With tens of thousands of restaurants in New York, it’s tough deciding where to eat , nevermind what genre of cooking. We’ve got Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cuban, even British, Burmese and Cambodian these days, but when we want to experience vibrant, layer upon layer of flavors, we head for Thai food. This Southeast Asian cuisine is simultaneously salty, sweet, spicy, and sour, and rich with texture of the crunchy, unripe mango, papaya or roasted peanut sorts. A decade ago, there weren’t many places to get a decent panang curry, let alone duck larb, in the five boroughs. Thankfully, there was always Sripraphai, a twenty-year old temple of Thai cuisine in Queens, but places like that were few and far between. Suddenly, Thai is the cuisine du jour, with new spots opening up all year and old one finally receiving their due. Harold Dieterle was one of the first to lead the charge with Kin Shop, where Dieterle takes modern and creative liberties with traditional, Thai flavors and dishes. There’s Lotus of Siam in the Village, which got off to a bit of a bumpy start, but has finally settled into its New York home, and even better, Zab Elee, which is perhaps the best thing to happen to the East Village this year. Here’s a few of our favorites…
Address: 75 Second Ave. between E. Fourth and Fifth streets; 71-28 Roosevelt Ave. (Queens)
Phone: (212) 505-9533; (718) 426-7992
Zabb Elee is one of the best dining deals in Manhattan. The restaurant, with an original branch in Queens, has managed to keep its single digit, outer borough prices despite a spacious location in the East Village. Maybe we’re just imagining things, but we think it’s even better than the flagship. Try the grilled squid with a citrusy garlic pepper dip and the Pad Ped Mo Karb, a mix of pork belly, eggplant, ginger, and a chili-laced sauce. It’s a spicy affair, though the server will ask how hot you want your dish on a scale of one to five. Unless you’re a fire eater or a spice veteran, three is hot enough.
Pam’s Real Thai
Address: 404 W. 49th St. near Ninth Avenue
This Hell’s Kitchen spot has been a longtime staple for takeout and delivery. The best dishes are hearty Bangkok classics that travel well, like the Pad Key Mao — a stir-fry of wide, flat rice noodles, basil, onion, chili and your choice of meat. We’re also fans of any of the six crispy duck dishes, especially the one topped with a ginger sauce. But occasionally, we’ll forgo the convenience of eating Pam’s Real Thai on the couch in favor of dining in the midtown restaurant for the deep-fried whole fish. The beautifully cooked, crunchy fish, enough to feed two or three people, is crowned with their top secret chili sauce. It’s definitely worth getting off the couch for.
Address: 64-13 39th Ave.
Phone: (718) 899-9599
There’s several exciting Thai joints now, but Sripraphai is still king of curries. It became a more attractive option when the restaurant moved from its original drab storefront to a new, large dining room. The menu’s over twenty-five pages with photo illustrations, so ordering isn’t a guessing game and you almost can’t go wrong with anything there. We recommend you go with a large group, so you can share and sample the spectrum of curries, noodles, salads, whole fish and still save room for dessert. (Try the larb, papaya salad, anything with green curry, and fried red snapper with shredded green mango and red onion.
Address: 469 Sixth Ave. near 11th Street
Phone: (212) 675-4295
Harold Dieterle is elevating Thai to a refined plane of cooking, often reserved for French, Japanese, and upscale Italian. This Top Chef winner first proved himself in Manhattan with Perilla, a creative American restaurant with a bounty of other influences from the Mediteranean to Asia. We never expected this Italian-American’s follow up venture to be a Thai spot, but Dieterle’s traveled extensively through Thailand and it comes through in his cooking. You can’t go wrong with the fried pork and crispy oyster salad, a crunchy and fatty combination, smartly offset by a citrusy, chili-lime vinaigrette. We also love the roast duck breast, served alongside a red curry sauce, the scallop special, and the housemade roti – the Thai equivalent of Chinese moo shu pork or bao.
Address: 40-04 Bell Blvd. (Queens)
Phone: (718) 224-6188
Prepare to be surprised when you open the menu at this jewel box-size restaurant. There’s a section for French dishes and a separate selection of Thai dishes. That’s because Bonne Saison is the love child of a husband-and-wife team, one a Thai chef, the other French. Happily, there’s nothing fusion about this spot, just solid Thai classics from both countries, like sliced pork in cashew sauce and a sweet yellow curry with potatoes. Do embrace the French side of the menu as well, especially for dessert, because the profiteroles are as good as you’ll find in any bistro.
Address: 77-08 Woodside Ave. (Queens)
Phone: (718) 424-0844
Ayada Thai is yet another reason why Jackson Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods could be dubbed little Thailand. This eatery has some seriously authentic dishes, right down to the fresh, fiery chilies swimming in the duck panang curry. The interior is classic Thai, too, with walls lined with portraits of the Thai royal family. One of our favorite and unique dishes on the menu, is the raw, tail-on shrimp with an herbaceous sauce, and the steamed whole fish with garlic and spicy lime juice.
Address: 31 E. 21st St. between Park Avenue South and Broadway
Phone: (212) 420-7500
We were very disappointed when both Greenwich Village outposts of Rhong-Tiam closed over recent years, but we’re relieved that we can still sample some of the menu at their, Gramercy takeout spot. For lunch, try one of the roti wraps. We usually opt for the coconut and basil chicken wrap, but the crispy basil pork also makes for a tasty Asian-style burrito. For something more substantial, order the khao soi chicken, a dish from Northern Thailand that comes with noodles, fresh cilantro and pickled mustard greens.
Address: 85-03 Whitney Ave. (Queens)
Phone: (718) 424-4999
Chao Thai may not get as much attention (or press) as Sripraphai, but it’s well-worth a trip and a night off from Sripraphai. The menu features traditional dishes that span Northern and Southern Thailand, and most of the food boasts the holy quartet of spicy, sweet, sour and salty flavors. Start with yum nad sod, a salad with ground pork, onions, basil and enough chilies to clear your sinuses. The beef larb and jungle curry, whose spice is slightly offset by the ingenious addition of pumpkin, are also stellar offerings that make Chao Thai irresistible, too.
Address: 60 Thompson St. near Broome Street
Phone: (212) 219-2000
Thai restaurants aren’t exactly known for their ambience, but Kittichai (tucked inside the Thompson Hotel), is the stylish exception. In fact, there’s a shallow pool with floating orchids, lit candles and lily pads that evoke a romantic vibe. The plates are as beautifully composed as the setting itself. While Thai in spirit, much of the food incorporates international ingredients and cooking techniques, like the red snapper ceviche, marinated in coconut, ginger and lemongrass. Still, it’s nice to mix it up and the food tastes great, which really is all that matters. Case in point: The coconut-braised short ribs and the crispy whole fish with galangal and green chilies.
Lotus of Siam
Address: 24 Fifth Ave. at Ninth Street
Phone: (212) 529-1700
The Las Vegas location of Lotus Siam is considered one of the top Thai restaurants in the country, so it was a huge boon to New Yorkers when the owners set up shop in Manhattan. The original owners have since left town after a bumpy start, but they seem to have hit their stride and our last visit was a successful one. Start with an appetizer of crispy rice mixed with Thai sausage, chili, peanuts, ginger and lime – an addictive blend of crunchy and chewy textures – then head to the khang khiao wan curry, a signature, Bangkok dish, flush with basil. Our favorite noodle dish here is the khao soi shortrib. It’s a rich blend of braised short rib, egg noodles and mustard greens in a fiery red sauce.