January 1 of this year was a big day for New York, and especially for anyone who lives or works on the Upper East Side. It was the start of a new era, an era heralded by a sight rarely seen: people joyfully waiting in line for the privilege of entering the subway. Yes, the opening of the Second Avenue line was a wondrous thing, and not just for those who now find their commutes significantly shorter or less crowded. It’s worth the ride just to emerge at one of those three crisp new stations, but even better to surface within easy reach of restaurants that used to require trekking two long blocks or more. And though the neighborhood may not teem with hot new joints (at least not yet), it does have its fair share of good ones, including PuTawn Local Thai Kitchen, an unassuming newcomer with a noteworthy background and an equally noteworthy menu.
PuTawn’s chef, Therdthus “Tony” Rittaprom, who owns the restaurant with partner Chanchai Khampinchai, was previously the chef at Zabb Elee, the popular Jackson Heights restaurant specializing in the foods of Isan, or northeastern Thailand. The original Zabb Elee closed back in June after nearly a decade (a sibling outpost is still open in the East Village), but not before receiving much critical acclaim and, during Rittaprom’s tenure, a Michelin star in the 2015 guide. It’s one of only four Queens restaurants — and one of just two Thai restaurants — to attain the ranking.
PuTawn is a cozy neighborhood eatery too closely resembling a standard takeout spot to earn a Michelin. But after only three months in business, it’s already cultivated a devoted roster of regulars. This is partially thanks to Pedcharad Rittaprom, the chef’s former wife, who oversees the dining room. Always dressed to the nines from a rotating wardrobe of traditional Thai clothing, she and the other servers are warm and attentive, good at remembering faces. But it’s also thanks to the menu, which is broad but consistently well executed.
Chef Rittaprom, who grew up in the northeastern Roi Et province, serves some of the Isan fare that made Zabb Elee stand out: sweet, pungent som tum (papaya salads) and bright larbs (minced-meat salads) sluiced with fish sauce and lime juice. The basic som tum thai is sweeter than some but pleasantly balanced via a blitz of unforgiving bird’s-eye chile. Meanwhile the som tum mu sua, a pile of shredded green papaya, rice vermicelli, long beans, tomatoes, raw Thai eggplant, fresh shrimp, barbecue pork, and crisp pork rinds, is an irresistible jumble of acid and umami, crisp and tender.
The larbs — made with pork, beef, chicken, duck, or mushrooms — also lean a hair lighter and sweeter than other versions I’ve had. They’re good, but the nuer num tok, a salad of grilled sliced steak dressed with the same mix of fish sauce and lime juice plus onion, herbs, chile flakes, and toasted rice powder, is a bit heartier and more flavorful. And the best use of that larb sauce (as it’s called on the menu) appears among the list of “chef’s specials”: larb pla grob, a whole red snapper fried until the skin is crisp as a potato chip, piled with a tangle of red onion, cilantro, mint, and slivered kaffir lime leaves, then doused with the pungent dressing. The result is punchier and more texturally satisfying than the meat larbs, best eaten with your hands using a pinch of sticky rice to pluck the tender fish from the bones.
But the menu at PuTawn is not overwhelmingly Isan. It divides its attention evenly between sharp, fiery Isan flavors, comforting stir-fries, and warm, hearty dishes from the north (Chiang Mai and the surrounding area). Those stir-fries, served with a mound of rice and a fried egg, appear on tables as regularly as the core set of Thai takeout classics: pad thai, penang curry, pad see ew. They’re solid, and Khampinchai emphasizes that they’re cooked from scratch, not from premade sauces, which tend to be sweet and are often missing the salty funk of fish sauce. But I was more excited to see the section of the menu devoted to northern Thailand, a region still underrepresented in New York’s flourishing Thai food scene.
Rittaprom lived in the north for years, and tells the Voice that he imports many of his herbs and spices from there so that his dishes will taste the same. He makes his own sai ua, a coarsely ground pork sausage fragrant from kaffir lime and red curry. At PuTawn it’s grilled until it splits and the edges char, then sliced and served with red onion, fresh ginger, and peanuts — a great drinking snack, especially with a $4 Singha. There’s also larb moo kua, a wholly different take on minced-pork salad than the Isan version, which gets its flavor from warm curry spices, garlic, and scallions rather than fish sauce and lime. Gang hung lay, a rich, slightly sweet stew made with melting pieces of pork belly, curry, and ginger, is just the thing to order when a winter wind is whipping down First Avenue.
The universe of Manhattan Thai restaurants has greatly expanded in the past five years, to include trendy spots like Uncle Boon’s and Isan specialists like Somtum Der, so that PuTawn may never be the destination that Zabb Elee was. But it is a destination for the Upper East Side, and there’s no better time to visit than now. The new 86th Street–Second Avenue station has an entrance on 83rd, just a block from PuTawn. So you can go, take in the Chuck Close mosaics and that new-subway smell, then saunter east for a taste of Thailand’s northern regions from a seasoned cook.
1584 First Ave.
New York, NY 10028