Hell’s Kitchen has long been a hotbed of Thai cafes, with as many as 40 restaurants along Ninth Avenue between 34th and 57th streets at their peak a few years back. Historically, the menus were mainly similar, focused on basil stir-fries, satays in sweet sauces, and a rainbow of curries. Then Pam Real Thai Food hit the neighborhood like a ton of bricks in 2001. It was the first along the strip to highlight Isan cuisine, years after it showed up in Elmhurst. We were instantly won over by the menu’s dried catfish salads, kaeng som sour curries, and catalog of unique noodle dishes.
Pam Real Thai, named after its founder Pam Panyasiri, closed early in the pandemic, but the good news is that another restaurant expanding the neighborhood’s Thai horizons has recently replaced it. LumLum (slang for “delicious” in Northern Thailand) transformed the compact, two-room space on West 49th Street from purely utilitarian to decorative and tropical, with bamboo walls, basket lampshades, potted jungle plants, and antique advertising placards. Now find a fully stocked bar where you can sit and sip a cocktail like the Pha Ngan Full Moon ($15), a creamy lavender concoction of rum, coconut milk, lemon, and butterfly pea blossoms.
The menu offers 36 dishes in seven categories, of which kub klaem (drinking snacks) and pi sed (house specials) are the most intriguing. While the restaurant features dishes associated with various regions of the country, Owners and sisters Sommy and Mo Hensawang are innovative and inventive in their cooking.
Their grandmother ran a seafood restaurant in the province of Ayutthaya, 50 miles north of Bangkok, I learned. One of the most arresting recipes that came down from Granny was muk tom nam dum ($14), a dark, thick soup flavored with lime leaf. Squid rings bob up like buoys in this formulation, which uses an ingredient often found in Italian food — squid ink — to make a striking color. The potage is pleasantly filling, and I ate it with a passel of chicken wings for lunch soon after the place opened in April.
As the menu grew over the ensuing months, another squid ink dish appeared, fried rice featuring mixed seafood and mushrooms. It comes decorated with orange salmon roe in a way that might have been inspired by the Japanese food that has become commonplace in Bangkok. (I’ve also spotted versions of sashimi in Thai restaurants here.)
There are several whole fish, too, including a lovely branzino ($33) fried with colorful bird’s-eye chiles and served with a fistful of fresh herbs, green peppercorns like miniature grapes on a vine, and finger root, a poetic name for ginger’s cousin galangal. The best seafood isn’t really seafood at all, but giant river prawns that are a Thai passion. A pair ($14) are split and grilled, and, yes, the sparse tail meal is really good, something like lobster, but the real prize is the fat in the head that melts during cooking, and you must lick every drop. This could turn out to be the best dish you’ve eaten all summer.
Skip the steamed crabs —the stuffing (including roe) is rubbery, and these crustaceans are not nearly as good as the prawns, so stick with those. Anyway, if you crave crab there’s a crab omelet that comes with rice and two sauces; it’s one of the best lunch dishes on the menu.
The menu is eclectic, and if you wish every restaurant were a steakhouse, LumLum can be that, too. Crying tiger ($28) is a dish that’s been popping up in Thai restaurants like Zaab Zaab in Elmhurst lately. It’s often made with brisket (which, at least according to one tale, is why the tiger is crying — it’s eaten a cow but couldn’t finish the brisket), but here it’s an expertly grilled rib-eye served medium-rare on a bed of fried shallots with a raw egg yolk. Ignore the yolk and dip the meat in the accompanying dark, sweet, and fishy sauce. For beef lovers, steak tartare is also available.
Pass on the pad see ew. Though competently prepared, these broad rice noodles coated with thick soy sauce are no better than the dozens of other versions available within hollering distance. Instead, go for another Thai street food staple — krapow ($16) is a stir-fry of ground chicken and yard beans served with white rice and an egg cooked to crackling brown crispness around the edges. Grab the thimble of chile sauce, dump it everywhere, and then dig in.