What to Order at Somtum Der, Isan Thai in the East Village
85 Avenue A (between 5th and 6th; map); 212-260-8570; somtumder.com/home_ny.html
Setting: A little loud and dark, but modern and comfortable.
Service: Very friendly, as Thai folks always seem to be.
Compare To: Zabb Elee, Larb Ubol
Must-Haves: Fried chicken, pork neck som tum, duck or mushroom larb, grilled coconut pork skewers, chicken and Isan herb soup.
Cost: Dishes are all $9 to $11 or so, and you'll need about two per person to fill up.
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. If you're a fan of somtums, larb, and fried chicken, hit it, but don't expect much of the other menu sections.
New York's not in any danger yet of becoming oversaturated with Isan-style Thai restaurants the way it was oversaturated with too many gloppy-pad-thai-and-cashew-chicken spots a few years ago (some would argue that even one such restaurant is an oversaturation), but they're sure becoming more and more prevalent. For lovers of the sticky rice and spicy salad-heavy cuisine, this is a good thing.
Somtum Der first opened in Bangkok in 2012 with the promise to deliver more authentic Isan flavors to the country's centrally-located capital where most versions are modified to suit the local palate—Bangkok cuisine tends to be sweeter and milder than Lao-influenced northern Thai food. New York Thai food tends to be even sweeter and milder, so it's been fascinating and thrilling to watch the slow creep of Isan food into the city with its funkier flavors (mostly due to a more strongly fermented style of fish sauce), moderate use of sugar, and more intense heat.
Since the New York branch of Somtum Der opened in the East Village a couple months ago, I've been in four times and have tried a good chunk of the menu. Here are my thoughts on the best dishes and what to avoid.
The Somtums (Papaya Salad)
This is the strongest section of Somtum Der's menu, and the most prominent. As soon as you walk in the door, the somtum station hits you with its jars of ingredients—peanuts, dried shrimp, limes and the like—and the rythmic pok pok of the wooden pestle crushing freshly shaved green papaya, tomatoes, long beans, and chilies marks the beat.
There are a whopping eight somtums on the menu. The easiest for beginners are the Tum Thai ($10)—the unadorned base salad made with papaya, limes, tomato, chilies, and palm sugar—the Tum Thai Kai Kem ($11) with salted boiled egg, and the Tum Kor Moo Yang ($10) with savory grilled pork neck. All of them are aggressively seasoned—even the one-chili versions are hot—but with plenty of fermented funk and a balanced sweetness that doesn't ever delve into cloying territory.
At an earlier date, Robert Sietsema over at Eater found the somtums and larbs to be mild. This was not an issue on any of my visits.
Fishier versions are available with mackerel and coconut rice, preserved fish with baby eggplants and ham, and a funk-lovers paradise with salted field crab and fish sauce. I've never been able to get into raw salted field crabs and their muddy flavor, but if you're the kind of person who digs on raw crab, this is a fine version to dig on.
Whatever somtum you get, order the black or regular sticky rice and dip it into the leftover sauce over the course of the rest of the meal.
Deep Fried Dishes
My first two forays into the deep-fried section of Somtum Der's menu were not promising. Moo Yor Tod Khon Kaen ($8) resembles deep fried bologna more than anything, while slices of deep-fried sun-dried pork and beef ($7 and $8, respectively) arrived without a hint of salt (the sriracha they serve it with helps a bit—I'm not positive of the brand, but it tasted like Thai favorite Shark).
Similarly, both the fried Isan sausage (Sai Krok Isan, $7) and the raw-cured Nam Sod ($9) were very mild in flavor, requiring ample use of the condiments—chilies, peanuts, ginger, and herbs—that they were served with.
It wasn't until my third visit that I struck gold: The fried chicken (Sa Poak Kai Tod Der, $8) is not just the best dish on the menu, it's one of the best fried chicken dishes in town. Juicy thigh meat is encrusted in a crisp, craggy, well seasoned shell sprinkled with fried garlic and served with a mildly spicy chili sauce. It was so good that both parties I've eaten it with insisted on ordering a second round right after finishing the first.
