Over the last decade, the East Village has gradually come to have one of the best collections of Thai restaurants in town, rivaling Elmhurst and Hell’s Kitchen. Early on there were pioneers like Somtum Der, specializing in a green papaya salad and other Isan dishes. And then there was Zabb Elee, a branch of a Jackson Heights classic that brought spice levels in the neighborhood to a whole new level, and served as a Manhattan launch pad for the career of Ratchanee Sumpatboon, the city’s best-known Thai chef.
And during subsequent years, the scene has continued to grow. The neighborhood has 20 or so by my count, most of which have reopened as the pandemic has waned. The shutdown has not stopped new places from opening, either, as I recently reported of Terra Thai. Now Soothr has debuted just off Third Avenue on East 13th Street, in the space formerly occupied by Bruno, an innovative pizzeria.
I spotted Soothr as I rode my bike by one afternoon, and the next day I was carrying food out and eating it in my community garden, only a few blocks distant, after a tantalizing glimpse of its interior. If you knew Bruno, you may find it hard to recognize the space as currently configured. Still deep and narrow, it now seems much larger, with a green-tiled bar replacing the prep area, a lounge in front, and a dining area depending on dark latticed woods and glowing light fixtures.
The three owners are from two towns in Thailand. Chidensee Watthanawongwat comes from Udon Thani in the northern reaches of Isan, a provincial capital famous for its orchids and Buddhist temples. Kittiya Mokkarat and Supatta Banklouy hail from Sukhothai, a World Heritage Site in central Thailand that is considered the cradle of Siamese civilization, and after which many Thai restaurants in the United States are named.
Naturally, several dishes on the menu at Soothr come from this historic city. One, found on the regular menu and among the lunch specials, is Sukhothai tom yum noodles ($15). It comes with a thick, tart broth on the side in a sparing quantity, and the soup itself is a morass of rice noodles, bouncy pork balls, pale fish cake, gooey boiled egg, and fried wontons, among other ingredients. This enticing full meal is a far cry from the simple appetizing soup of nearly the same name found in most Thai restaurants. “Thai soups tend to be sour and spicy,” says Banklouy, “but in Sukhothai we also like them sweet.”
She goes on, earnestly advocating for the regional cuisine she grew up with: “Sukhothai is also famous for its noodles, and we have more varieties than any other part of the country.” Indeed, Soothr, which means “recipe,” styles itself as a Thai noodle bar, though it is much more than that. Referring to the restaurant’s name, Banklouy adds, “Many of the recipes come from the grandparents of the three owners.”
Rather than being devoted to two separate regions, the bill of fare covers a broad swath of the country, the recipes united by their uniqueness and rarity in NYC. Named after a city on the Malaysian border, Had Yai chicken ($11) issues from the southern peninsula of the country. It’s a crisp-skinned fried bird with no breading, but instead a coating of crunchy shallots, with the usual sweet orange dipping sauce on the side. Listed as a small bite, it could easily be the focus of a summer picnic.
The most remarkable dish I tasted from a menu currently including 27 options was koong karee ($18), a dish associated with Yaowarat Road, in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown. (Note that Brooklyn has already received a taste of Bangkok Chinese food at Noods ‘N Chill in Williamsburg.) This dish features plump shrimp in a thick egg sauce that clings seductively to each crustacean, tasting faintly of curry powder and Chinese celery, which is much more pungent than the celery common in American grocery stores.
Another revelation is a meatless massaman curry ($15), made with roasted vegetables, mostly roots and tubers. It’s sweet and creamy and tastes of the earth, quite a contrast to the usual beef-driven dish, enlivened by pickled purple shallots tossed in at the last moment. Also remarkable but not as unique is nam tok moo, a soup common in Queens Thai restaurants. It has a dark secret: This accumulation of rice noodles, pork balls, and pulled pork seasoned with cilantro is thickened by means of pork blood. It adds sweetness and richness, and tastes a bit like molasses.
A meal at Soothr ends agreeably with mango sticky rice, which consists of an entire ripe fruit and wad of the gooey grain drizzled with coconut milk. I’m craving it right now for breakfast. 204 East 13th Street, between Second and Third avenues, East Village.
This is the third in a series of columns called Sietsema’s Picks, in which I cover places I’m enjoying in our takeout-centric times. In the first entry, I visited Happy Hot Hunan on the Upper West Side. In the second, I went to the Lower East Side’s Bun Hut for Bahamian-style bao.