Penn Station — that still-cursed transportation hub, even with the fancy Moynihan Hall entrance — is not the kind of place one plans to dine around. However, restaurant group Hand Hospitality, best known for its nearby Koreatown hits like Her Name Is Han and recently opened Korean-American spot Little Mad, sees room to succeed in that void. On November 26, the team is opening up its first Thai restaurant, Random Access, at 138 West 32nd Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, just outside the gaping maw of NYC’s subterranean transit center.
To Hand Hospitality executive Alex Park and his team, Thai food is easy and understandable, he says. It’s comfort food. The kind of food one would plan even a Penn Station meal around. Following that logic, “What’s easy for New Yorkers? Diner food,” Park says. So, they decided to marry the two ideas.
At Random Access, part of the menu is dedicated to classic New York diner dishes that have been reinvented with Thai sensibilities. A Thai mussel soup has morphed into a warm mussel chowder studded with potato cubes; while chicken and waffles are made with coconut milk in the waffle batter and the fried chicken is tossed in zingy Thai spices. The ubiquitous diner staple of macaroni and cheese gets new life with helpings of crab and curry. They aren’t the only ones trying this idea out: The owners behind former Thai destination Uncle Boons, Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, have also been finding success mixing Thai food with classic diner plates at Thai Diner in Nolita.
Each item on Random Access’s menu is rooted in a Thai dish. NYC-based chef Pornnipa Nilpugsri, who previously was employed by Thailand’s Ministry of Culture, works with the team to hone each mixture of ingredients and flavors on the plate. “I’m so excited and I want people to try it,” Nilpugsri says through a translator.
The opening marks the first time that the group, which has historically focused on Korean and Japanese restaurants, has set its sights on Thai fare. But this isn’t exactly an “authentic” Thai restaurant, says Park, who is overseeing the Random Access opening. “This is where we would want to go if we made a Thai restaurant.”
Aside from the diner-influenced Thai dishes, Random Access also includes more classic Thai plates like pad thai and a grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves. There’s a noodle bar with tom yum ramen and beef noodle soup; and a do-it-yourself somtum salad bar where customers can pick and choose the ingredients that employees mix together behind a counter. A drinks menu emphasizes natural wines, which pair well with Thai food, Park says.
The bi-level restaurant includes a ground floor with 36 seats, and a mezzanine with enough seating to nearly double the restaurant’s capacity. However, the mezzanine will be closed to the public when Random Access first opens, in order to give the team a bit of time to find their footing.
Random Access is the most casual restaurant that Hand Hospitality has opened to date in the city, Park says. It’s meant to appeal to both customers looking for a dinner reservation and quick-moving commuter crowds looking for takeout before hopping on a train. But while it is the group’s most laid-back venture, it’s one of several splashy openings that the high-powered team has executed this year. The company has been hungrily expanding into new projects all year, from spearheading the revival of cult-favorite Japanese hot pot restaurant Hakata Tonton last spring, to opening upscale Korean-American spot Little Mad with chef Sol Han, a Le Coucou alum, over the summer. The team is discussing plans for more Southeast Asian restaurants as well, according to a company representative, but they declined to share details just yet.
The more freewheeling Thai-leaning menu at Random Access, however, is meant to draw all sorts of crowds from the moment that the restaurant swings open its doors on the bustling day after Thanksgiving. “You can go to Penn Station, and there’s a lot of places you can go from there,” Park says.
To start, Random Access is open for dine-in, takeout, and delivery from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 9:30 p.m. for dinner. Reservations are available via Resy.