A spread at Ayada, New York’s most delicious Thai restaurant.
Photo: Melissa Hom
Thai restaurants in New York are a dime a dozen, reliable workhorses scattered densely across every neighborhood, and most everyone has their go-to takeout spot: the one that delivers generally unobjectionable if unexceptional pad Thai and pineapple fried rice on the quick and cheap. It’s easy to mistake this mediocrity as defining Thailand’s cuisine. And so it can be genuinely life-changing to unlock the next level of the city’s Thai food: the more authentic, hyperregional, or at least bold, adventurous, and thrillingly palate-altering dishes offered by New York’s very best Thai restaurants.
The Absolute Best
1. Ayada Thai
77-08 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst; 718-424-0844
Thanks largely to the opening of Sripraphai (more on that below) some 20 years ago, Queens (and particularly the bordering Woodside and Elmhurst neighborhoods) has become the borough most associated with wonderful Thai restaurants, and in the current landscape Ayada takes the cake. The lengthy menu is full of absolute hits from all over the country: succulent frog’s legs, fried golden and draped in holy basil; salty minced pork, hiding rich quarters of black (preserved) eggs; a tantalizing tamarind-infused sour curry, bobbing with shrimp and fluffy cubes of omelette. One visit would be just scratching the surface of what’s on offer; returning many times could yield such a diversity of recipes and flavors that you might feel like you’d visited a different restaurant each time, were it not for the consistency of both the cooking and the atmosphere. The small dining room is polished and elegant without feeling too formal, the service exceptionally attentive and extremely pleasant. A meal at Ayada is an all-around slam dunk.
2. Thailand’s Center Point
63-19 39th Ave., Woodside; 718-651-6888
This cozy spot in Woodside is charmingly down-to-earth and homey, thanks to the chef and owner Annie Phinphattakul, who presides over both the dining room and the kitchen and employs her teenage children as waitstaff. The food, then, is even more impressive for its sharp perfection — she may be smiling warmly but she is also cooking fiercely: a mix of traditional, mostly northern dishes and her own witty, playful concoctions. Sections of the menu are labeled “Food to Die For” and “Something So Special” and the dishes within them tend to earn these distinctions. The “egg sandwich” — which turns out to be richly sauced, sticky chunks of stir-fried pork, scattered across one shatteringly crispy fried egg and topped with another, plus basil — is the sort of thing you might think about wistfully until you get to eat it again.
64-13 39th Ave., Woodside; 718-899-9599
Since it opened in the mid-’90s, Sripraphai has set the standard for New York’s real-deal Thai restaurants, marking the Woodside-Elmhurst area as the definitive Mecca and serving as a difficult-to-pronounce (it’s the owner’s first name) calling card for anyone who wants to show off what an adventurous and authenticity-seeking eater they are. If you expect to be treated as someone who knows the least bit about Thai food, the only answer to “Have you been to Sripraphai?” is a resounding “Yes.” The many-paged menu, with dishes both familiar and unusual from all over the country, can be overwhelming, and so encourages repeat visits, each with its own rewards, from the coconut-milk-free, slow-burn jungle curry to the horizon-expanding crispy watercress salad (for which the green is battered and fried, topped with cashews and dried chiles) to piles of spicy fermented Isan sausage.
4. Kitchen 79
37-70 79th St., at Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights; 718-803-6227
If the food of Isan, Thailand’s largest and most northeastern region, has become well-represented in New York, we could use more from the south, where it tends to be very, very spicy, thrillingly and complexly so. Kitchen 79, on the border of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst and decorated a bit like a tidy, high-end nightclub (lots of black-and-white leather and glitzy light fixtures), is an excellent place to retrain your palate by familiarizing yourself with classics like gaeng tai pla — a deeply fishy, insanely fiery (not for everyone, but catnip for some) mackerel-based curry bobbing with curls of shrimp, tender cubes of pumpkin, and half-globes of barely crunchy Thai eggplant. Pad ped moo pah, which features wild boar sautéed in spicy curry paste with bamboo, basil, and sprigs of young peppercorn, is an antidote to pork-belly fatigue — it’s nearly as rich, but significantly meatier and bears a subtle gamy tang.
