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Sietsema's Thai Heatmap: 12 Excellent Dishes

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2013_thai_heatmap12.jpegIt was 20 years ago that Sripraphai Tipmanee opened her bakery in Woodside, Queens, and Thai food in New York has never been the same. Before that, we'd had few good Thai restaurants and no great ones. The food tended to be curry-based or stir-fried, fussily presented, and mainly from the South. It was said to have been inspired by royal banquets in the 19th century court of King Chulalongkorn. The king had 32 wives, each with her own chef, and these chefs scoured the kingdom for the richest recipes, also importing cooking ideas from China and Southeast Asia. Chulalongkorn staged cooking contests among the chefs, to see which wife would sleep with the monarch that night. From these contests the cuisine called "Royal Thai" supposedly emerged.

If this wacky story sounds apocryphal, maybe it is, but the Siamese food in Gotham 20 years ago was invariably dripping with coconut milk, presented in little boats, and too sweet by a mile, with elaborate garnishes that were often more important than the food itself. By contrast, Sripraphai offered savory and unadorned peasant fare — a few hot dishes and some strikingly strange cold salads — as a sideline to its baked goods and colorful desserts. Eventually the bakery disappeared, to be replaced by a small café and later a sprawling restaurant complex. The Isaan food she presented, from the impoverished northeast of the country, became a predilection for many and eventually a fad as more Thai immigrants arrived and opened restaurants.

Nowadays many New York neighborhoods have great Thai restaurants, including Elmhurst, Woodside, Astoria, Jackson Heights, Red Hook, Hell's Kitchen, the East Village, and the Upper West Side. Here are some favorites from the best Thais in town, in ranked order. Strange that a chef from Portland has taught us to love Siamese food all over again.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Khao Soi at Pok Pok NY

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This meal-size soup which originated in the Chinese-leaning city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is stunning in its savor and mellowness, using a homemade yellow curry paste and freshly pressed coconut milk. There are soft noodles in its depths and fried ones on top, and the dish is accompanied by pickled greens, chile oil, cilantro, and lime juice.

E-Sarn Sausage at SriPraPhai Thai Restaurant

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Tart, garlicky, and supremely delicious, this sausage is one of Thailand’s best bar snacks. It’s served with fresh ginger, cilantro, lime, toasted peanuts, and lettuce, for wrapping it all up so can eat it with your fingers.

Homok at Chao Thai Too

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One of the most curious dishes in the Thai canon, homok (sometimes spelled “amok” as in “running amok”) is an airy orange mousse of fish and coconut milk, mildly curried. Nothing better for lunch.

Moo Larb at Zabb Elee

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This quintessential Isaan salad tosses coarsely ground pork with purple onions, mint, scallions, and fried shallots in a lime-chile powder dressing that will make you pucker and then sweat. The special version above, called “moo Thai larb,” also contains pig liver and crunchy pig ears.

Pork Legs at Thailand's Center Point

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The pork has been pulled from the leg in big, deeply flavorful hanks, interspersed with bits of jellied skin and herbs. This soy-saucy concoction shows the influence of Chinese food on Thai vernacular gastronomy. And it’s damn good.

Mieng Kum at Uncle Boons

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This dish features toasted coconut, dried shrimp, peanuts, and fiery chiles that you enwrap in a betel leaf, a material you may have previously associated with Indian smoking habits. With the pungent dipping sauce, the effect is stunning.

Kaeng Zom Sour Curry at Pam Real Thai

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If you’re tired of timid Thai curries awash in coconut milk, this forthrightly sour and spicy curry — featuring fish or shrimp in a tamarind-laced broth — is for you! (Don’t you love it when Thai places specify a protein, rather than allowing you to throw just anything in there, as if it didn’t matter?)

Goong Chea Nam Pla at Thai Market

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A Thai waitress once told me that this Siamese ceviche of shrimp, basil, crushed peanuts, and bird’s eye chiles (way hot!) was the result of the influence of dining rooms in Japanese hotels in Bangkok.

Steamed Fish at Ayada Thai

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Steamed fish sounds so dull, doesn’t it? But when it arrives, you’ve got a party on a plate: a sizable red snapper sluiced with a strong cilantro-and-green-chile sauce, and topped with pickled garlic.

