Thai food is all about freshness and balance. The careful interplay of the four basic Thai flavors—sweet, sour, salty, and hot—are of utmost importance, which is why the typical Thai food in chili-phobic areas tends to be poor. The heat in Thai food can't simply be toned down without drastically affecting the balance of the rest of the flavors. Remove the chilis without also removing sugar, and your dish ends up sticky and cloying (a common fate for Thai food in New York). Reduce the amount of sugar, and suddenly the pungent fish sauce or acidic lime juice ends up taking over. It's really tough to successfully modify Thai food for heat-intolerant palates.
Ask around for the best, most authentic Thai food in New York, and depending on who you ask, you'll likely be pointed towards two locations in Queens: SriPraPhai in Woodside, and Chao Thai a few blocks away in Elmhurst. Both are admirable options, but which one is the best?
We visited both of them one after the other to find out.
SriPraPhai's earlier times as a hole in the wall are now long gone. These days, it's a slick, 100+ seat operation with clean, wood interiors, an outdoor patio, and a full bar. Even with a packed dining room, the service is fast and efficient, and prices are still reasonable. You can easily feed a hungry group of 4 for under $20 a head.
Chao Thai, on the other hand, boasts only 16 seats in a small dingy space. It's not the most romantic of spots, but we're just in it for the food, right? Slightly more expensive than SriPraPhai, it also lacks a liquor license, meaning no ice cold Singha or Chang to wash down those chilis.
Both restaurants are cash only.
To set a baseline for judgement, we ordered the same six dishes at each restaurant. We ordered a mix of proteins (beef, chicken, shrimp, pork), but made sure that we asked for the same protein in the same dish each time. For the full play-by-play, head-on-head tasting notes, click through the slideshow.
As far as heat level goes, we were after the true Thai, burn-your-mouth off, tongue-exploding-in-masochistic-delight experience. It's not easy to achieve that. At SriPraPhai, no matter how many times we asked the waiter to make our food spicier, no matter how many dishes went back to the kitchen and returned, the food was at most only mildly spicy. Is there a secret password, or what?
Chao Thai fared a little better in this department. Here's how it went.
Us: "We'd like it spicy please."
Him: "Really spicy?"
"Like Thai spicy? No, not Thai spicy, right?"
"Yes, like Thai spicy. As spicy as you like it."
[returns with mild food]
Us: "Could we get it spicier please?"
Him: "This is Thai mild, American hot. You want Thai medium?"
"Thai Spicy, please"
"Wow—you really want spicy."
"Yes, that's why we said we really want spicy at the beginning."
[returns with pretty hot food]
Us, to ourselves: "This is as good as we're gonna get. Just give up."
Here are the dishes we ordered.
Consisting primarily of shredded green papaya, pounded with lime juice, fish sauce, hot chilis, dried shrimp, peanuts, long beans, and tomatoes, Som Tum is an archetypical Thai dish that at its best represents the balance of sweet, sour, hot, and salty elements the cuisine is known for.
Another classic, a meat-based salad boasting all four of the major Thai flavors. In addition to the quartet of fish sauce, chilis, sugar, and lime juice, the dish is further lightened with mint, shallots, and scallion. It should taste meaty, but never heavy with the characteristic nutty aroma of Khao Khua—toasted glutinous rice powder.
Sautéed Chinese Broccoli with Crispy Pork Belly
Thai oyster sauce tends to be a little lighter and sweeter than Chinese-style oyster sauce, and like in China, it's often paired with garlic. The classic stir-fry of Chinese broccoli and crispy nuggets of pork belly is one of my favorites. Ideally, the broccoly should be bright green and still quite crisp (though not raw), and the pork belly should be in nuggets that are crisp but still tender and juicy in the center.
Pad See Ew
Pad See Ew is a stir-fry made with wide steamed rice noodles. Rice noodles must be used the same day they're made—they go stale very fast, becoming crumbly instead of slippery and supple. It's a good way to judge how fast a kitchen turns around its stock. Made with Chinese broccoli, light soy sauce, egg, and a touch of sugar, Pad See Ew is a simple dish that should be sweet, but not overtly so.
Thai curries are all about the curry paste, traditionally made by pounding herbs, spices, and other aromatics in a large mortar and pestle. Green curries are predominantly flavored with chilis, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, shallots, and spices like coriander and white pepper along with shrimp paste and plenty of salt. Coconut milk forms the base of the curry, and crunchy Thai eggplants are the traditional main vegetable.
We also ordered a side of sticky rice from each restaurant. The term "sticky rice" often gets misapplied to refer to any type of Asian rice with a mildly sticky texture. True sticky rice (or glutinous rice) has an opaque, milky-white grain that gets extremely sticky when steaming. It's served in cakes that should be torn off with fingers and eaten straight from your hand. Perfect sticky rice should never be mushy, instead having distinct grains that hold tightly together while maintaining their individuality.
It's a tough call—Chao Thai had a larger number of better dishes, but the curry at SriPraPhai was worlds better than that at Chao Thai. After a little cajoling, Chao Thai did seem to be more willing to offer you an authentic flavor experience as far as heat and balance go, which gave their hot dishes a definite leg up. Asides from the curry, those at SriPraPhai tended to be too cloyingly sweet without chilis to balance out the sugar level.
In the end, it all comes down to what type of Thai food you prefer. If you're after a hotter, fresher, more authentic experience, Chao Thai is probably a better option for you. But for really great versions more in the vein of standard Thai-American fare along with excellent curry, SriPraPhai is where it's at.
For a dish-by-dish breakdown, click through the slideshow!
85-03 Whitney Ave, Queens NY 11373 (map)