David Chang was once asked what type of food he served at his rapidly growing empire of Momofuku restaurants, to which he curtly replied that it is "quintessentially American."This may seem like a startling answer considering he rose to prominence serving ramen, pork buns, and Korean burritos laced with kimchi. And looking at the world from the perspective of a Leave It To Beaver type mid century model of a tranquil suburban existence, of malt shops and meatloaf, the answer makes little sense.
But from Chang's perspective, and indeed for the those whose ancestors didn't make it here on the Mayflower, the food that he enjoyed as an American of immigrant parents was inseparable from his experience of growing up here. To him kimchi is as important to his upbringing as barbecue and hamburgers.
This globalization works both ways—a kid growing up in Seoul, South Korea or Bangkok, Thailand might just as soon identify with a hamburger and indeed consider it inseparable from the more traditional aspects of their culinary experience. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Ngam. The East Village restaurant bills itself as "modern Thai comfort food," and while there are the obvious menu items—noodles and curries—there are also some unexpected additions—such as a hamburger and chicken and waffles—that might not seem all the Thai, but who are we to judge?
The "Som Tum" Clay Mortar Papaya Salad ($10) seems pretty traditional. It comes well stocked with a tangle of fresh green papaya studded with cubes of apple, pear, cashews, and heirloom cherry tomatoes in a tart lime and tamarind dressing spiked with Thai chili. The salad is refreshing with layers of flavor and textural contrast.
And of course there is a classic Pad Thai ($12-$18)—described on the menu as "old school." It comes with a choice of pork (pictured above), chicken, beef, tofu, or vegetable or with shrimp, duck, or lobster for an additional charge. While you can certainly get a cheaper rendition of pad Thai elsewhere, the price seems justified here considering the quality of the ingredients at play. The noodles for example, are tender and lithe with just the right amount of bite. The tofu is soft and spongy, quite unlike the desiccated morsels found in cheaper alternatives. And the proteins are recognizable as such, rather than shredded scraps.
And then there is the "Sai Oor Farang" Thai Burger ($16) which features a "seven ounce hormone-free beef patty," homemade "saioor" curry paste, cilantro lime mayo, green papaya kraut, and a tomato all piled high on a wholly commendable bun and served with Chiang Mai fries (more on these later). Structurally the dish is recognizable as a hamburger but there are some distinct differences.
The patty is so finally ground that it is almost a paste, giving the patty a texture closer to sausage or a gyro (although looser than the latter). The patty is cooked to order and elivered rare, but because the patty is seasoned from within—which darkens it substantially—it is hard to tell from the image above. It's flavorful, but not what I would describe as wholly beefy: some meaty succulence but nothing like a more loosely-ground burger, and the crust tastes as much liked browned curry paste as seared beef. It's hard to recommend the burger over others—or over other dishes at Ngam.
But the Chiang Mai fries are superb and are available separately ($8) They are constructed of planks of Kabocha pumpkin and sweet potato dipped in a curry batter and deep fried. They come served with red curry mayo and a sweet and sour peanut relish and are dangerously addictive.
Ngam certainly fulfills the needs of a straight-up neighborhood Thai spot for pad thai, salads, and curries. The prices are higher than your average Thai restaurant but so is the quality of ingredients, which when properly executed, as they are here, justify the difference. Not all the twists are conventional, but comfort is a universal language.