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Arunee Thai in its New Locale: Who Stole the Chiles?

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Robert Sietsema checks in on the recently relocated Arunee Thai.

All photos by Robert Sietsema

10 years ago Arunee was considered one of the best Thais in town. Though obscurely located on a side street just off Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, hidden among South American restaurants, it became a destination for aficionados who craved spicy versions of the meat salads called yum, chile-strewn bar snacks, fiery curries and — most famous of all — garlic-gobbed fried quails. Now Kitchen 79 has assumed the old space, while Arunee has moved a block north to 37th Avenue. Sad to report, the food at the new location is not nearly as lively, but much of it is still good.

Situated right next to a Starbucks in a decidedly middle class shopping strip that provides quite a contrast to Roosevelt Avenue, Arunee is now deep and spacious, its comfortable tables lit by bright pools of light. There's a pillow-strewn lounge area in the front window and a bar with a full liquor license that dispenses Thai-themed cocktails. Stick with the Chang beer ($6 per bottle).

aruneemusselomelet.jpg[hoy taud]

aruneeduckpadseeeiw.jpg[pad see eiw]

My guests and I ranged broadly around the menu and sampled seven dishes. Some of the things we tried showed the old flare, including hoy taud ($9), a mussel omelet that arrived crisp and brown, sided with a mild red sauce that was partly Sriracha. Even more excellent was a dish we ordered as an afterthought when one diner decided we needed some noodles to fill up: the Thai spin on chow fun called pad see eiw, which boasted broad rice noodles that had been wokked to smokiness. We eschewed the usual choice of meats in favor of duck, which improved the dish, but cost us five dollars extra ($14).

aruneekangsom.jpg[kang som]

aruneethaisausage.jpg[Thai sausage]

So, too, was kang som curry totally up to snuff, a sour shrimp stew that achieved its tart effect with tamarind, and left a burn on the lips. Baby corn and baby bok choi were other prominent components. This curry was certainly classifiable as "kaeng," meaning it took a lot of rice to attenuate the strong tart flavors. Alas, this was quite literally the only spicy dish among those we tried. Even the Isaan bar snack of Thai sausage, though accompanied by the conventional raw onions, lime wedges, lettuce, long beans, and crunchy peanuts, omitted the bird chiles that set your mouth on fire.

Why? Well, if required to theorize, you might guess the move one block north forever changed Arunee's patronage. Indeed, looking around the room, few Asians were to be seen, mainly Occidental families who probably live in the garden apartment complexes in the area, and do their shopping among the semi-upscale retailers who inhabit this section of 37th Avenue. It's not that Arunee has gone bad, it's just that in gauging (and probably misreading) the chile tolerance of its new customers, the food has been blanded down. Which disappoints the vast crowds of eaters now seeking out the spicy Thai fare that's been bombarding the city since the new millennium began.

aruneefishbladderyum.jpg[pork and fish yum salad]

Sadly, though the yum salad featuring crisp fatty pork and fish maw possessed adventuresome ingredients (fish maw is really a spongy floatation bladder that allows the fish to rise to the surface), the lack of any kind of heat, and an additional lack of citrus, made this cold salad boring. And the fried quails are entirely gone from the menu. Do us all a favor and ask for them, and order the dishes that are typically mild in a Thai restaurant, like massaman curry — and you'll have a satisfying, if somewhat drab, meal.

· All Posts by Robert Sietsema [~ENY~]

Arunee Thai

78-23 37th Avenue Jackson Heights, NY 11372

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