A decade ago, the average New Yorker would be hard-pressed to name 10 destination-worthy Thai restaurants, but as the city’s collective palate has expanded, so too have the options for regional cuisines from Southeast Asia; fiery, sour Northeastern Isaan flavors seem to be in particular abundance these days. The geography has also changed: no longer must the hungry masses venture to Woodside and Elmhurst for their fish sauce fixes, though the restaurants that have proliferated in the Queens neighborhoods are most certainly worth the trip. When the chili powder dust has settled, these are our 10 Best Thai restaurants in NYC.
10. Thai Market, 960 Amsterdam Avenue
Manhattan Valley may be modest in size (spanning 16 or so city blocks), but the area–on the upper reaches of the Upper West Side–enjoys a wealth of great, affordable restaurants, and Thai Market is most assuredly one of these. Red umbrellas are meant to evoke Bangkok’s night markets, and an ornate tin ceiling adds a certain atmosphere missing from many of its contemporaries. Stir fries are refreshingly light on oil, and the kitchen will crank up the spice upon request. We’re smitten with the Thai Market Crepe, an ultra-thin pancake with crisp edges and a soft, swollen middle stuffed with pulverized toasted coconut, dried shrimp, and mung bean sprouts; more adventurous folk would do well to order a bowl of goong chae nam pla, a raw shrimp dish that packs plenty of chili heat.
9. Zabb Elee, 75 Second Avenue
The Manhattan outpost of an Isaan-centric spot in Elmhurst, this whitewashed wonderland of heat and sourness has all the frills of a dainty French bistro. The muted setting allows the vibrant food to steal the show. Verdant morning glory, crunchy stems and all, sits in a puddle of burnished sauce that harmonizes notes of salt, sweetness, sourness, and intense chile heat. The cooks at Zabb Elee might even have a bit of an environmentalist streak, frying up that scourge of Central Park (and satanic hell spawn), the “walking”, sharp-toothed snakehead fish. We’re willing to bet the EPA never dreamed up a solution this delicious, which is the only word fitting to describe the combination of crispy, firm flesh, and powerful garlic, lime sauce brimming with chopped chilies.
8. SriPraPhai, 64-13 39th Avenue, Queens
Mekong matriarch Sripraphai Tipmanee set up shop in Woodside, Queens over 20 years ago, and the city’s dining landscape was forever changed. The restaurant proved so popular that Tipmanee was forced to move to a larger location complete with a spacious courtyard. The place still commands hour-long waits. There’s a near-legendary watercress salad, and curries spicy enough to moisten your brow, but it’s the crisp fried catfish with green mango and cashew nuts that keeps us coming back; the golden brown nuggets sport crunch and sour sweetness.
7. Ayada Thai, 77-08 Woodside Avenue
The curries here are so heady, you’re bound to get sweaty. When Ayada is firing on all cylinders, there’s hardly a better poultry dish in town than the duck Penang curry; crackled, boneless chunks of bird sit in a rich curry perfumed with lemongrass and galangal. Whereas SriPraPhai has expanded and gone on to spawn a sister restaurant, Ayada still feels like a find. Perhaps as an ode to Thailand’s favorite citrus fruit, the walls are painted a vivid lime green, giving diners a visual jolt to go along with the food.
6. Larb Ubol, 480 Ninth Avenue
If the dishes at this joy-inducing Hell’s Kitchen Siamese joint taste familiar, it’s most likely because chef Ratchanee Sumpatboon, formerly of Zabb Elee and the now defunct Poodam’s, is running the show. Sitting in loud, colorful plaid-upholstered chairs, diners tuck into modest hills of crab fried rice, tender pork tossed with sautéed morning glory, and astringent papaya salads. Particularly impressive are the 10 different variations of larb, the spicy minced meat salad teeming with punchy Thai herbs strewn through piles of shredded grilled catfish, diced mushrooms, chopped duck, pork liver, and more. Though the atmosphere feels better suited to warmer months, with tiny, brightly colored umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, your winter belly won’t mind once you start warming yourself with a bowl of hot, sour tom zab soup loaded with chunks of pork leg.
