Much ink has been spilled over the last decade concerning the new availability of Isaan food in Queens. Issuing from the northeastern corner of Thailand, and heavily influenced by Lao cooking, the cuisine is big on fiery meat-bearing salads, catfish fried into a crunchy lattice, fermented pork sausages, sticky rice, spice-coated chicken, and a pungent salad of green papaya and crab. What a surprise, then, to stumble into Kensington’s Am-Thai Chili Basil Kitchen, on a nowheresville stretch of Brooklyn’s McDonald Avenue, and find the place turning up its nose at Isaan, concentrating on the lively cooking of Bangkok instead.
Sometimes, the smaller the place, the bigger the menu. Such is the case at Am-Thai, where the elephantine bill of fare extends to 130 dishes in 11 categories—and that’s not counting the options multiplier, by which any dish can be made with shrimp, fried tofu, chicken, beef, whole or filleted fish, duck, or even mock duck, making over 1,000 choices in all.
Talk about small: The interior contains a single, two-person table, while a half-dozen members of an extended Bangkok family busy themselves in the kitchen. It’s like eating in a hawker stall, noted one blogger, or maybe like having your own private cooking staff, though they’re often distracted by the perpetual flow of delivery orders that find their way out the door. For fine-weather dining, there’s an orange picnic table outside, bathed at night in the light of fluorescent bulbs, making the rich curries glow in surreal shades of orange, yellow, and green.
The menu bulges with dishes from central Thailand and the southern peninsula, in addition to the international style of Bangkok cooking, which is something like that of Hong Kong in its breadth of reference and easy absorption of outside influences. First off, the menu is awash in coconut milk. It serves as the rich liquid bedrock of the curries, proves indispensable in soups, and is even poured over desserts like taro custard ($5).
Emblematic of southern Thai cooking, the curries are mellow and complex, but not particularly spicy, though this might be partly due to the restaurant’s location in tender-tongued Kensington. The vegetable-heavy yellow curry ($8) is really deep orange, deriving its color and earthy flavor from turmeric. Pick chicken to go with this one. The Panang curry—possibly name-checking a region across the border in Malaysia called Penang—is hotter, and the curry paste it comes from is hopelessly complex, but certainly includes ginger, galangal, lime zest, garlic, and shallots. Am-Thai’s version is showered with shredded lime leaves for extra pungency, and you’re crazy if you don’t get the beef version. Or maybe you just don’t like beef.
The menu offers many more curries, some of which feature fruit, a favorite ingredient in the peninsular portion of Thailand. Other curries have escaped the menu’s curry list entirely, including fish chu chee curry (a Central Thai favorite, $12 for tilapia fillet, $15 for a whole sea bass) and curried fish dumplings (swimming in more coconut milk). There’s also khao soy gai, an orange chicken curry topped with fried noodles. “Isn’t that an Isaan recipe?” I asked the matriarch. “Yes,” she replied somewhat sheepishly, “I tasted it at Sripraphai and decided to make it myself.” But the most impressive use of coconut milk is in the tom kha gai soup ($4), a Bangkok favorite that had my pals moaning in ecstasy.
Duck is an obsession, and the menu boasts 10 duck dishes, and an additional six made from mock duck. We made a beeline for duck herbal ($13) and had one of the best things we’d tasted this year, a stir fry of pressed duck with a super-crunchy texture and inviting garnet hue, exuberantly flavored with bushels of green herbs (kaffir lime leaves, tiny pungent basil blossoms, smashed lemongrass, green onions, and cilantro) in a sweet fishy glaze. The recipes featuring mock duck are simply amazing. Made from a bean-curd product that develops a friable texture and dark-brown color, it excels with tender bamboo shoots and green beans in “moc duck spicy bamboo” ($8).
The menu abounds with oddities. Mussel pancake ($6) is an opulent wonder of deshelled shellfish planted in a pale and gooey rice-starch matrix. More iffy-sounding is “duck cherry”: It employs slices of roast duck and comes littered with maraschino cherries in a red-wine sauce. Sounds disgusting, right? It actually tastes pretty good. A little Web research demonstrates it’s a hotel-dining-room standard in Bangkok. You can always pick the maraschinos off the top before you devour it.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 3, 2008