Chinatown can be wonderfully chaotic, and often a mere stroll along Mott or Mullberry will turn up a serendipitous find. Sometimes, though, you need a little bit of guidance to navigate the exhaustive maze of pan-Asian grocers. If you're looking for Thai ingredients, and some know-how for what to do once you find them, then head deeper south, past the crush of Canal Street, to the otherwise nondescript Mosco Street, where you'll find the Bangkok Center Grocery.
The Bangkok Center Grocery is one of the few groceries in New York City dedicated solely to Thai cuisine. The best thing about it isn't the stock of Thai basil (conspicuously missing from other supermarket herb collections), spicy tamarind candies or three kinds of soy sauce (regular, black and sweet black). Its greatest asset is Yoottapong, the friendly and knowledgeable proprietor.
"My name is, uh...Tom!" returned Yoottapong when I introduced myself. (He was trying to be helpful, as clearly I am not Thai). He laughed. "Actually, it's Y-o-o-t-t-a-p-o-n-g. A very long name in Thailand." Originally from Bangkok, Yoottapong and his wife Premjit moved to NYC some ten years ago. They'd always wanted to own a grocery store, so when the opportunity presented itself, they jumped at the chance to do something great. In the ensuing years, they've transformed the Bangkok Center Grocery into a space to learn as well as shop.
The knowledge comes primarily from Yoottapong's mother, who taught him to cook as a young boy in Thailand. He smiled proudly. "She cooked very well. Everyone loved her food. I learned by seeing, by trying. I would ask, how do you make that, how do you prepare that?"
Today, he shares his knowledge with any curious customer to cross his threshold (who, I'm told, includes the likes of David Bouley, Ty Bellingham of Soho's new Kittichai, and even Bobby Flay). "Everyone who loves Thai food comes here, to collect the ingredients. Because we have everything, but we also explain the tricks, to make it taste good, to make it tasty."
Yoottapong does seem to stock everything, and he will in fact eagerly describe each one, if you're curious and have the time. Beyond the Thai pantry staples—which are, according to Yoottapong, palm sugar, fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and yellow soy bean paste—Bangkok Center Grocery has everything you need for Thai home cooking. There are several kinds of noodles (including three thicknesses of dried noodles, and the original Thai "Double Dragon" glass sheet noodles), turmeric and roasted rice powders, whole annatto seed, several brands of shrimp paste as well dried shrimp and dried squid, preserved bean curd and preserved cabbage, jars of young green peppers, and tamarind (both in fresh paste and concentrate form).
But more impressive than the things in tins and boxes are the ingredients that one usually finds in tins and boxes elsewhere but are, at Yoottapong's, fresh. Alongside the Thai basil there's another hard-to-find basil, Holy basil, as well as kaffir lime leaves for making homemade curry, bunches of feathery green Cha-om (an herby vegetable that Yoottapong suggested cooking into what would amount to an egg and Cha-om frittata), stalks of lemongrass, fresh turmeric, galangal root, bird's eye chilies, small Thai eggplants, and fresh bamboo shoots by the bagful.
And, in the freezer, two extra special treats: fresh, slightly chunky coconut milk (which Yoottapong noted is more fragrant and flavorful than the canned varieties), and pandan leaves (which you can find as ice cream at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory around the corner).
To drink with dinner you'll find tamarind, lychee and sugar cane juices, as well as cans of chrysanthemum tea, a grass jelly drink (which Yoottapong explained is something akin to black jello, and is made by boiling the aged stalks of Mesona chinensis, a sibling to mint) and hột é, a popular drink speckled with soft black basil seeds and sweetened with honey.
The bounty is thanks to Yoottapong's dedicated work. "I go [to Thailand] often, to go find a new product, to see what is good, what is new for the customer. I have to taste things first before I bring it, so that when my customer tastes it, he says, mmm, that's good, bring more," he explained. "We try to get all the hard-to-find ingredients from Thailand, everything that you need to cook Thai food."
Despite the variety of ingredients available at his fingertips, Yoottapong's favorite dish is, somewhat surprisingly, the ubiquitous comfort food Pad Thai. "It seems not easy, but it is easy," Yoottapong confided. "You take fish sauce—sugar, tamarind juice and a little bit of soy sauce. The sauce—that's the trick. And the noodles. You need this kind of noodle" (he pointed to packets of dried noodles in clear plastic packages) "there are three different kinds, the thinnest is the best one. You don't boil them, you soak them, soak them for an hour. That's another trick."
And if you're not up for making your own Thai food from scratch, the Bangkok Center Grocery carries a large selection of ready-made noodles, frozen entrees and curry pastes, including fresh curry paste in the fridge, an unusual departure from—and far, far superior to—the usual canned options.
Pick up a rice steamer, and mortar and pestle, too, and you'll be on your way—until you have another question, when you'll be back again.
Bangkok Center Grocery
104 Mosco Street, New York, NY 10013 (map) (212) 349-1979