Everything changed for New York's Thai restaurants in 1997. That was the year SriPraPhai in Sunnyside morphed from a bakery into a full-blown restaurant and spicy dishes from the northeastern region of Isan began to burn our tongues — many of us for the first time. Prior to that, restaurants were mainly devoted to the cuisine sometimes known as Royal Thai, heavy on the basil stir-fries and curries made from jarred pastes. The new food — rich in pork and papaya salads, vegetable dips, fish mousses, grilled chicken, and noodles —soon began to invade most Thai menus in town. Eventually, entire restaurants devoted to Isan fare opened, notably Som Tum Der in the East Village and Larb Ubol in Hell’s Kitchen.
Still, Manhattan restaurants aside, the hotbed of Thai food remained central western Queens, host to a robust Thai community, where an arc of Thai restaurants extend from Elmhurst to Eastern Astoria. This amazing collection— numbering in the dozens — are close to the Buddhist temple, Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram, an urban edifice dating to 1995 said to be the largest in the city. Thai restaurants continue to open in close proximity, many the size of postage stamps. What has changed is the widening purview of their menus.
The new crop includes Thai Diva, a remarkable spot with an operatic name on a side street in Sunnyside. The interior is square and compact, with only four tables, but the décor explodes with color. A checkerboard of orange and gray squares spreads across one wall, as a sky-blue coffered ceiling draws the eye upward. With Isan food as the base, the menu draws its inspiration from all regions of Thailand, featuring many dishes rarely seen on Siamese menus.
Maybe you don’t know jack about jackfruit. Native to Southeast Asia and India, this football-shaped fruit is similar in appearance to a durian and the largest specimens can be humongous, growing up to three feet long and weighing up to 80 pounds. It’s the world’s largest fruit. Ripe, it’s sweet and sticky. When it's green, it's starchy and mellow, like a cross between a potato and a green plantain — perfect for use in rib-sticking curries and salads.
Find jackfruit here in the tum kanoon ($9), a shredded salad flavored with a dab of yellow curry paste and lime leaves, which lend an astringent quality. The salad comes with crunchy pork rinds and sliced cucumber. A similar salad utilizes bamboo shoots and depends upon cilantro and green onions for its zesty flavor. Both originated in Chiang Rai, a province in far northern Thailand.
Green curry, tum kanoon, beef balls, and mummy shrimp
Another remarkable dish from northern Thailand – where the food shows Burmese and Chinese influences — is khanom jeen nam ngaio (see above $11), with a base something like American tomato soup laced with pork, into which an eater adds wads of white rice noodles, bean sprouts, and pickled mustard greens. With a squeeze of lime it's something like a mutant pho. The result is supremely delicious. It seems that every dish at Thai Diva features flavor and texture enhancers on the side, to be added at your discretion.
Recipes from the southern Thai peninsula show Malay and Indonesian influences, and the menu notably offers roti canai, an Indian-leaning flatbread with a creamy chicken curry. Japanese cuisine has influenced Thai cooking, too, especially in the central region and in Bangkok.Thus you won’t be surprised to find Japanese noodles on the menu, tossed with shrimp and bok choy in spicy u-don ($11).
Speaking of shrimp, one of the most remarkable dishes on the bill of fare is mummy shrimp, which consists of the shelled crustaceans wrapped like Egyptian pharaohs in Chinese noodles then deep fried, furnished with a sweet chili dipping sauce on the side. Where this dish came from is uncertain – offhand, I’d say California
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater! Many of the old-fashioned Thai dishes we loved in the last millennium are still available, including a range of pastel-shaded curries, most thickened with coconut milk. Green curry is the hottest, according to our waiter one evening. It was magnificent when ordered with duck; it came nicely sliced in a crock, proudly wearing a basil leaf upon its bosom. All the Isan fare we’ve come to love is also abundantly available, including traditional bar snacks like grilled beef balls on sticks ($7), and a skinless and fermented pork sausage called naem moo, which arrives in an amorphous gray wad. Not particularly appetizing to look at. But once tried, you’ll never forget it.