Say goodbye to the sticky-sweet noodles iconic to New York’s Thai food scene for decades: A spicy, sour, seafood-centric revolution is here.
While authentic Thai food is a mainstay in Queens neighborhoods like Elmhurst and Woodside, which boast sizable Thai communities, the rest of the city has been pretty much devoid of it. Until now.
A recent crop of Thai spots in Manhattan and Brooklyn is dedicated to purveying authentic cuisine — tempting pineapple fried rice and pad see ew devotees with dishes like khao soi (a yellow curry and noodle soup) and goong aob woon senn (a baked shrimp and glass noodle dish).
Beyond pad Thai
Don’t even try to order pad Thai at Fish Cheeks; chef Chat Suansilphong has established his seafood spot as a “no pad Thai zone.”
“As foodie culture achieves new heights, diners’ palates here have continued to become more sophisticated, and perhaps they’ve grown tired of the same trite dishes they’ve seen on Thai menus for so long,” says Suansilphong, whose restaurant opened last fall in NoHo.
Most Asian restaurants in the U.S. tend to adapt their menus to Western palates, he notes. For Thai, that typically means dishes that are sweeter, less spicy and noodle-based, while bitter, sour and more complex flavors are eliminated to err toward the perceived preference of American diners. Regional dishes, like the spicy seafood of Southern Thailand or the offal-forward dishes of Northeastern Thailand, are a rarity.
The new Thai destinations in NYC range from a focus on authentic home cooking (LOOK by Plant Love House) to street food (Mondayoff) to spicy, sour fare (Ugly Baby) to modern takes, like the purple yum woon sen at two-month-old Thaimee at McCarren.
“[People] want the transportive experience authentic food can provide,” says chef Hong Thaimee, also of Ngam in the East Village.
If you build it . . .
A. Napadol, after moving to New York from Thailand in 1989, dreamed of opening a restaurant serving the food she missed from her homeland. She’d grown up cooking with her grandmother, spending afternoons making soups and sautés under her guidance.
Seeing the success of trendy yet authentic Thai restaurants like Pok Pok NY inspired Napadol to open Samui in August on a residential block between the BQE and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. If people were willing to travel to the Columbia Street Waterfront District for Pok Pok’s phak khanaeng, she figured they’d trek out to the edge of Fort Greene for her panang curry. She was right.
Napadol says most of her customers are American, and she’s “very happy” when they ask for special dishes or flavors they tasted while traveling in Thailand.
In a city where cuisine from all corners of the globe is worth taking two trains and a bus to reach, why has it taken so long for New Yorkers to break free of their exclusive takeout relationships to pad Thai?
“We still face a perception issue about ‘ethnic food’ as cheap food,” Thaimee says. “Many New Yorkers still think of Thai food as takeout pad Thai or fried rice.”
This isn’t just a problem for Thai chefs, she notes.
“We have the same problem that ambitious Mexican and Chinese and Indian chefs have: Mediocre, inauthentic food is acceptable, as long as it’s quick and cheap and good enough,” Thaimee says.
Opening a restaurant in Manhattan or Brooklyn, hard in itself, also has added challenges for immigrants.
“Most of us Thai chefs are first-generation immigrants, so we don’t have the customer knowledge, the access to capital, the relationships with press that we would have if we were born here,” says Thaimee, who emmigrated from Chiang Mai over a decade ago.
Across cuisines, Thaimee believes authenticity comes with a strong connection to a food’s origins: “We cook with love, not just with research,” she says.
And you don’t necessarily need to hop on a plane to Bangkok to find it.