Pad Thai at Pok Pok Phat Thai

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You can’t get into Red Hook’s Pok Pok mothership, either? Well their modest noodle offshoot on the Lower East Side offers several exemplary versions of the much abused noodle dish pad Thai, of which few other good versions are to be found. Customize as you see fit with fish sauce, raw sugar, soy sauce, and crushed chiles.

Pad Thai at the Rhong Tiam Food Cart

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The enthusiasm with which the staff of this small cart throws its pad thai together is infectious, and the finished product has just the right balance of sweet and sour. The version you see here was ordered for maximum heat. No wimpy pad Thai here! [The cart is usually parked near Metropolitan and Bedford in Williamsburg in the evenings.]

Duck Laab at Kin Shop

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Harold Dieterle has remade this Isaan classic – substituting ground duck for pork or chicken and ramping up the flavor with toasted rice, chiles, and shallots, while adding crunch with romaine and long beans.

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Khao Soi at Pok Pok NY

This meal-size soup which originated in the Chinese-leaning city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is stunning in its savor and mellowness, using a homemade yellow curry paste and freshly pressed coconut milk. There are soft noodles in its depths and fried ones on top, and the dish is accompanied by pickled greens, chile oil, cilantro, and lime juice.

E-Sarn Sausage at SriPraPhai Thai Restaurant

Tart, garlicky, and supremely delicious, this sausage is one of Thailand’s best bar snacks. It’s served with fresh ginger, cilantro, lime, toasted peanuts, and lettuce, for wrapping it all up so can eat it with your fingers.

Homok at Chao Thai Too

One of the most curious dishes in the Thai canon, homok (sometimes spelled “amok” as in “running amok”) is an airy orange mousse of fish and coconut milk, mildly curried. Nothing better for lunch.

Moo Larb at Zabb Elee

This quintessential Isaan salad tosses coarsely ground pork with purple onions, mint, scallions, and fried shallots in a lime-chile powder dressing that will make you pucker and then sweat. The special version above, called “moo Thai larb,” also contains pig liver and crunchy pig ears.

Pork Legs at Thailand's Center Point

The pork has been pulled from the leg in big, deeply flavorful hanks, interspersed with bits of jellied skin and herbs. This soy-saucy concoction shows the influence of Chinese food on Thai vernacular gastronomy. And it’s damn good.

Mieng Kum at Uncle Boons

This dish features toasted coconut, dried shrimp, peanuts, and fiery chiles that you enwrap in a betel leaf, a material you may have previously associated with Indian smoking habits. With the pungent dipping sauce, the effect is stunning.

Kaeng Zom Sour Curry at Pam Real Thai

If you’re tired of timid Thai curries awash in coconut milk, this forthrightly sour and spicy curry — featuring fish or shrimp in a tamarind-laced broth — is for you! (Don’t you love it when Thai places specify a protein, rather than allowing you to throw just anything in there, as if it didn’t matter?)

Goong Chea Nam Pla at Thai Market

A Thai waitress once told me that this Siamese ceviche of shrimp, basil, crushed peanuts, and bird’s eye chiles (way hot!) was the result of the influence of dining rooms in Japanese hotels in Bangkok.

Steamed Fish at Ayada Thai

Steamed fish sounds so dull, doesn’t it? But when it arrives, you’ve got a party on a plate: a sizable red snapper sluiced with a strong cilantro-and-green-chile sauce, and topped with pickled garlic.

Pad Thai at Pok Pok Phat Thai

You can’t get into Red Hook’s Pok Pok mothership, either? Well their modest noodle offshoot on the Lower East Side offers several exemplary versions of the much abused noodle dish pad Thai, of which few other good versions are to be found. Customize as you see fit with fish sauce, raw sugar, soy sauce, and crushed chiles.

Pad Thai at the Rhong Tiam Food Cart

The enthusiasm with which the staff of this small cart throws its pad thai together is infectious, and the finished product has just the right balance of sweet and sour. The version you see here was ordered for maximum heat. No wimpy pad Thai here! [The cart is usually parked near Metropolitan and Bedford in Williamsburg in the evenings.]

Duck Laab at Kin Shop

Harold Dieterle has remade this Isaan classic – substituting ground duck for pork or chicken and ramping up the flavor with toasted rice, chiles, and shallots, while adding crunch with romaine and long beans.

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