5. Uncle Boons, 7 Spring Street
The flavors of Thailand focused through a fine dining lens, Uncle Boons is the tarted up brainchild of husband and wife (and Per Se vets) Matt Danzer and Ann Redding. The duo purport that their food is inauthentic and beholden to no regional limitations, but a popular snack of mieng kum–wherein betel leaves get wrapped around a peppery mixture of dried shrimp, toasted coconut, and chilies–proves that the kitchen can pull off traditional plates just as well as some of their offbeat signatures, like the spicy noodle dish mee krob, which Danzer plugs with melting nuggets of sweetbreads. There are even some gussied up cocktails despite the lack of a full liquor license, including a tamarind shandy that utilizes pomelo bitters. Despite all these trappings, Uncle Boons still feels charmingly unpretentious, and the owners’ love of the cuisine speaks for itself.
4. Somtum Der, 85 Avenue A
The second branch of a well-respected Bangkok restaurant preaching the Isaan gospel, ordering here is as simple as pointing to one of the many lush photographs that fill out the menu (nearly every dish gets its own glamour shot). Pretty as it is, take a second to look around the modern space, heavy on blonde wood. Still, it’s the food that excites most. The namesake dish, a pungent green papaya salad redolent with the fermented fish sauce pla ra and crab, pork neck, or mackerel, boasts a pervasive sweetness from palm sugar. You’ll find no curries here, but chile heads will dig pad ki mao–thick rice noodles with ground pork, fried basil leaves, and plenty of Scoville units. Presented in a pool of sweetened condensed milk, Thai tea panna cotta does an inoffensive job of pulling off fusion cuisine.
3. Chao Thai, 85-03 Whitney Avenue, Queens
A tried and true hole-in-the-wall in Elmhurst, Queens, Chao Thai’s bright orange façade should serve a similar purpose as the same hue on Homeland Security’s threat scale–there is some spicy food to be had inside. Grab one of 16 seats and settle in for a bracingly authentic experience. Beef larb eschews ground meat for hand-chopped cow, giving the dish a heft from texture and fat; a scattering of fried shallots helps bind the flavors with muted crunch. Milder than traditional coconut milk curries, a viscous jackfruit and sparerib curry finds hunks of bone-in pork rib bobbing in tantalizing stew. Don’t let the lack of liquor license deter you; chances are you won’t be shunned if you show up with a six pack of Singha or Chang.
2. Pok Pok Ny, 127 Columbia Street, Brooklyn
Believe the hype. Thailand’s unofficial adopted son Andy Ricker has made it his mission in life to share authentic northeastern Thai cuisine, first with the good people in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, and then with this city’s not-so-huddled masses in Brooklyn. The chef’s obsessive attention to detail and devotion to ingredient integrity makes Pok Pok that rare bird of a restaurant that honors traditions while moving the cuisine forward. Ricker’s lacquered chicken wings and pad Thai were popular enough to warrant satellite locations (both concepts occupied the same location at separate times), but it’s the personal touches that endear this place to us so. A fragrant, deeply flavored plate of minced pork parts simmered with blood, the burgundy-colored Da Chom’s laap meuang is a recreation of a dish learned in a village near Chiang Mai. Who is the pedagogue Da Chom? He’s the father of Ricker’s friend. If you find yourself facing a long wait, head over to the recently opened Whiskey Soda Lounge, where Thai cocktails and bar bites await.
1. Ngam, 99 Third Avenue
Hong Thaimee’s East Village restaurant has done a fine job juxtaposing traditional Thai flavors with the Western accoutrements (seasonality, sustainability) of a trend-driven modern restaurant. Ngam serves some of the best pad Thai on the mainland, redolent of fish sauce and brimming with crunchy peanuts, but the former runway model and Spice Market chef also plays to the crowd with a curry paste-spiked burger with a side of kabocha squash and sweet potato Chiang Mai tempura fries. Though not as aggressive with the pepper some of the city’s more traditional establishments, you’ll receive a good dose of spice if you ask for it. There’s fire during dessert as well in the form of a malty, rich Ovaltine brownie kissed with heat from bird’s eye chilies.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 1, 2013