We stared in wonder at our raw shrimp salad ($7)—eight gray beauties, beheaded and deveined, each splayed specimen meticulously mounded with a tasty emerald relish. “That doesn’t look very Thai,” I volunteered to our laughing hostess. “Some of us worked at a Japanese hotel in Bangkok,” she explained, indicating that what we were eating was a sort of Thai-Japanese fusion, but one that would raise no eyebrows in Bangkok.
I felt like a grizzled prospector who’d just returned from the Outback—and I don’t mean the steakhouse. After several years of seeking out the fiery, fishy, and austere regional cuisine of Isaan in various boroughs, I’d just returned, at least figuratively, to Thailand’s glittering capital and been amazed at the variety and richness of the cooking. The shrimp were fantastic, though the sweet density and slug-like texture can be off-putting at first. Moreover, it was a dish so rich that one or two crustaceans per person proved sufficient.
My posse and I were perched in Ayada, a new Thai restaurant in Elmhurst. This Queens town has generated so many Thai places lately that you might mistake it for East Hollywood. Well, maybe not quite. Spawned by a grocery on the next block of Woodside Avenue, Ayada has already become a favorite of Siamese immigrants living in this neighborhood of low-rise apartment buildings and single-family dwellings that look an awful lot like farmhouses.
The menu takes in the cuisine of the entire country, but shows more enthusiasm for the south than the north. Thus, curries are a big commodity at Ayada. You’re already familiar with those thickened with coconut milk—green, red, Massaman, and Panang—but Ayada favors those that omit the thick white fluid. Kang som sour curry ($8) is a revelation—more soup than curry—flaunting a broth goosed with sour tamarind paste. I just love it when curries don’t come with a catalog of meat options. Instead of an indifferent choice of beef, chicken, pork, etc., this puckering curry inevitably contains shrimp paired with wobbly swatches of spinach omelet that float merrily on top.
Other coconut-free varieties include a fiery jungle curry bobbing with miniature zebra-striped eggplants; a “fish-flavor curry” too dark and fishy for some; and, best of all, a pork curry ($7) that features huge quantities of a meat eschewed by many of the city’s Thai restaurants. In this forthright presentation, tendrils of sautéed meat mingle with fresh chilies in various shades of yellow, green, and red; whole lime leaves and minced turmeric rhizomes furnish further earthy flavor. With similar intense porkiness, pig leg over rice ($7) is a working-class classic, an omnibus platter that includes meat, rubbery skin, and unctuous fat, presented with pickled mustard greens, tea-boiled eggs, and a mound of rice—and I can’t think of a better lunch for one person.
The beef tendon soup ($4/$7) is also spectacular, loaded with jelly-like bits of bovine connective tissue and plenty of veggies. The menu asks you to specify “light” or “dark,” and I’d ordered the light before my friend Francis arrived. A window in Francis’s 77th Street apartment looks down on the restaurant, and he’s developed the habit of inviting friends to the restaurant, then coming down when he sees they’ve arrived. He was enthusiastic that I’d zoned in on the beef tendon soup, but noted when the soup appeared: “Dude, you should’ve gotten the dark. They pour pig blood in that.” Indeed, pig blood is a revered ingredient in southern Thai cooking.
And the whole fish at Ayada didn’t lag, either. A good-size pink snapper costs $16, and there are three ways to order it: One tops the fried fish with green mango, while another smothers it in chile sauce. (Both are good, but mundane.) We’d overlooked the third option till one of the hostesses insisted we try the dull-sounding “steamed fish.” It turned out to be a party on a plate—the snapper poised on a bed of lettuce and smeared with a cilantro-and-green-chile sauce, sumptuously decorated with slivers of raw garlic, pickled chilies, lime wedges, and carved cucumbers.
Ayada doesn’t fool around much with desserts, and the Thai restaurant standards of mango sticky rice and pumpkin custard have gone AWOL. Instead, Japanese influences are demonstrated once again. Ayada makes its own ice cream. The green-tea version is a bit sweeter than the Nipponese standard; more interesting is iced-tea ice cream, made with the syrup normally deployed in Thai iced tea. You’ll find it tastes a thousand times better in the ice cream than in the too-sweet beverage.