“This place is way better than Sripraphai,” my Thai American friend proclaimed. She’d grown up in Los Angeles, where world-class Thai cafés are a dime a dozen. And her preference for Chao Thai over the sainted Sripraphai was an impressive accolade. We were feverishly digging into yum nam sod ($6.50), a heap of glistening ground pork deliciously seasoned with purple onions, lime juice, pungent basil, salty fish sauce, and split red chiles that spit seeds into the salad, causing us to drain our beers and grab for the BYOB six-pack we’d stashed under the table. As an added bonus, we found crescents of crunchy pig ear in the steaming pork pile.
Along similar lines, there’s a puckering salad of coriander and sun-dried catfish ($9.95). It comes from the special Thai menu on the wall, which has been recently translated into English and inserted into the regular menu. The catfish is as crisp as a potato chip and only marginally funky, and the sound of our crunching could be heard across the small orange-and-green room. Tart salads are an important feature of northern Thai cooking, and the diverse selection at Chao Thai includes salads showcasing Chinese sausage, squid, beef, pork jerky, shrimp, and green papaya, which is on the soupy side and littered with toasted peanuts.
We increasingly turned to that special menu in search of unique dishes not featured at other Queens Thais, which tend to have more exciting menus than their Brooklyn and Manhattan counterparts. One thing I’d never tried was yentafo noodle soup ($7.50), a wild ride of a dish colored a carnal pink with fermented bean paste. The roster of ingredients bobs around like household junk in a flood: cleaned shrimp, creamy fish balls, cubes of jellied pig blood, ghostly white fungus, red-rimmed fish cake, green morning-glory tendrils, and a single pale wonton that rises out of the broth like Moby Dick.
The special menu also includes a gritty yellow curry of hacked-up crabs that takes a lot of effort to eat, and a Chinese-leaning braise of the aforementioned morning glory. Also known as water spinach, it’s decidedly not the climbing white flower beloved of poets. Like Roosevelt Avenue’s Zabb—which specializes in the northeastern Isaan region of Thailand—there’s also a bar snack of sour pork sausage ($5.95) served with little heaps of basil, mint, peanuts, and pickled veggies. It goes as well with beer as buffalo wings. A great bar snack on the regular menu is moo yang, tender flame-grilled planks of beef jerky annealed with a sugar solution.
Like many small cafés, Chao Thai suffers from a certain amount of inconsistency. On two of three visits the best dish was crispy pork in basil sauce ($8.50), thick meaty slabs of fried pork belly sautéed with purple onions and the type of basil called horapha, one of several kinds used in Thai cooking. But on a third visit, the belly was sodden, greasy, and lacking in flavor, and that time our favorite was the shrimp version of jungle curry ($9.95). The roiling bowl of brown broth was notable for a wonderful selection of vegetables, including orange squash, green beans, knobby lotus root, and two types of eggplant. The menu had parenthetically warned “VERY SPICY,” and it wasn’t kidding. We grabbed another bottle of beer and dug in.