For too long, Thai food in Manhattan has been dominated by generic joints serving decent, but not particularly outstanding fare: staples like pad thai, chicken satay, and tom yum. There is certainly still a place for that; after all, everyone gets a sweet-sour-salty craving that needs to be satisfied by takeout Thai from time to time.
But for those ready to venture outside their comfort zone and explore what else Thai cuisine has to offer, a new crop of restaurants is starting to generate some buzz. Here's what's good around town.
There are an awful lot of Thai restaurants in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, especially along Ninth Avenue, but Pure Thai Cookhouse stands out for its handmade egg noodles, a rarity. Most restaurants make do with prepackaged dry noodles, so when you take your first bite of these pleasantly toothsome strands, you can really tell the difference, just like having fresh pasta instead of dry pasta. Brave the long lines and cramped space for one thing only: the Ratchaburi crab and pork dry noodles, with roasted pork, lump crab meat, and yu choy.
Even in Bangkok, many Thai people are unfamiliar with the vibrant, fresh flavors of the cooking of Isan, a northeastern region. But in 2012, the founders of Somtum Der sought to change that with their first location in the heart of Bangkok. In the same way, the East Village outpost of the restaurant seeks to change New Yorkers' perception of Thai cooking. Isan cuisine is not for the faint of heart—it is influenced by the cooking of Laos and Cambodia—and can be very intense with pronounced flavors of lime and chile.
Fans of spicy food will come again and again for the restaurant's specialty, young papaya salad. The papaya is julienned and tossed with tomatoes, green beans, bean sprouts, and toasted peanuts in a dressing made with Thai chiles, lime juice, and fish sauce. Variations abound, including one with fermented fish sauce and field crabs. To complete the meal, make sure to order the sticky rice, a traditional accompaniment.
Chef Ratchanee Sumpatboon also specializes in the cooking of Isan, but his focus is on another type of salad, known as larb. It's an almost hearty mixture of heavily spiced ground meat, shallots, mint, scallion, chili powder, and lime dressing, with different mix-ins, including moo krob (crispy pork), mussels, duck, and pork liver. It's served with wedges of raw green cabbage; you can tear off slices and use them to scoop up the salad if you wish. The truly outstanding version, though, is under the specialty section: larb pla krob (pictured above), in which a whole tilapia is filleted, deep-fried, and presented whole again on the plate together with the rest of the salad. This one is meant to be shared. Make sure to ask for Thai spicy—level four is a good place to start for most capsaicin addicts.