“This place doesn’t look very good,” exclaimed a veteran member of my dining posse as we crawled into Talent Thai after a hard day’s night of gallery hopping across town in Chelsea. Indeed, even the location on the lower slopes of Murray Hill was all wrong for one of the city’s best Thais, which usually pop up in places like Elmhurst and Hell’s Kitchen. Talent Thai is part of a formidable new restaurant row that has developed on East 34th Street between Second and Third avenues in the past few years, a stretch that also includes a superb Turkish café (Ali Baba) and a crowd-pleasing Peruvian chain rotisserie (Pio Pio).
Talent Thai is deep and narrow, and clad in kitsch: Silvery artificial leaves flutter on deep brown walls, a line of seated Buddhas smile in a niche, and spindly orchids decorate tables so small that, if you order more than one dish per person, you’re going to experience some teetering and maybe some spillage. As you wait longer than you should for your food to arrive, you can’t help but notice delivery guys sprinting up the center of the restaurant on the way to their bikes outside, seeking the luxury high-rises that ring the site like a deformed sphincter. Never mind: The food on the aggressively pan-Thai menu is worth whatever wait you have to endure.
From Chiang Mai—a city in Thailand’s mountainous northern province, not far from the Burmese border—comes a wonderful curried noodle soup thickened with coconut milk called Khao Soi ($9.95). Submerged egg noodles lurk in the bottom, while a fried rendition of the same noodles decorates the top—allowing you to make a crunchy then squishy gustatory comparison. Another brilliant standard from the same region is “stewed beef soup” ($4.95), which sounds about as interesting as a bag full of bolts. Au contraire! The rich red broth reminds us that pig’s blood is a standard component of the recipe back home, but here you’ll find only tender meat, bean sprouts, and greens, flavored with an impressive range of Southeast Asian herbs and rhizomes.
Naturally, the restaurant covers all the Thai curry bases, with most of the recipes originating in the south and central parts of the country, made with copious quantities of coconut milk. Several are mild, which may go against your idea of what “curry” means. Mildest and most Indian of all is Massaman, a recipe that originated in Thailand’s sinuous southern peninsula, traditionally featuring chicken and potatoes heavily scented with cumin. By legend, it was brought to the country by Muslim accountants (“Massaman” is a corruption of “Muslim”) imported to work in the Thai king’s court. Who knows how much bad dancing and singing they had to endure during the 19th-century era depicted in The King and I?
Our favorite curry, hands down, was much hotter: Green curry ($10.95) is a central Thai favorite that features eggplant and your choice of protein flavored with fistfuls of fragrant holy basil and kaffir lime leaves. It tastes best when made with pork, though a vegetarian version using mock duck is praiseworthy, too. Also typical of Central Thailand cooking are hot-and-sour tom yum soup, stir-fries lubricated with basil sauce, and edamame, Japanese steamed soy beans that Bangkok has clasped to its heaving bosom.
For years, New Yorkers have avidly sought out the cooking of Isaan, Thailand’s most impoverished region, which lies next to Laos on the Mekong River. Queens restaurants like Sripraphai, Zabb, and Chao Thai feature this cuisine, which is rich in tart and herbal flavors, grills more often than stews, obsesses on salads, makes little use of coconut milk, and is often spicy as hell. Usually made with ground pork, Talent’s larb sadly deploys ground chicken breast, which deprives the salad of rich flavor.
Other Isaan standards fare far better. In kai yang som tum ($14.95), three regional standards gang up in one gigantic entrée. Som tum is the notorious green papaya salad, here with an assertive citrus dressing and as much heat as you ask for. There’s also a side plate of sticky rice, but the focus of the massive platter is a half grilled chicken, which benefits tremendously from its salty and fishy marinade. This Isaan specialty isn’t easy to find around town.
The dish that surprised us most, though, sported another of Talent’s blasé names: “steamed dumplings” ($4.95). The set of four looked like mushy, wrinkled brains, but—filled with minced turnip greens and peanuts—they produced a startling crunch. We all fell silent for a moment and smiled like the niche Buddhas.