Ten years ago, Ayada debuted on a not particularly interesting stretch of Woodside Avenue. While much of Elmhurst was already chock full of Thai restaurants — and had been ever since the temple Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram opened in the early 90s — Ayada was different. When I reviewed it for the Village Voice in early 2009, a server bragged that the menu reflected a sophisticated Bangkok take on Siamese food, and one that subtly demonstrated the Japanese influences currently being felt in the Thai capital.
Well, turned out Ayada was just the beginning of thrilling Thai food on the street. As I discovered while eating recently at Hug Esan, now there are over a dozen Thai restaurants, bars, and markets on a two-block stretch of Woodside Avenue. All of these establishments display their own unique characteristics, and together represent the most interesting and divergent accumulation of Thai restaurants in the city, many of them opened by younger Thai immigrants.
There’s a place where you can select your food from a steam table at bargain prices, and another where you can perch on a stool and enjoy a strong cocktail with classic Thai bar snacks. There are formal, sit-down places and informal coffee shops where beverages and desserts dominate the menu. Collectively, these menus represent several regions of Thailand. Another lure for the Thai food enthusiast is the concentration of choices in a two block area. Even the entire length of Elmhurst’s Broadway may not offer such a diversity of prices, dining styles, and menu focuses.
Here is a guide to the neighborhood, traveling roughly from west to east, from 76th to 78th streets, and featuring eight of our favorites.
P.Noi Thai Thai Grocery
Its front welcomingly lined with potted plants, this cluttered grocery store also functions as a mini community center and forum for gossipy conversation. Freezer cases in back vend freshwater fish and seafood, while shelves display canned goods, curry pastes, fish sauces, and dried noodles. Back issues of Thai publications are also available, and a few snacks for purchase are often displayed next to the cash register, including weekends-only fried bananas. 7613 Woodside Ave, between 76 and 77th streets, Elmhurst
This tiny cocktail bar filled with humorous bric-a-brac (including a gorilla swinging on a trapeze over the bar) is owned and managed by the mother and daughter team of Sunisa and Suchasinee Nitmai. In addition to beers and wines, the drinks menu offers a series of fashionable themed cocktails such as the tom yum, featuring vodka, lemon juice, and lemongrass, and not nearly as sweet as it initially sounded to me. In addition to the usual Isan bar snacks like sour sausage, a full Thai menu is mounted with dozens of dishes, both ones more ubiquitous in New York and less common ones. The latter include yum moo yor (pork meat loaf with salted egg yolks and lime flavored fish sauce) and raw shrimp with a wasabi dipping sauce. The same pair owns Pata Café, also in Elmhurst but south of Queens Boulevard. 7621 Woodside Ave, between 76th and 77th streets, Elmhurst
Tea Cup Café
There’s no humbler place in town than Tea Cup Café, where the sides are flung open to the Elmhurst breezes on temperate afternoons, and the patrons sit at a sidewalk counter or on benches at picnic tables in the interior. A chalkboard displays the specialties, which begin with sweet toasts smeared with coconut cream and preserve-filled crepes, and go all the way to a near-legendary meal size tom yum soup ($8.50) containing ground pork liver and fish cake, and a plate of scrambled eggs with crab meat, all efficiently cooked on a pair of hot plates behind the high counter. 7623 Woodside Ave, corner of 77th Street, Elmhurst
Owner Sopon “Tor” Kosalanan and his staff hail from Chanthaburi southeast of Bangkok, and as such, the food is a combination of curries, stir fries, and salads. All the day’s offerings are represented on a steam table at the side of the room, a dozen or so dishes that range from fiery hot to cooling and mild. Consult the staff, and select two or three dishes to go over rice for under $10, then pick a seat by the picture windows. Things I’ve enjoyed most are a southern-style jungle curry of shrimp in a fiery sauce containing fish paste, and a more cooling dish of slender Asian eggplants in coconut milk. Sticky rices, puddings, and custards available by the cash register for dessert. 7620 Woodside Ave, at 77th Street, Elmhurst
Located more obscurely down 77th Street, and once under the same ownership as Khao Kang, Khao Nom is a small café with more emphasis on snacks, pastries, coffee, and desserts, and a menu that playfully puts Thai food in a contemporary bistro idiom, including mussel pancakes, lettuce wraps, and crispy rice tacos. One remarkable dish is American fried rice, which features hot dogs and fried chicken heaped around ketchup flavored rice with a fried egg on top and a soy dipping sauce with cucumbers. Hey, it’s really good! 4206 77th St, between Woodside and 45th avenues, Elmhurst
Showing the Thai love of Japanese food, this rollicking, stylish spot divides its menu between better-than-average sushi (including perhaps too many theme rolls), and a Thai menu flaunting not only standards but a few less ubiquitous dishes, making a visit for the purpose of tasting them worthwhile. One such is khao khluk kapi, centered on a serving of rice cooked with shrimp paste, but also featuring whole shrimp, shredded omelet, soupy sautéed pork, papaya salad, fresh bird chiles, etc., etc. Very nice place for a convivial drink and snack, too. 7701 Woodside Ave, at 77th Street, Elmhurst
Ayada remains one of the best and most ambitious Thai restaurants in New York City, now occupying a double storefront with deep green walls and framed works of art. Larb salads every bit as hot as you might want them are still a good bet, as are papaya salads in several permutations, whole fish, rarer curries like the sour and coconut-free kang som, and anything with duck or shrimp. Chef and owner Duangjai “Kitty” Thammasat and her family have also established a branch in Chelsea Market. 7708 Woodside Ave, between 77th and 78th streets, Elmhurst
Only two years old, Hug is the new kid on the block. It offers the most concentrated take on the food of Isan (the region of Thailand in the northeast, bordering the Mekong River) that the city has yet seen. While you can get many of the larbs and som tums found here on menus all over town, never have so many variations been seen in New York at one restaurant, nor have there been so many home-style dishes presented, or such an absence of curries and basil stir fries. The premises are tiny and attractive, and the food perfectly prepared. On a first visit, I’d recommend a dish of curried rice noodles called mee ka tee, and gai yang — the classic Isan grilled chicken, which comes littered with crisp fried shallots. 77-16 Woodside Ave, between 77th and 78th streets, Elmhurst