One of the jewels in NYC’s food scene is the cluster of Thai restaurants in central Queens, around Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst, at the confluence of the 7 and E/F subway lines. As in other regional centres around the city, whether Flushing (Chinese), or Coney Island (former USSR), there is a culinary infrastructure of markets, dry-goods shops, restaurants, and critically, old ladies keeping the eateries honest.
Thai is of particular interest precisely because I’ve found it to be rare in Western cities – Thailand, unlike Vietnam and Cambodia, had a relatively peaceful twentieth-century. Nor was it substantially colonised. Hence there was less of a diaspora; the exodus that led to the awesome Vietnamese food of Paris, or the widespread, if often dubious, ‘Indian’ food in the UK. London has only a few decent Thai restaurants. Som Saa is run by non-Thais, but they, as so often, do a better job of it than natives. It had a fantastic energy when it was in the chaos of Climpson’s Arch, and I’m looking forward to their permanent digs. Nahm I never quite felt comfortable in, sweating bullets and hyperventilating always felt wrong in the expensively-bought serenity of Belgravia.
NYC’s Thai food scene hit the big-time with Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok Ny, which has great food. Personally, the pleasure sort of drops out of it when one sees the crowd – the Brooklyn/Manhattan food-tourism bunch, clutching their iPhones, seeking out the hottest new restaurant on Timeout.
For my money (and it would be a lot cheaper than any of the above), I would head out to Queens. On a weekday one might see no crackers unimaginatively munching on pad-thai, there are actual Thai families feasting, there are almost entirely Thai staff in the kitchen, often supervised by a portly mama, and when one’s done, there’s the supermarket nearby to pick up kaffir-lime leaves and frozen krachai.
This list is non-exhaustive, both in terms of restaurants and menus. Pick up David Thompson’s (aforementioned Nahm) Aharn Thai / Thai Food, it will tell more than you ever wanted to know about culture, history, traditions, ingredients, and recipes. The recipes are quite elaborate and few will follow them precisely, but they are useful as a canonical reference to be modified as ingredients, time, skill, and patience dictate. Unless otherwise mentioned, Thompson is a principal source of background material below. The book I actually use to cook is by Vatcharin Bhumichitr – a pragmatic volume that allows for shortcuts (for instance, taking a base red-curry paste, modifying it slightly to emulate other, similar, curry pastes).
Playground (Woodside Ave)
This is pretty awesome – a karaoke bar crossed with Thai restaurant, ironically next to the old Zabb space (below). Food is reliably spicy and a well-heeled Thai clientele, not dis-similar to Khao Kang, albeit a more comfortable space. As of Oct 2017, this feels like one of the top spots in Woodside/Jackson Heights.
Zabb Elee (Woodside Ave, don’t know anything about the Manhattan branch)
[Note Oct 2017: this review hasn’t been updated – but briefly, Zabb received a Michelin star in 2015 but has lost it in 2016, and seems to have changed ownership and name – the food is now merely okay, and mostly Isarn-style (Northeast)]. Isarn food has been trendy for a few years (Pok Pok Ny, Som Saa to some extent). The region is a plateau of 200m, and critically, near the great Mekong river, snaking along the border with Laos and Cambodia. Until recently, the land was densely wooded, inaccessible, and rural. The people of the region are a mix of Khmer and Lao, with the Thai being relative newcomers from the 10th-century. The land and people were poor, and the food pungent and spicy, so as to better relieve the monotony of white rice. Unlike the south, glutinous rice and coconuts are not features of the cuisine. Fermented fish (pla raa), raw minced meat salad (larp), a cornucopia of herbs, and grilling, as opposed to the elaborately cooked curries of Bangkok, are the norm here.
My favourites on Zabb’s menu: the grilled Thai sausage is superb, redolent of lime leaves and ginger. The yellow curry with bamboo shoot was awesome – a curry with a base of fermented fish (not that one necessarily can tell, the fishiness has been tempered and balanced as so often in the Thai repertoire), and the delicious aroma of sheets of fresh bamboo shoots. Bamboo shoots are fiddly to prepare, so this is a great dish to eat out (as is the sausage). Naamya Pa and Pak Tai were both good. The Lao Soup was excellent – a darkish broth – very different from the other soups, perhaps meat-based – and, in a pleasant surprise, the chicken version was quite different from the catfish. A word on Southeast-Asian catfish – I believe these might be from the Mekong river – they are pretty bony, but eventually one works out the structure. Still, I don’t love them, but they contribute a lot of flavour.
On the salad front, there was a sausage of raw and sliced pork sausage with papaya – it was interesting, funnily, though the sliced sausage reminded me of the gross hybrid of pate and baloney meat found in ‘authentic’ Vietnamese sandwiches. In a salad, however, somehow it worked. The Lao papaya salad with fermented fish and tiny purple preserved crabs was pretty good, but like many papaya salads, too sweet for me personally. The larp ironically, weren’t my favourite – I prefer to use lime leaves, lemongrass and loads of roasted rice – whereas Zabb’s were closer to Thompson’s canonical, simpler, version. Having said that, I had the catfish, and chicken, varieties, and both were great. They also have duck, beef, pork, pork liver, pork ear, crispy pork, and crispy fish – knock yourself out.
Sake Bar Zabb
While at Zabb, or probably on another day, check out the izakaya downstairs. Unrelated to the Thai restaurant, other than by name, the basement joint was started by a young Thai guy passionate about Japanese food. He has made a drinking den that could easily fit under the Yurakucho Arches at Tokyo Central. The Sapporo pitchers are super, as are the crazy, mayonnaise-and-eel sauce drenched rolls.
