960 Amsterdam Avenue, New York NY 10025 (at 107th; map); 212-280-4575; thaimarketny.com
Service: Functional, smooth
Setting: Like a clean Bangkok night market
Must-Haves: Thai dumplings, Yum Neua, Tiger Cry, Som Tum
In my opinion, New York could always do with a few more good Thai restaurants, particularly ones that lean towards to the hotter, more impassioned, down-and-dirty end of the scale. I mean, they exist already, but most are a trek for me. The closest we've got in the northern reaches of Manhattan is Thai Market, a street-food themed restaurant near Columbia campus that is one of the better options north of the Village.
If anything, the food at Thai Market is Bangkok in style: relatively clean flavors with a heavy hand with the sugar. Almost all dishes have a sweet element to them, sometimes cloyingly so. Fortunately, just like in every restaurant in Bangkok, your table comes with a caddy representing the four basic Thai flavors. Fiery dried chilis add heat, chili-spiked fish sauce adds pungency and saltiness, and a pot of vinegar or a side dish of limes adds acid. The only traditional condiment missing here is the sugar (it gets replaced with American-style chili garlic sauce), but the dishes here are sweet enough that you won't really want for it.
The appetizers and salads are the best part of the menu, and Thai Market Crepe ($6.50) is a strong choice—a paper-thin pancake crisp and wispy on the edges, moist and wrinkled in the center, filled with a mild mixture of pounded dried shrimp, mung bean sprouts, and toasted coconut. I like to split it open and pour on some sweet vinegar and a good amount of dried chili before digging in.
Also easily shareable (and great with a drink) are the Thai Dumplings ($4.50). Made with fresh steamed rice noodles and sprinkled with sweet fried shallots, these dumplings closely resemble Vietnamese-style Bánh Cuốn. The filling of minced chicken and crunchy preserved radish is crisp with a nice, light crunch.
I love me a good Moo Ping ($3.50). Unfortunately, Thai Market's are a bit lacking. The pork was tender enough, but I found the marinade to be thin in both texture and flavor. Much better are the minced meat salads. Kissing cousins with the more familiar laab (which is also on the menu and quite good), Nam Sod ($6.50) starts with the same moist and tender ground meat, flavoring it with slivers of ginger, chili, and peanuts, instead of herbs and toasted rice powder. Both are good, though as with many dishes here, you'll want to add a bit of extra dried chili to balance out the sweetness.
On the red meat side of things, the Tiger Cry—which is spicy grilled skirt steak—is a better appetizer for pure meat lovers, but I prefer the freshness of the Yum Neau ($7), which starts with the same beef and adds plenty of peppery watercress flavored with onions, mint, and nutty toasted rice powder. For vegetarians, I've had better fried tofu, but the Tao-Hoo Todd is still worth ordering for the crisp and light fried taro flavored with peanut. It comes with a spicy apricot-based sauce for dipping.
Stir-fried entrees are not quite as strong as appetizers here. Gra Prow Kai Dow ($11.50)—ground meat stir-fried with basil, chilis, a bit of Thai oyster sauce, and fish sauce—should be fiery hot with an intense basil flavor. Here it's plenty moist but disappointingly mild, as if all the bird chilis were replaced by bell peppers. It lacks the intensity of the real deal. The egg, however, is expertly cooked. I love Thai-style fried eggs with their crisp, wispy, puffy edges and creamy centers. Like the Gra Prow, the Pla Dook Pade Ped ($13) somehow just tastes too "clean" to me. There's more spice going on in here and the fish is fried well, but I'd love just a bit more intensity from the green peppercorn and pungency from the curry-based sauce.
Noodles are a better option for entrees, and I like the Kui Teiw Kua Ped ($10.50) a bit better than either the Pad Thai or the Pad Se Ew. Made with fresh steamed rice noodles and duck eggs, it's sweet, smoky and complex (though once again—reach for that chili powder).
The food at Thai Market is still no match for places like the awesome Isan-style Zabb Elee downtown, or SriPraPhai and Chao Thai in Queens, or even upscale Kin Shop, for that matter. But it sure as heck beats the pants off of most of the other casual Thai-esque restaurants in the city, including the fifth branch of Wondee Siam right across the street from it. If it's hard-core authentic Thai food you're after, you may be disappointed (though it comes closer than many), but for me, most of the time reasonably priced, cheap, and really tasty will do.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.