This is the second installment in a new series called Is It Still Good? Eater NY will be revisiting long-established restaurants that have acquired towering reputations and still generate plenty of traffic to find out if the food quality justifies our continued admiration. The first review covered old-timer L&B Spumoni Gardens.
When Jim Leff co-founded Chowhound in 1997, SriPraPhai was already among the small group of places he avidly admired, putting it in the same category as Di Fara Pizza, Kabab Café, and the Arepa Lady’s cart. When he’d introduced me to the tiny Woodside restaurant in 1996, I was bedazzled enough to return several times to review it for the Village Voice. Though it was still as much a bakery as a restaurant, the dishes I liked best were savory ones: chicken foot salad, crispy catfish, pork leg over rice, and jungle curry, made with green-striped Thai eggplants and enough chiles to blow your head off. It was certainly the hottest Thai food I’d ever eaten, and some of the best.
Founder Sripraphai Tipmanee presided behind the glass cases that held the baked goods. Her gradually expanding menu was one of the first to introduce working class, rural, and regional Thai cooking to the city, and thus was a harbinger of the many cafes soon to appear peddling Isan cuisine. Another major function of SriPraPhai, besides introducing many New Yorkers to previously unfamiliar dishes, was upping the ante where the quality and fidelity of Thai cooking was concerned. No faddish ingredients here.
In the course of the next two decades, the restaurant added another storefront and built a flower-bedecked garden out back, one of the nicest in the city. It also became our most well-regarded Thai restaurant. Despite these advantages, one of the most common things I hear these days — often from those who prefer the small, quirky, and creative Siamese spots like Ugly Baby and Fish Cheeks that have appeared much more recently — is that SriPraPhai has gone downhill. Not having visited in five years, I decided to go and see for myself.
The facade is plain, with the restaurant’s name in red cursive against a shiny black background. The inside is sprawling and sparsely decorated, with much attention paid to an elaborate lighting scheme. Decor is restrained and elegant, and a long, spiral-bound menu — which takes a good ten minutes to read — telegraph the restaurant’s seriousness about Thai cooking.
What it reveals is a wealth of dishes available few other places, in good sized servings, but not inexpensive. A friend and I appeared around 12:30 p.m. on a weekday with a baby and young child in tow, just as the place was filling up with extended families. Thinking the kids would like them, we ordered chicken satays ($10.50) — five flattened planks of poultry on sticks dabbed with coconut milk and curry. They came nicely grilled and accompanied by a dark peanut dipping sauce, which we immediately fell in love with.
Moving away from the usual Thai classics, we had an app of crispy catfish ($16), an Isan dish that was a favorite of mine from the early days. The creature had been dried, pounded into a lattice, and fried, giving it the appearance of dried sponge. Each bite resolved itself into a fishy slurry in our mouths, and we learned to supplement one catfish bite with a few toasted cashews or a spoonful of the magnificent papaya salad, both served on the side. This collection of ingredients is certainly one of the city’s most challenging, and maybe not for everyone. I wonder why I’d liked it so much 23 years earlier.
Green curry duck ($14) was a dish I hadn’t seen on the menu before. It was the best thing we ate that day, loaded with duck in a searing greenish sauce with miniature plum tomatoes and ripe bell peppers sweetening the stew, which exploded with a depth charge of fresh basil. The dish was served in what seemed like a small bowl, but it contained a deceptively large amount of curry. It also illustrated one of the best things about SriPraPhai: not offering dishes with a vast choice of proteins. Would this green curry be as good with tilapia? Certainly not.
Another dish from the early days — and one that Jonathan Gold extolled when he tried it, as a great example of Thailand’s vernacular cuisine — was pork leg over rice ($10.50). Where once it was offered on a big plate, now it comes in a compact bowl swimming with substantial chunks of tender meat, wobbly and fatty pig skin, a half boiled egg, and pickled greens in a dark sweet sauce. Utterly wonderful, and I could eat this for lunch every day.
Next to the front door and cash register at the modern SriPraPhai is a double glass refrigerator case, which shows off many of the sweets that were sold at the original bakery. We decided to revisit them for nostalgic purposes, and once again because the kids might like them. Khanom chan ($3.50) was a series of square green parfaits of coconut milk, tapioca starch, and sugar, according to the label, served warm when we ordered it. We also got the familiar pumpkin custard, one of the few desserts often found on Thai menus around town.
Lastly, there was a dessert of wobbly jewels of gelatin, something like Jell-O but much denser. We and the kids rejected them as too hard and sweet and reeking of artificial flavor. Still, the meal had otherwise been wonderful, leading me to conclude that SriPraPhai is still the best Thai restaurant in town overall, especially if you want to eat in more formal surroundings and have lots and lots of choices from all around the country.