5. Pok Pok NY
117 Columbia St., at Kane St., Columbia Waterfront District; 718-923-9322
Andy Ricker, the chef behind the wildly popular, trendy Pok Pok restaurants (in New York, Portland, and Los Angeles), is not from Thailand, nor even of Thai descent, but his passion for his adopted homeland and its culinary offerings is truly obsessive: He’s ambassador/anthropologist/ historian-as-chef, and his carefully organized, thoroughly detailed menu makes his enthusiasm infectious. Eating at Pok Pok is like taking a culinary tour of the country and even dipping into the cuisines of its neighbors, from the Vietnamese-style (and now-iconic) fish-sauce wings, to the curry with pork belly and pork shoulder (a Chiang Mai classic with Burmese roots) and the Chinese-influenced clay-pot prawns with glass noodles. Most everything is spectacularly delicious, especially washed down with drinking vinegars, Ricker’s take on shrubs, in flavors from tamarind to Thai basil. And even the water will teach you something: As is often done in northern Thailand, it’s infused with pandanus leaf to taste of toasted rice and vanilla.
6. Uncle Boons
7 Spring St., nr. Elizabeth St.; 646-370-6650
Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, the married chefs behind Uncle Boons, seem to have a goal similar to Andy Ricker’s: to transform the way the average American (or at least New York) diner thinks about Thai food, as not just an interesting, exotic “ethnic” option but in fact one of the great cuisines of the world, on par with French or Italian. Their restaurant is as buzzy and stylish as any other in Nolita, and though they hew carefully to tradition when it comes to each dish, they follow their whims in terms of the wide array of them, inspired by their travels all across the country, and place a premium on using the highest quality ingredients. When betel leaves are available, it’d be nothing short of a mistake to skip them, wrapped around a heady mixture of fresh ginger, coconut, dried shrimp, and shrimp paste, plus peanuts and chiles. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a better khao soy, the northern-style, coconut-based, whole-chicken-leg curry, made golden with fresh turmeric and featuring homemade egg noodles.
85-03 Whitney Ave., Elmhurst; 718-424-4999
Another Queens pioneer, Chao Thai is toward the literal end of “hole-in-the-wall” when it comes to atmosphere, but the food has seriously held its own for years now, and the chef-owner, Ratchanee Sumpatboon, has made her mark by expanding all over the city (see Lan Larb Soho and Zabb Elee, below), scattering spicy specialties from her native Isan in her wake.
55 Bond St., nr. Bowery; 212-677-2223
This new, slightly upscale seafood-centric Noho spot from a pair of Thai-born brothers (who worked at one of Bangkok’s most renowned restaurants and for Tom Colicchio, respectively) may join the ranks of Uncle Boons and Pok Pok. For now, it’s still working out the kinks, but the southern-style coconut-crab curry, packed with juicy king-crab meat, is alone worth a visit.
76-20 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst; 718-806-1807
If only the word “cafeteria” more often described places like this one, where food is ordered by pointing to unlabeled sections of a steam table, à la rice-curry stalls and shops in Thailand. Combos feature two or three dishes plus rice. You never know what you’re going to get but you can be sure it will be delicious, from super-spicy curries to stewed pork belly with tofu.
Lan Larb Soho
227 Centre St., nr. Grand St.; 646-895-9264
This outpost of the greater Chao Thai family (sister to Larb Ubol uptown) specializes in Isan versions of the chile-laced ground-meat salad known as larb, naturally, as well as other traditional northeastern dishes, but offers a variety of southern curries, too.
81-10 Broadway, Elmhurst; 917-832-6672
The chef-owner behind the popular, unusually tasty if unthrilling Wondee Siam restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West Side is freer in Queens, focusing on the kinds of dishes likely to appear only on her “secret” menu in Manhattan, like fermented rice noodles in tomato-and-pork sauce and shredded-catfish salad.
LOOK by Plant Love House
622 Washington Ave., nr. Pacific St., Prospect Heights; 718-622-0026
The name of this Elmhurst transplant — the Anglicization of the Thai word for children, because the food is meant to be the sort that Thai mothers prepare for their kids — doubles as a serious mandate, urging residents of Prospect Heights to wake up and reconsider what they thought of as Thai food. Try finding pork-blood noodle soup or hor mok pla, a steamed-fish-curry custard, elsewhere in the neighborhood, let alone the borough.
Pure Thai Cookhouse
766 Ninth Ave., nr. 51st St.; 212-581-0999
Among the many Thai restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen, Pure Thai stands out for its appealingly narrow, snaky dining room (you feel you’ve happened upon a secret cave) and pared-down menu, featuring one of the city’s best som tum salads, each strand of pert green papaya glistening in a perfect sheath of lime juice and fish sauce.
Som Tum Der
85 Ave. A, nr. 5th St.; 212-260-8570
The pedigree of this palace of papaya salad is even more impressive than Queens — it’s an outpost of a restaurant in Bangkok. There are eight excellent varieties of the namesake dish on offer, plus plenty of larbs and grilled meats.
75 Second Ave., nr. 4th St; 212-505-9533
This Chao Thai descendant was a key Isan-food pioneer in Manhattan, introducing dishes so spicy they necessitate a one-to-five rating system for heat.