This is an unusual year for Thai cuisine in New York: A deluge of new restaurants have opened across the city — as I have been reporting — with many cooking up dishes new to Thai menus. While MayRee and Mitr present southern Thai fare and a collection of geographically far-flung regional dishes, Pranakhon sets its sights on the street food of Bangkok. It opened about a month ago at 88 University Place, near East 12th Street, just south of Union Square in a former WeWork building.
The name (more commonly transliterated Phra Nakhon) is one of the Thai capital’s oldest monikers, designating a compact central district that’s a maze of canals and alleyways. Pranakhon occupies a huge storefront, with an L-shaped balcony hanging overhead, multiple dining rooms, and a bar in front and another in back. There may not be a more elaborately designed Thai restaurant in town: It conveys the scene of an outdoor market via perforated cinder blocks, a lottery ticket window, movie stills, pastel green ironwork, and power lines swagging from telephone poles. You can almost hear them buzz. The staff wears orange vests intended to evoke the delivery cyclists who throng Bangkok streets.
The restaurateurs are Intira and Norapol Youngphitak, a married couple both born in the capital. Many dishes at Pranakhon are based on family recipes. The pair also owns Thai Villa on East 19th Street.
What does the place offer that you often won’t find on other Thai menus? Stuffed pancakes, like those fried in the streets of Bangkok. Cut in quarters, curry pancake ($14) spills out chicken flavored with onions and curry powder, with a sweet cucumber dipping sauce, while hoi tod ($24) bulges with mussels, eggs, and bean sprouts. These stuffed pancakes, or roti, demonstrate the influence on Thai cuisine of Indian immigrants from the 19th century to today.
Grilled meats are a staple of Thai street food and populate many of the 52 dishes on the vast menu. Neur yang is a tasty hank of skirt steak cooked medium rare — smoky, strewn with chopped culantro, and served with dense fishy jaew sauce. Hog jowl is treated the same way, proving more porky and rubbery. Jowl is also found in the fiery salad, namtok kor moo yang ($18). If you like jowl, you will appreciate pork belly fried, skin-on, in crunchy cubes in moo grob kua prik gua. (The crumbs of garlic, chile, and crisp skin that accumulate in the bottom of the bowl are the best part.)
Perhaps Bangkok’s most famous street dish, and one that’s been seen a lot here lately at places like Tong, LumLum, and Terra Thai, is krapow moo sub. It showcases a heap of ground pork shot with shredded lime leaves, a thimbleful of fierce vinegar bobbing with chiles, and a hump of rice on which a runny egg teeters. In better versions, like the one here ($22), that egg has been fried so that it turns lacy and crisp around the edges and sends yellow yolk squirting onto the rice. This is the don’t-miss Thai dish of the year.
The menu — via chefs Kitipoom Khanarat and Khwanruean Leifert, both from southern Thailand — gives short shrift to salads and soups, and also pays scant attention to the creamy coconut-milk curries that are a major focus of most old-guard Thai restaurants. This is fine with me since the beef-rib Massaman and green chicken curries I tried at Pranakhon were too sweet (accept that a bill of fare this good isn’t going to do everything well).
The menu also holds a couple of brilliant southern Thai dishes. Namya pu demonstrates the southern approach to curry, featuring a spice mixture that might be an Indian masala in rich coconut milk shot with luxurious wads of crab. The dish is served with rice noodles instead of rice, which more or less dissolve in the curry — so dip rather than immerse them in the bowl. The plate also contains raw yard beans, bean sprouts, and pickled greens, making the dish a symphony of textures and flavors.
Even better is a dish that qualifies as one of the great culinary amazements of the year. The colors of khao yum qualify are other-worldly — rice tinted sky blue with butterfly-pea flowers, orange carrots, lavender rice noodles, sunrise-yellow egg yolk, purple cabbage, and piles of herbs and spices ranging from green to rust red to bark brown to ivory-colored. This farrago of 18 ingredients should be tossed like a frigate in a stormy sea before eating. It constitutes the best chef salad you’ve ever had in your life — and gingery, too.
It’s one of many dishes here that reinforce how exceptional Thai street food can be. As you finish your meal, sit in Pranakhon and close your eyes for a minute, as the clatter of a Thai market rises around you and good smells waft through the air.