Over the past decade, there has been no shortage of new Thai restaurants in neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen, Elmhurst, the East Village, Williamsburg, and Astoria. As of late, many of them have gone beyond colorful curries, tart soups, basil stir-fries, and noodles to offer fiery meat salads from the Isan region and the cosmopolitan food of Bangkok.
A new clutch of Thai restaurants is building on this diversification, with two trends particularly noticeable: One group is introducing fare from beyond Isan or Bangkok, and the other group is offering food from several different regions, identified as such on their menus, comprising a culinary tour of the country. MayRee is an example of the first type, while Mitr represents the second.
MayRee opened in mid-September on the same block of First Street as the legendary Prune in the East Village. The owner and chef, Orawan Sawangphol, grew up in Phang Nga, a province on the west side of the Malay Peninsula in Southern Thailand, distinguished by its beaches and rocky islets. The restaurant’s name is in reference to a figure from a folktale called “Twelve Sisters”; she’s one of an ogress’s 12 daughters who’s both sweet and gentle. The menu focuses on the food of the peninsula, in common with Thai Nara, a Woodside restaurant that offers the cuisine of the region’s Muslim minority.
Like Thai Nara, roti is an important feature of the menu, rarely seen on Thai menus but often on Malaysian ones — reminding us that Thailand shares the peninsula with Malaysia. Roti nam keang ($21) is a pair of flaky and buttery flatbreads probably inspired by southern Indian lacha paratha. While in Malaysian restaurants, a single bread is usually served with a small serving of curry for dipping, here you get two flatbreads and a substantial peanut-laced bowl of curry with a cinnamon stick and a shuriken of star anise jauntily poking out. The waiter pours booze over the bowl and sets it aflame.
Peanuts appear in many guises at MayRee, including park mor ($13) — a collection of squishy and crunchy peanut dumplings, some colored an arresting shade of blue. Marvelous wedge-shaped fish balls are also in the dumpling category — reminiscent of those served in Fujianese restaurants. Indeed, the Malay peninsula has long been a trading crossroads, absorbing culinary influences from all over the world.
In the “wonder where that came from” category, surprising for its double-pork presentation, there’s an appetizer of pork sausage wrapped in American bacon. Served with peanuts, chiles, and raw onions, it makes an amazing drinking snack, such as you might find in a Phuket beach resort. Drinking is a major focus of MayRee, with jars of spirits infused with Thai flavorings like pandan and lemongrass displayed prominently on the bar.
Other dishes some friends and I loved at MayRee were gai tom kamin ($16), a meal-size soup that with its thin and sour broth resembles Central Thai soups, but with a more intense flavor bolstered by a symphony of galangal, lemongrass, lime leaves, and Garcinia cambogia — a pumpkin-shaped green berry.
When dreaming of Thai curry, one usually envisions a brightly colored sauce, but southern Thailand is home to dried curries like kua kling ($19). It begins with a pile of ground pork, in this case aggressively seasoned with a red curry paste and shredded lime leaves. The powerful flavors are attenuated with a mound of rice, a scatter of sculpted cukes, and a runny fried egg with insanely crisp edges. Mix the plate together and dump on the sweet chile vinegar.
Uptown, a block south of Rockefeller Center, at Mitr (Thai for “buddy”) the menu is divided into five categories: Northern, Northeastern, Central, Southern, and Street Food — including hawker food found in Bangkok. Inside, the dining room is deep and high-ceilinged, with white latticed walls suggesting that tropical breezes might soon be passing through. Fanciful basket animals hang above the entranceway. When a friend and I arrived at 6 p.m. one weekday evening, the place was already full despite being open less than a month. We found seats at the bar.
What do you do in a restaurant that provides choice selections from each of Thailand’s regions? You take a tour. From northern Thailand, where Burmese and Chinese food are influential, comes kao soy kua neur ($26). Egg noodles smeared with chile paste are concealed beneath ingredients that can be eaten individually or mixed together: sauteed beef, a powerful strain of cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and a tangle of noodles fried crunchy.
From Isan in northeastern Thailand comes a steak salad called nam tok ($32), flavored with mint, roasted chiles, and lime juice, and sprinkled with crisp powdered rice. Central Thailand takes responsibility for goong muk prik klua ($24), a deceptively simple saute of jumbo shrimp and squid rolled in chile flakes and lime leaves that will have you fanning your mouth. From the South comes the most striking dish of the evening: a round, shell-on shrimp fritter like ones seen on Indonesian menus, only this one flavored with shredded betel leaves for an earthier flavor, and sided with fresh betel for wrapping morsels of fritter.
Our tour ended with a stunning dish from Bangkok’s street food canon — a stir-fry of minced pork and hot green chiles seasoned with so much basil it qualified as a vegetable. Rice and a fried egg rounded out this one-dish meal, and, as we reflected while climbing down from our bar stools, this was the only dish we’d eaten that evening that featured basil — and in quite a different way than we were used to. A new age of Thai food is upon us, with a whole host of new recipes.