I've been going to Chelsea Market for years without paying much attention to Chelsea Thai. But it is really the only option at Chelsea Market for noodles. (Not counting Buddakan, an expansive space that feels more like the set of an Ang Lee movie to me than a higher-end restaurant.)
Usually, when I go to Chelsea market I get gelato or ice cream, or I browse at the Italian grocery store. I also like visiting Amy's Bread and peering all those great big loaves resting on metal steel racks. I imagine that I am an orphan in Dickensian times, and that I haven't even twopence to buy the bread, though it looks so delicious and nourishing..... Then I go into the bakery and get a loaf, just to make myself feel good.
Chelsea Thai is a small space that opens out onto the bustle of the indoor market. It doesn't serve the best Thai food in the city, but Chelsea Market isn't where you go for that sort of thing (see above). It sells noodles which are competitive, or competitively good, so to speak. They are more than worthy for the area and a surprisingly tasty option for when the noodle craving strikes.
I had meant to get the Sen Yai Pad Kee Mow (Drunken Noodles; $10) with beef or chicken, but somehow managed to say tofu when asked. I realized my mistake about ten seconds after I'd placed the order, two measly seconds after the lady behind the register had yelled a clipped answer to the kitchen in the back. There is something a little bit militaristic about the ordering at the place, though I suppose it is unavoidable given the turn-around during the lunch hour.
I asked the lady if I could change my order and she said no. Even though it was my fault, her incalcitrance made me a little grumpy and disinclined to think favorably about the noodles. But that's the nice thing about food and how honest it is: it's either good or it's not. If it's good, it cheers you up in a jiffy. I couldn't help but be pleased by these flat rice noodles, stir-fried with onion, red bell pepper, chili paste, scallion, jalapeño, and loads of fresh Thai basil.
The cooks didn't scrimp on the basil; every noodle seemed infused with its essence. Garlic and chili were secondary flavors, followed by just a touch of sweetness. And the portion of noodles you get for around ten dollars is very generous.
The noodles were so good I was willing to ignore the deep-fried squares of dry tofu. Tofu and service aside, I liked these noodles enough to return for the beef and chicken. The noodles were just as good and the proteins much better.
The only protein I haven't tried is the pork. On the day I was deciding between the beef, pork, or chicken, I asked another lady who was working the counter which one she preferred.
"I like them all," she said.
"Yes, but if you had to choose just one what would it be?" I asked.
To this she gave me a sort of funny look, like what kind of question was that? Finally, she said, "They are all good. But I could never have beef all the time, or pork all the time, or chicken all the time. You need variety in your food, just like in life."
Maybe this is just me, but I thought that was a rather nice answer to my humdrum query.
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.