly Mexican, Korean, and Indian neighborhood, and there’s an outdoor table too, where Thai men sit in the warm afternoon drinking coconut milk and eating the scrumptious pork jerky called nua sawan ($5.50), made from top-quality meat flavored with coriander, soy sauce, and sugar.
Indeed, Mom Mam is a snacker’s paradise. The prosaic-sounding curry puffs ($3.50) turn out to be four beautiful little empanadas with braided spines filled with ground chicken and mashed potatoes, probably introduced to Southeast Asia by the Dutch. There’s a dip for the puffs that features chopped veggies, vinegar, and just a touch of fish sauce. Also unexpectedly good are kingfish cakes spiced with red curry paste and shot with chopped green onions. King of the snacks, though, is a distinguished green papaya salad ($5).
Though they offer food from several regions, the owners hail from central Thailand, and thus we get a more balanced overview of Thai cuisine than at most places. Pad thai is the last dish I’d order in a Thai restaurant, but a curious perversity prompted me to pick it. Usually, it’s a sugar rush cloaked in flimsy noodles and carved veggies. Mom Mam’s version ($6) is elemental, a few simple ingredients that, with a final squeeze of lime, add up to gustatory elation. Pad prik ($6) is similarly scrumptious, a stir-fry of onions and beef strips elevated to greatness by barely seared green chiles that provide much of the dish’s flavor. The same dish, by the way, is often the hottest thing on Cantonese menus.
Curries constitute a significant portion of the menu, of which the best is masamam, thickened with coconut milk, teeming with chicken and potatoes. The name is a corruption of “Muslim,” and the dish is said to have been brought to Thailand by financial experts imported long ago from India to work in the ports. Along with plenty of noodle dishes, southern Chinese stir-fries are also well represented on the menu, including the incredible kana moo krob ($6), crisp bits of pork belly interspersed with Chinese broccoli. Eerily, it tastes like American-style collards cooked with fatback.