The Vegetarian Option

Dining out meat-free.

Am Thai Bistro is Hit or Miss for Vegetarians

Drunken noodles. [Photographs: Lauren Rothman]

It ain't easy being a casual neighborhood Thai joint in Brooklyn since Pok Pok came to town.

Pre-2012, I think it's safe to say that New Yorkers looking for balanced, authentic Thai dishes had to visit Zabb Elee in the East Village or be prepared to make the trek to Queens to hit up tried-and-true spots such as Sripraphai and Chao Thai. For Brooklynites and even for lower Manhattanites, such a journey was often relegated to a once-a-month (or less often) affair.

But when Andy Ricker and his exemplary Thai preparations came to the Columbia Street Waterfront last year, the game changed. Suddenly, fantastic, scrupulously authentic Thai became available nearby, and—at least for me personally—the prospect of eating at yet another decent-but-not-great local Thai takeout joint seemed to dim in comparison.

Still, though, many of us eat in or take out at these places a few times a month, so I think it's nevertheless important to survey the scene. In that spirit, I ate at Am Thai Bistro, a slim, elegant little Thai restaurant located on bustling, cacophonous Church Avenue in Prospect Park South.

Green papaya salad.

My first impression of a Thai restaurant is often formed via its rendition of the classic som tum, or Green Papaya Salad. I was duly impressed with Am Thai's version ($6): fresh and tangy, with the appropriate level of heat and a nice amount of crunch, it steered well clear of the common pitfall of being too sweet.

Green curry.

Things took a slight turn for the worst with the arrival of a Green Curry ($8.50) featuring eggplant, bamboo shoots, hot pepper, string beans and basil in a coconut milk broth. This dish exemplified my main problem with the vegetarian options at Am Thai: although the menu advertised the vegetables I just laid out—which I think create quite a harmonious combination—the curry that was served also included a random-seeming mix of (overcooked) broccoli florets, carrot disks, and strips of red bell pepper. I didn't think these additional vegetables had much place in the curry—which, otherwise, was nicely flavored and had an enjoyable measure of heat—and they were to show up again in the other main dish we ordered.

Pad chaa chaa.

That dish was Pad Chaa Chaa ($8), a dry-fry of bamboo shoots, string beans, hot pepper, and galangal with plenty of mellow, smoky chili paste. Again, the flavors here were balanced nicely, but again, those soggy broccoli florets showed up, their presence detracting from the overall harmony of the dish.

The absolute standout of the meal was Am Thai's iteration of one of my favorite Thai noodle dishes, Drunken Noodles ($7.50, pictured at top), featuring broad, springy flat rice noodles sautéed with nicely charred bits of onion and tomato, bound with a sweet (but not too sweet) chili/soy sauce, and folded with scallions, basil and soft scrambled eggs. The noodles were just as they should be: perfectly cooked, the sauce an ideal balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.

If Am Thai were to streamline some of its vegetarian options— leaving out the unnecessary veg and perhaps even the obligatory-seeming fried tofu chunks—it could be a great neighborhood joint. As it is, the restaurant offers a plethora of interesting meat-free dishes, so it's still a worthwhile destination if you live nearby.

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