Taladwat’s $20 set menu — less than what you’ll pay for a mediocre lobster roll — is part of what merits a closer look at this smashing little Thai spot in Hell’s Kitchen. Patrons take a seat at the communal picnic tables, complete with backless benches, and select any two dishes from a long bill of fare, from fiery grilled squid to warming red curry tofu. A smaller selection of third-course dishes, like whole fried mackerel or a springy omelet, add on no more than $9. Everything comes out at once, usually in under 10 minutes, at which time you start spooning turmeric crab over a bowl of rice, and then swig your bottle of Singha lager, to quell the heat of the unrestrained chiles.
One wouldn’t fault the owners for hiking prices by 50 percent (or heck, even more) for food this good. That’s the other chief draw: Taladwat, regardless of cost, deserves to be mentioned alongside Somtum Der, Sripraphai, Ugly Baby, Uncle Boons, and others as one of the city’s top purveyors of Thai fare. Oh, and lunch is just $16.
There is no dearth of Thai restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen; one could count more than a dozen on this stretch of Ninth Avenue, but chef David Bank runs two of the finest. He’s the force behind the (packed) Pure Thai Cookhouse, which shines a light on pan-regional noodle dishes that don’t get a lot of screen time in New York, like the egg noodles of Ratachaburi (the chef’s hometown) or the duck vermicelli soups of Nakhon-Pathom.
Taladwat bills its fare as “countryside Thai, “ with dishes that hail from the country’s Central, Western, and Southern regions. Think tom yum soups, incendiary curries, and abundant coconut milk. The website describes the menu structure as “community pot luck,” which is to say: Everything is meant to be shared, so come as a party of two and all of a sudden you have a five- to six-plate menu for under $60.
Cubes of silky pork belly arrive in a sweet five-spice soy broth, while short rib, braised in ginger, packs almost as much burning warmth as it does concentrated beefiness. Really, order anything; I’ve not encountered a weak spot on the menu over three recent visits.
Two particular standouts, however, involve coconut-enriched stews. Bank slow-cooks chicken thigh in the fragrant fruit, turning the sauce gently brown, enriching it with its succulent, heady juices.
Even better is the tom turmeric, wherein a small moat of coconut milk acts the way mayo or butter might on a steakhouse-style crab cake — as a fatty carrier for other flavors. The sauce imparts the loose pile of flesh with the sweet scent of lemongrass and the sting of red chiles. It easily ranks among the city’s great crab dishes, a vaunted collection that includes the Dungeness chile crab at Le Sia or the translucent raw blue crab at Kawi.
I’m calling the $20 set menu at Taladwat a BUY, with a firm emphasis on that coconut crab, which adds on an extra $4. In a city where a prime rib for one can cost $110 and where a Tribeca bacon burger with fries can command $30, there’s something relieving about an ambitious two-course meal that runs just twenty bucks. It’s like a sign from the metropolitan culinary deities that suggests: This city isn’t always out to get you.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).