The waiter may push the house special grilled marinated beef or grilled marinated pork on you ($9 and $8, respectively), and both are good options, served—like the fried chicken—with a ton of fried garlic and a moderately spicy chili sauce, but the real star of the section is the Moo Ping Kati Sod ($10)—thin-sliced pork (or beef) skewers marinated in coconut milk, grilled until the marinade caramelizes and chars, and served with nests of coconut-scented rice noodle.
The one part of the house specials that you may miss is the grilled coconut sticky rice that comes stuck on skewers like a popsicle. Luckily the toasty grains can be ordered a la carte, three sticks for $4.
Oddly, the soup that Sietsema so enjoyed, the pork cartilage soup, was unavailable the two times I tried to order it, but the one soup I did try—the Gaeng Om Kai ($11)—was fantastically aromatic with a combination of intense chicken broth and a slew of fresh Thai herbs including dill (which Kin Shop chef Harold Dieterle informs me is not unheard of in Thailand). It's a picky dish to eat packed with greens and little nubs that could be chunks of liver, cartilage, or bone—you have to bite gingerly to be sure—but a rewarding one.
This is the other strongest section of the menu with nine different dishes and not a misstep among them. The duck, pork, or minced catfish salads come packed with plenty of toasted rice powder and fried garlic, seasoned with fish sauce and dried chilies, along with chopped herbs and purple Thai shallots. The duck larb doesn't have the clean flavors of the version at Kin Shop, but all of these salads are a step up over the ones you get out at places like Sripraphai or Chao Thai in Elmhurst, or even the ones at the East Village Isan restaurant Zabb Elee.
Had it not been for my vegetarian wife, I may not have tried the minced Mushroom Larb ($8), which would have been a shame, as it's the tastiest of the lot, the tender porous 'shrooms absorbing the hot dressing.
If I were being picky, I'd edit the grilled pork and beef versions off of the list, along with the very similar Yum Nue Lai ($10)—it seems like they save the good meat for the grilled section of the menu; The stuff in the salads was gristly and underseasoned.
I haven't seen many versions of Goong Chae Nam Pla (raw shrimp with green chili sauce, $11) around New York, but Somtum Der's is about as good as I've had, with fresh, buttery shrimp and a sauce that will blow your head off with its heat if you aren't careful when digging in.
Rice and Noodles
This section of the menu contains the heartiest dishes, though for the most part they were the least memorable. Fried rice with prawns and egg (Khao Pad Goog, $11) is nothing that you can't find better versions of in Chinatown, and a crab pad thai (the only pad Thai on the menu) that had a nice sweet-tart balance with respectable smokiness on a first visit but tasted ketchupy and overly sweet on a second, with only a small pile of unseasoned crab topping it.
Similarly, the Pad Ki Mao Pork & Basil with its wide rice noodles is a perfectly serviceable larger format plate, but pales in flavor compared to the stellar larbs and somtums.
Dessert and Drinks
I don't think I've ever had a mixed drink I've really loved at a Thai restaurant, and Somtum Der continues that tradition. Despite having a full liquor license, you could swear that overly sweet, watery drinks like their lemongrass martini or blue curaçao-tinted punch were made with liqueurs rather than spirits. Skip 'em and order some beer instead—it's reliable and a much better match for the fiery cuisine.
Of the three desserts on the menu, the Thai Tea Panna Cotta ($7) which comes with a little cup of condensed milk for drizzling is the best, though even the best panna cotta cooks will occasionally accidentally add too much gelatin.
That said, my grandfather might disagree:
He loved the Snow Ice with Syrup ($6), a dish that looks intimidating but is mostly air. Harder to get past is its flavor. Let's just say that if you're a true fan of white bread and Bazooka Joe bubble gum, this is probably the dessert for you.
So where does Somtum Der land on the scale of Northern Thai restaurants in New York? For its larbs, somtums, grilled meats, and fried chicken alone, it's pretty high up there, particularly considering how nice the space and how reasonable the prices are. Nicer than Zabb Elee (particularly its grilled meats), cheaper than Kin Shop, closer than Pok Pok, the food may be nothing we haven't seen before, but it fills a nice Isan-shaped hole in Manhattan, and for that reason alone it deserves a visit or two if you're in the neighborhood.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer 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.