A few weeks ago, we reported on Am-Thai Chili Basil Kitchen, a microscopic but very good restaurant in Kensington that specializes in the cooking of Bangkok and Thailand’s southern peninsula. Soon after, I stumbled on a new Thai restaurant at the northern verge of Sunset Park’s Chinatown, with a fascinating menu reflecting the multiplicity of cooking styles found throughout the country. Is Brooklyn Thai—once a collection of lackluster, sugar-happy, fish-sauce-challenged joints—beginning to be a threat to the hegemony of Queens Thais? It could happen, but probably not in our lifetimes.
To check it out, I brought with me Ganda Suthivarakom (“Sue-thee-VAH-rah-comb”), a friend and food blogger who grew up in Los Angeles of immigrant Thai parents. She expressed approval as she leafed through the menu. Though it lacks a liquor license (BYOB!), the place is named MaiThai, misspelling the name of a sweet cocktail invented in 1944 at Trader Vic’s in Los Angeles. It occupies a sunny corner storefront with a suburban-style wooden deck out front, allowing patrons to sunbathe if they so desire. Once inside, the room is dominated by an open kitchen, and a niche running along one wall is filled with eight smirking Buddhas. Aimed at Chinese-American patrons rather than random Brooklynites, the Thai food is complexly flavored, with plenty of fish sauce in all the right places, but a sad dearth of chile heat.
“There is really no such thing as appetizers in Thai cuisine,” Ganda noted as she put together an order for our party of six. Accordingly, we started out with larb moo ($6), a tart, entrée-size salad of ground pork, purple onions, fresh mint, and chilies. In Brooklyn, the salad is usually made with boring ground chicken breast. “This isn’t quite as hot as it ought to be,” Ganda observed, gently understating the case. Still, on that and subsequent visits, we determined that the northern Thai–composed salads are some of the menu’s best offerings. The papaya salad is particularly dope, adding peanuts and miniature dried shrimp to the firm tendrils of green fruit for a triple crunch. In order of excellence, we also enjoyed the duck salad and the barbecued pork salad ($6.50), the latter with a wonderfully rich soy dressing. (The succulent pork contained therein is also available as an appetizer, $7).
Indeed, another feature that distinguishes MaiThai from other Siamese restaurants is the availability of pork, a meat often omitted in Brooklyn Thais, perhaps so as not to discourage observant Jews and Muslims. One of our favorite dishes was ki mao moo krob ($9), a stir-fry of crisp pork belly and Asian basil. Arriving about the same time, the alliterative pad ped ped featured roast duck stewed with miniature green eggplants and aromatic herbs in a somewhat spicy scarlet sauce. Too bad the duck slices had turned soggy.
The list of noodles was impressive in its diversity and length, a good sign for a Thai restaurant. Ganda ordered kanom jean koa wan ($7), which might be the name of a chop socky film star. But the delicate rice noodles were overwhelmed by the coconut-thickened green curry, nearly disintegrating into mush by the time the bowl reached the table. “This dish should be presented with the freshly cooked noodles coiled in the middle of the plate, and the sauce poured over at the last minute,” Ganda noted. So instead, opt for lad nard, broader wheat noodles with beef and bok choy in a dark and delicious garlic sauce that can only be described as gravy.
Like its fellow Cantonese and Fujianese restaurants strung like pearls along Eighth Avenue, MaiThai generally eschews fillets in favor of whole fish. And the whole fish tends to be damn good. While the menu lures you with pomfret and porgy, these are rarely available. Instead, a snapper can be had with eight different sauces, an especially good deal at a market price of around $19. Of these, our party preferred pla lard prik, a crisp specimen in possession of all its parts (except the guts) smothered in a sweet, hot, red-chile sauce.
Like Kensington’s Chili Basil Kitchen, MaiThai expands our roster of Thai dishes. From southern Thailand comes pad sa-tor ($10), a dense stir-fry of shrimp, shrimp paste, and sa-tor, a bean that looks and chews like a tough soybean. Known elsewhere in Asia as petai, the flavor is more like a freshly fallen gingko nut just after you’ve stepped on it—which leads us to its common and completely appropriate English name: “stink bean.”