Something strange happened a few weeks ago. My coworkers started ordering Thai for lunch, which is not strange in and of itself; the strange part was that the food was really good, which is something of a departure in Midtown West. Ninth Avenue in the 40s and 50s has more Thai restaurants than any neighborhood could need, but not a lot of good ones. My coworkers became fiercely loyal to Pure Thai Shophouse, and when one day someone ordered a papaya salad topped with hunks of salted blue crab, I knew I had to investigate further.
I was rewarded with a menu loaded with delicious small plates, billed on the menu as Snacks. Most of these dishes were $5, and none went above $8. My party of four settled in and ordered just about every appetizer on the menu. As it turns out, Pure Thai's snacks go beyond chicken satay and crispy spring rolls to great results.
Their appetizers menu offered plenty of fried options, though none of these was a favorite of our meal. The best of the bunch were the soft yet crispy Chicken Curry Puffs ($6), nicely spiced although not terribly spicy, and served with a thin, vinegary cucumber relish. The Crispy Tofu ($5) consisted of a bowl of big hunks of firm tofu, deep-fried until crispy on the outside and, well, rubbery inside. The texture was fine, considering these are mainly a vehicle for the peanut and tamarind-lime gastrique, a sweet-hot dip that turned plain old tofu chunks into a seriously tasty dish. An order of Pork Cracklings ($2) is meant to go with soup, but we treated them like a bowl of crackers, another great deal on Pure Thai's menu.
Vegetable Spring Rolls ($4) were a great value, filled with mushrooms, jicama, and glass noodles and served with a plum sauce, but they weren't anything to write home about. Same goes for the Steamed Vegetable Dumplings ($6), which had an interesting filling of peanuts and tofu and were topped with crispy garlic bits. They were livened a bit by a ginger soy dipping sauce, but still tasted a bit mushy and bland.
Surprisingly, the salads on the snack menu overshadowed the indulgent fried stuff. The Green Papaya Salad ($6, $8 with salted blue crab) grabs hold of your taste buds and does not let go no matter how many cracklings you eat. Here's my thought process eating this salad: "It's sweet. No, wait, it's salty. No, sorry, it's really fishy. Oh, hold on, now it's really tangy, there's a lot of lime in there. Oh god, my mouth is on fire! Wow, are these hunks of crab for real?" Made up of shreds of green papaya, long beans and tomatoes, and topped with a generous amount of toasted peanuts and salted blue crab, this salad is an experience. The dressing—flavored with fish sauce, lime juice, dried shrimp, and whole load of chile—takes the seemingly neutral veggies and amps up their flavor tenfold. This one's not for the faint of heart; even without the salted crab, it's got a pronounced fishiness that you're either going to love or hate.
Also good was the Grilled Spicy Beef Salad ($7), with watercress and romaine lettuce, green apple, dried chiles, toasted rice, and plenty of lime juice, all topped off with perfectly charred chilled beef. This one is much more of a crowd pleaser, but it was still an exciting salad. If you can make a salad exciting, you're doing something right.
Roasted Baby Back Ribs ($6) come four to an order, coated in a thick bean paste based barbecue sauce that's just spicy enough. The meat is perfectly cooked—tender, though not exactly falling off of the bone, it's appealingly toothsome, chewy without being tough.
The Crispy Shrimp Sesame Crepe ($6) was unlike anything I've ever seen before: About 8" in diameter, the crispy yet pliable crepe is crosshatched with shrimp mousse and then topped with sesame seeds, kaffir lime curd, and plenty of cilantro. The richness of the shrimp mousse was perfectly complimented by the bright kaffir lime and cilantro.
The special menu item Spicy Crab Meat Salad ($7.50) is basically a lettuce wrap filled with a mixture of lump crab meat, plenty of ginger, lime, peanuts, chiles, shallots, and coconut all bound together with a tamarind-palm sugar reduction. The aroma of coconut is the first thing to hit you, and the interplay of the warm, soft crab salad and the cold, crisp romaine heart was complex and thrilling. If this is on the menu when you dine, order it. In any case, I think it bodes well for other specials the kitchen might whip up on any given day.
Pure Thai Shophouse is not in the running for best Thai restaurant in the city. But it easily stands up to its neighbors on 9th Avenue, and beats them by a mile when it comes to service and ambience. It's a great value as well; the four of us were able to snack on a great variety of dishes by spending only $51.50 on food before tax and tip, well below our $15/person target price. Everything I've tried from Pure Thai Shophouse has been pretty good, but something about the snacks and other small dishes on the menu are just the most fun. In a neighborhood with so many restaurants of questionable provenance, it's great to have a solid and reliable one like Pure Thai Shophouse.