It 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.Read More