The Vegetarian Option: Sripraphai Thai Restaurant
"For many, the vegetarian options at Sripraphai just might not be quite vegetarian enough."
64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside NY 11377 (at 65th St.; map); (718) 899-9599; sripraphairestaurant.com
Veggie Options: large "vegetarian" menu, but beware the fish sauce
Cost: main dishes are around $8
I have had several amazing meals at Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens; it's one of the best Thai restaurants in the five boroughs. But if you're a vegetarian who tries to avoid fish and shellfish, I am not quite comfortable recommending that you make the trip.
On this weekend's visit, we sat in the large garden out back, shaded by a vine-covered arbor. It's a lovely place to while away a Saturday afternoon with a Thai iced coffee (or a beer) and a few rounds of affordable, sometimes stunningly tasty Thai food.
When the waitress came to take our order, I said, "We'd like to share a bunch of vegetarian dishes. No fish sauce." She nodded. I pointed to the vegetarian menu, a separate section in the large menu booklet. "We'd like the Crispy Chinese Watercress salad," I said. "No fish sauce. Vegetarian." She nodded. "Okay," she repeated. "Crispy Chinese Watercress, vegetarian." I continued: "The vegetarian fried shredded taro"—which she repeated—"and the vegetarian Drunken Noodles," I said, repeating: "No fish sauce. Vegetarian."
I felt a little stupid repeating these words over and over—but she repeated "vegetarian" after me each time as she wrote down our order.
The nests of fried shredded taro ($6.50) were the perfect snack: crispy on the outside, warm and sweet on the inside, with a spicy chili sauce and ground peanuts and cashews to sprinkle on top. If we'd had a huge pile of them, we would have demolished it instantly—perhaps it's a good thing that we didn't.
The Crispy Chinese Watercress Salad ($9, pictured at top) arrived next. To call it a salad might be a misnomer: this is salty, decadent fried food. The dish had a wonderful combination of textures: delicately battered fried watercress leaves, chewy, savory oyster mushrooms, chiles, and a tangy dressing made from lime and...fish sauce?
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As I dug in, I couldn't shake the feeling that this dish wasn't as fish-free as I'd hoped. When the waitress stopped by to refill our water, I asked her, "What are the ingredients in this dressing? It tastes like it might have a little fish sauce in it." She said no, it was made from lime juice, sugar, and a mushroom-based soy sauce.
The parade of dishes continued with a plate of Drunken Noodles ($8.50) tossed with fragrant Thai basil, red bell peppers, fried tofu, and perfectly chewy rice noodles. While the texture was excellent, it could have used a bit more flavor—you might want to order this dish spicy (and if you're a meat eater, skip the one from the vegetarian menu. Past versions I've ordered off the main menu have been incredible.)
The Sautéed Eggplant ($8.50) was much more successful: it was luscious, cooked with garlic and Thai basil until sweet and velvety. It struck me what a great value this was in comparison to last week's eggplant. Even regardless of price, Sripraphai's dish was a delicious find.
Spicy Green Curry ($8.50) was just as fantastic: rich and a little fiery, with round green Thai eggplants, crisp long beans, chunks of butternut squash and chewy fried tofu that was the perfect sponge for the delicious sauce.
I was still bothered, though, by the unmistakable flavor of fish sauce in the "vegetarian" watercress salad. When I ventured into the restaurant to use the bathroom, I stopped a manager to ask what was in it. I explained that we'd ordered the salad off the vegetarian menu, but that I was worried that the dressing was not vegetarian.
He went in to check with the chef, and said that the watercress salad, papaya salad, and mango salad on the vegetarian menu were always made with fish sauce. He said, "American vegetarians are usually okay with fish," but that the other dishes we'd ordered had no shrimp paste or fish sauce. He said that if you want the salads without fish sauce, you need to say that you want them "True Vegetarian", but then they will be made without fish sauce or garlic. (This preparation is probably tailored toward Jains, who generally avoid garlic, onions, and other root vegetables.) Apparently it wasn't enough that we'd repeated the phase "no fish sauce" at least three times when ordering. The magic words, "True Vegetarian" were not uttered, and the dressing was made the traditional way.
Our experience at Sripraphai made me a little sad for the vegetarians I can't send to the restaurant. The confusing (even misleading) menu and the poor communication we had with our waitress and the kitchen was a little frustrating. But perhaps other eaters should be thankful that this restaurant remains traditional. Real Thai food is made with fish sauce; there may be no way around that. Sripraphai is a great place for authentic dishes made with duck, pork, chicken, and a wide variety of seafood—and we enjoyed all of the vegetable-based dishes we had. But for many, the vegetarian options at Sripraphai just might not be quite vegetarian enough.