Perhaps it may be taken as a sign of the industry’s rigor that during this time of protests and pandemics, restaurants continue to open, even though they know it involves limited menus and no indoor dining. Terra Thai debuted in the middle of May on East 6th Street between avenues A and B in the tiny space that once held Eat’s Khao Man Gai, which specialized in the Thai version of Hainanese chicken.
Owners Karuna Wiwattanakantang and Norawat Margsiri, both natives of Bangkok, previously ran a restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, also called Terra Thai, and arrived haplessly in the university town just as flood waters hit seven years ago. After operating that restaurant for six years, they packed up and drove to New York City to open a restaurant. Soon after they inked the deal on this East Village space, the pandemic hit.
“We’re used to opening a restaurant during a disaster,” Wiwattanakantang quipped.
In acknowledgment of the current pandemic, the restaurant is offering a free black mask imprinted with the restaurant’s name, in addition to a brief but beguiling menu of four dishes plus beverages. These include sweet and creamy iced tea and iced coffee. But the menu’s emphasis is on Bangkok street food. All dishes are $9.99, including rice and sides, as appropriate.
While basil chicken usually reads as an herby stir-fry in most Thai places, here the flavor is more concentrated, the tiny morsels of chicken cooked down to a rich sludge, with the basil flavors melded to the poultry in a way I’d never tasted before. The other dishes also seem selected for their street food qualities.
Hang lae is a pork curry with a yellowish cast from turmeric and big shards of ginger that hails from the northern city of Chiang Mai, and shows strong Burmese influences, according to Wiwattanakantang. It comes with a good-size container of sticky rice, and the best way to eat the dish involves grabbing wads of rice with your fingers and dipping them in the rich gravy. The chunks of pork are large and pleasantly fibrous from long cooking; in fact, the serving is generous for the price, and comes sided with steamed vegetables and lettuce, which may also be used to scoop up gravy in the Thai fashion.
I didn’t get a chance to try kao ka moo, a braise of pork shoulder flavored with the Siamese adaptation of Chinese five-spice powder, according to the menu, but I did try the pad thai. Here’s its simple and sweet, made with a tamarind-laced sauce and either chicken or a firm fried tofu. It constitutes a satisfying meal, with a nice crunch from the crushed peanuts and crisp sprouts strewn across the top.
Sometime in the future, a much fuller menu of mainly street food will be instated, the co-owner tells me, but until then a rotating foursome of dishes will constitute Terra Thai’s menu. Order online. 518 E. 6th Street, between avenues A and B, East Village