Hidden in the back of a Latin market in Astoria, three Queens moms have set up a Thai counter spot — located at 30-72 Steinway Street, near 31st Avenue — where they dish up daily steam table specials and offer a set menu under the name Secret Thai Street Food.
The idea for the new spot that opened last month is for patrons to mix and match entrees and create different platters of regional Isan food from northeastern Thailand — all for under $20. The dishes are spicy, refreshing, and intense, loaded with house-made chile paste and vegetables like Thai eggplant and young papaya.
Fifteen years ago, the three co-founders, Jalen Lucky, behind Ruammit Thai in Crown Heights, accountant Nisakorn Quispe, and Vasinee Levy, behind Thai Diva in Sunnyside, met through their children at a Thai language school in Elmhurst. Since meeting, they’ve cooked for each other and their children as a way to share housework while the kids kept each other entertained. When the pandemic ravaged their revenues, Lucky closed Ruammit Thai and Levy sold Thai Diva. Fast forward a year and change later to one of their home cooking get-togethers, when they decided to launch this business.
Quispe explains how she’d eat in Thailand or one of their home-cooking occasions in Queens: rice in front of each person and a variety of shared entrees at the center. “Let’s say you have spicy soup with the rice, you’re gonna go crazy spicy. Then, you have to pick a different food like stir fry vegetables to cut the spicy. I want people to try different things.” A combo of sticky rice and three entrees runs $15.50. Quispe says they were mindful of the impact of post-pandemic inflation on their customers.
To get to Secret Thai Street Food, walk inside Steinway Street’s HLopez Marketplace, a market that sells smoothies, juices, chips, snacks, and other sundry items. Head past the knee-high wooden fence covered in ivy, and enter the dining room. The space is bright and interspersed with potted plants and paintings of Thailand. At the back stands a steam table lined with about ten brothy, saucy entrees.
The co-founders are particularly excited about chef Lucky’s gaeng om, a spicy yet refreshing herbal curry soup loaded with dill, yu choy, and zucchini pepped up with pla ra (fermented anchovy sauce) and housemade chile paste. A savory pork belly stew, palo, offers a counterpoint to the gaeng om’s spiciness. The dish is a childhood favorite with tender chunks of pork belly that’s marinated overnight and braised with boiled eggs in a seasoning of black and white peppercorns, cilantro root, star anise, and cinnamon. Lucky adds pickled lettuce to hers.
Fluctuations in the menu stem from the ingredients that appeal to Lucky during her visits to the market: Sometimes, pork belly, other times, shrimp. For Lucky, who grew up mashing curry paste with her grandmother in Kamphaeng Phet — all while teaching herself to cook Isan food — Secret Thai Street Food presents a daily opportunity to express her artistry in the kitchen. Her papaya salad has chunks of raw Thai eggplant that has the bite of an apple; the pad prik khing (curried stir-fry) is laced with slivers of makrut lime leaf; and skewers of fish balls are caramelized with tamarind. Her gang som (brothy, sour curry) is thickened with ground tilapia and bobbing with young papaya and shrimp. Fried chicken and grilled pork also make cameos.
Secret Thai Street Food dovetails into the wave of Isan cuisine pioneered by SriPraPhai and most recently pitched into the spotlight by Zaab Zaab in Elmhurst. Highlights of Isan food include pla raa, a thick, fermented fish sauce, and curries and soups with clear broths that are light on coconut milk. Larb and papaya salad are mainstream stars of Isan food.
Secret Thai Street Food is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Caroline Shin is a Queens-raised food journalist and founder of the Cooking with Granny YouTube and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Follow her on Instagram @CookingWGranny.