Thai restaurants in Queens are legendary for food far more pungent, regional, and genuine than their tired, sugary, vegetable-carving counterparts in the other boroughs. Woodside’s Sripraphai has become the most notorious Siamese dining destination in the city, but lesser-known places like Chao Thai, Poodam, Arunee, Zabb, and Ayada are every bit as good, each with its own idiosyncratic selection of specialties.
Now, the local roster of Thai cafés is further ballooning. Originally, these places formed a rough semicircle around Wattbuddsatsai, a Buddhist temple on 46th Avenue. But I recently picked up a Queens newspaper with a Christian theme called Thai Good News, and found ads for several restaurants, more remote from the temple, in Woodside and Astoria. A whirlwind tour beckoned.
“This décor mostly came from Ikea,” proclaimed one of my crew as we stepped inside Rumphool Authentic Thai Food (57-17 Roosevelt Avenue, Woodside, Queens, 718-429-8899), a compact, colorful establishment right on Roosevelt Avenue, cowering under the Long Island Rail Road overpass. The splendid duck ka-tiem ($12) arrived lined up in crunchy slices, strewn with fried garlic. And I can’t remember having had a better som tum (green papaya salad, $6), comprising toasted rice, firm unripe fruit, brittle peanuts, pine-green yard beans, a surfeit of fish sauce, and a bit of a burn, even though the food hadn’t been ordered spicy—a superb sign! The menu neglects coconut-milk curries in favor of salads, Chinese-leaning noodles, and bar snacks, even though the joint lacks a liquor license. Among snacks, find such Japanese flourishes as edamame, typical of restaurants in Bangkok.
The setup at newly opened Thailand’s Center Point (63-19 39th Avenue, Woodside, Queens, 718-651-6888) looked promising: a well-stocked Southeast Asian bodega in one storefront, with a compact dining area in an adjacent space, separated by a low wall that lets you monitor what people are buying in the store. Hovering up near the ceiling, a Jesus shrine offers wordless approval of your order. The menu is more extensive than at Rumphool, and nearby Sripraphai has been influential in this regard. Favoring the cuisines of Isaan and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, there are dishes from all parts of the country, and inventions, too, like “American fried rice,” featuring hot dogs, chicken, and raisins. We skipped it. Devoid of coconut milk in the northern style, the incendiary sour curry and jungle curry were superb—and cheap at $6.95. While the pork jerky was underflavored, it came with two powerful dipping sauces, and the pig leg over rice ($6.50) was devastatingly good: silky meat in a compact heap, set on choy sum greens.
Our next stop was Thai Pavilion (37-10 30th Avenue, Astoria, Queens, 718-777-5546), where we marveled at the Zagat food rating of 22 posted in the window. When we entered, we found out why. The premises were elegant by Siamese-restaurant standards, decorated with highbrow Buddhist-themed art and dotted with dating couples digging into pricey specials like neau yang nam jiem ($19)—a small sliced sirloin grilled to medium-rare perfection. Though it was accompanied by a small bowl of sauce with real funk and heat, most diners barely touched it. Atypically, several lamb dishes grace the menu, and massaman curries are in the forefront, both details suggesting Muslim influence. But there’s a dearth of appetizers and snacks, and the whole fish tend to come decorated with maraschino cherries.
Thai Pavilion lies along a strip of 30th Avenue just west of Steinway Street, which is fast becoming a haven for upscale restaurants with sidewalk cafés. A few blocks south and west in a less night-lifey region lies Arharn Thai (32-05 36th Avenue, Astoria, Queens, 718-728-5563), a name that merely means “Thai Restaurant.” We breathed a sigh of anticipation as we surveyed a menu with lots of duck, spicy salads, crispy catfish, meat jerkies, and other northern Thai favorites. The best dish we sampled, “pick king” ($9.95), tasted positively Laotian: tender pork swatches and tough yard beans in an agreeable sauce dominated by shredded lemongrass. Alas, the Thai sausage salad was a bit dull, and the beef in our rice noodles (kouy teaw kee mowe, $8.95) was less fresh than we might have hoped. The dining room is dark and elaborately decorated, and the waiters run around in lovely gold-colored jackets.
Which places would we go back to? Thailand’s Center Point, no doubt, but also Rumphool, especially for its duck dishes, bar snacks, BYOB, and relaxing fast-food vibe. Arharn deserves another chance, since it attempts more than the other places, and it might be that we hit it on a bad day. Our meal at the fusion-y, formal, and pricey Thai Pavilion made us not want to go back—not in a month of churchgoing Sundays. Even though it was touted by the maraschino-loving Zagats.