Kitchen 79 (Jackson Heights)
This place, with the most insane nightclub interior, was admirably summed up by Robert Sietsema which I’ll struggle to outdo. But a bit more on the south of the country: there is a low-lying region near Bangkok and then the thin, hilly, monsoon-ridden Isthmus of Kra. Tourists may know this area as it is near Phuket and Samui, and it is much less isolated than Isarn. The people are split between Muslims and Buddhists, and the food has something in common with Malaysia and points to the south, influenced as they are by traders plying the sea-route from India. Apparently there are also some marginal ethnic communities, such as sea gypsies and pygmies in the dark forests.
The food of the south is characterised by use of turmeric, coconut, and sour things like tamarind. Unlike in the north, fish is much eaten, fresh as well as dried. Not surprisingly, cardamom, cumin, and ginger figure in the cuisine.
Kitchen 79’s sweet staff freely admit that they mostly cater to non-Thai, given their location in the melting-pot that is Jackson Heights. Yet on weekdays at lunchtime, I see plenty of Thai eating there in little groups. The menu is forced to span all tastes, but I stuck with the stunning Gaeng Tai Pla curry, a brown curry from the south with vegetables and a base of (possibly fermented) mackerel and prawns. Another standout dish was the Kao Kling Moo, a southern dry curry paste with ground meat (I had chicken). This was one of the best Thai dishes I’ve had, ever. Both dishes are intense and spicy, and are much better shared with others.
Khao Kang (Woodside)
I’m a bit reluctant to post this one – it is tiny, a caff really. But it’s possibly the best of the lot, because of the variety on offer. One can see what’s freshly made that day, and try a few things. The clientele is almost 100% Thai, and young hip ones at that, but enough oldies come in to assure one that standards are being upheld. No one speaks English particularly well, which is reassuring. It was interesting to have reference dishes, such as the bamboo curry at Zabb Elee, here made with fish rather than prawns – I preferred this version frankly. There is also an astoundingly fishy curry here, seemingly made with fish head, smokily complex, intensely spicy, with either palm hearts or bamboo shoots in it – again, a must try. I find the eggs with pork belly in sweet brown sauce a perfect foil to the other spicy food, and any time they have vegetables, often simply sauteed with ginger and oyster sauce, I take those as well.
Paet Rio (Broadway)
The food is very good here, with lovely service and the place is stylishly decorated. I don’t have a specific recommendation, but do recall an intensely spicy catfish curry with Thai globe aubergines and green peppercorns. My fondness for this place comes down to the owner, who ran a tiny takeaway in Hell’s Kitchen called Wondee Siam – this was where I first ate real Thai food in 1997 – before taking rooms in Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel, the doyenne of Asia’s grand hotels. I understand Wondee has perhaps changed, subject to the forces that are altering much of the formerly-deserted bits of Manhattan, but Paet Rio keeps the fire going, and boy, do you feel the burn….
Eim Khao Mun Khai (Broadway)
In that blessed kilometre of Broadway, with its string of 7 Thai places (at last count), I rate this one for uniqueness. China’s southernmost province, Hainan, sent traders out all over Southeast Asia. They brought with them a dish of chicken poached in a stock; rice cooked in the fatty broth of the chicken; the broth served again as a ginger-laden soup. Often the stock itself incorporates a ‘master stock’, one that has been boiled, clarified, chilled, and re-boiled hundreds of times, until it gets an unparalleled depth of flavour. Eim Khao Mun Khai serves only one dish, poached chicken on rice with broth on the side. It was very tasty, even though schmaltz, isn’t really my thing, whether in Yiddish or Hainanese. I thought their version possibly was a bit lighter than the Singaporean take on the dish…
This is notable as a grocery for ingredients, as well as a place to buy some prepared food, and particularly, tubs of various curries and dishes, that I happened to have seen at Khao Kang. Possibly they have the same owner. There are also sweets, if one likes Thai sweets (I’m not a particular fan). It is also a sort of clearing-house for advertisments, and a youth-club. One can also get a mortar and pestle, important for making Thai food; note however, this type (terracotta) is only suitable for making soft things like papaya salad. A curry paste is better made in a granite mortar, best ordered online. The Thai grocery on Woodside Ave near Ayada sells one, but it’s too large, pricey, and feels aimed at the Westerner slumming it in Queens.
Sripraphai and Ayada (Woodside)
I have eaten at both, but to be honest, stuck with the more ‘particular’ places above. Both are very good, and were pioneers a few years back when there wasn’t that much Thai food in Queens, never mind NYC as a whole. Now they have become the best known Thai places and are mobbed by brunch-eaters from Manhattan and giggling Midwestern tourists. Probably weekday lunches are still good.
Arunee Thai (Jackson Heights)
This is supposed to be good, but I had a lunch-special dish there and didn’t particularly rate it. Perhaps it should be given another chance off the regular menu.
There are two I know of – one across from Sripraphai and another across from Ayada. Pok Pok Ny’s Andy Ricker seems to like both. I prefer the former – a very sweet owner, who took the time to tell me about restaurants in the area, the differences between various ingredients, and seemed to have fair prices. I picked up pickled mustard greens, lemongrass, and a few odds and ends. I would stay away from the Chinese supermarkets, if possible, for specific Thai ingredients: the green birds-eye chilis (so called ‘scuds’ by Thompson) were past their best and not remotely spicy, and the frozen galangal was water-logged. The supermarkets are fine for greens, but I’ve tended to go to Patel Brothers and Subzi Mandi in Jackson Heights – prices are good and stuff is fresh. Fish, prawns, etc. needless to say should only be bought in Manhattan (Chelsea Market’s The Lobster Place has great things mostly at fair prices, and I’m told the fishmonger Rainbo’s at Essex Street Market is good, at least better than the Chinese one in ESM).