After having conquered—maybe "endured" is a better word—Brick Lane Curry House's phaal curry challenge, I'm beginning to suspect everyone at the Serious Eats HQ are not-so-secretly using me as a guinea pig to see how much spiciness one can take before their tastebuds become obliterated. Although slightly concerned about potential ulcers and the future of my digestive capabilities, I am not one to back down from a challenge (what did I say about spice seekers and their egos?), which is why my ears perked up when it was mentioned that Sripraphai not only served some of the best Thai food in New York, but also some of the truly spiciest. So off I went to Queens, expecting to taste some of the spiciest Thai dishes in a milder redux of my earlier Indian curry adventure.
I quickly put the thoughts of my Brick Lane adventure behind me, discovering quickly that Sripaphai was going to be a much more palatable experience. Like all great spicy food, Sripraphai's spicy dishes may burn you, but you'll be clamoring for more. Unlike, say, the phaal curry, these Thai dishes aren't just dead heat—there's a subtle layering of flavors and spices that come through, making you crave that next bite. True, the blazing sensation lingers, but only as a vague memory on your tongue, so long-lasting pain isn't an issue. Also, when taking your order, you will be asked how spicy you want it. This of course can be inconsistent—I've ordered the same thing in the same way on different visits, and the heat level has been somewhat different each time. Some say that if you ask for it "Thai spicy," the kitchen will deliver by not holding back.
As most lovers of authentic Thai cuisine know, a good papaya salad will always be a contender in your quest for the spiciest dishes. Don't be fooled by the fact that it's a salad, and looks harmless with its friendly, bright greens and cheerful tomatoes. We went with the green papaya salad with shrimp, squid and mussels, and it didn't disappoint. Scattered throughout the thin strips of papaya is ground chili, delivering that unexpected peppery pinch. It goes well with each crunchy, tangy bite, and the fact that it's served cold is the only thing that makes it pretty tolerable for most people.
There are also a number of dishes that may not necessarily be touted as being spicy, but still could have you requiring some assistance with extra rice. The sauteed crispy pork comes with bite-sized hard morsels of fried pork generously flecked with chili, and while it won't make you break a sweat, you'll be surprised at the tingle it leaves behind after a few mouthfuls. Same goes for the sauteed-fried soft shell crabs off the specials menu—texture-wise, much softer than the crispy pork, but it's got an addictive kick to it from the chili garlic and basil leaves.
The Masaman curry, on the other hand was labeled as spicy, but it was disappointingly low on the heat factor—although it was probably the best curry I ate there, with tender hunks of beef, potatoes and onions in a sweet, rich coconut milk-based curry sauce. For the novice, or those who are worried about just how spicy their dishes can get, it's a safe bet to stick to the popular pad kee-mao, more commonly known as drunken noodles. While the noodles were a bit too soft and mushy, they get points for the subtle yet palpable flicker of chili mixed in with the strong basil flavor.
Then there's the jungle curry. Even the name is ominous already—what kind of heat lay entrenched in the depths of this curry? I had heard how jungle curry could pack quite a wallop. What no one warned me, though, is that you don't feel anything until a good thirty seconds later. I foolishly shoveled spoonful after spoonful, wondering if the waitress had made a mistake and served us the wrong curry. My impatience served me right: the heat built up slowly from the pit of my stomach and snaked up my throat before inflaming the inside of my mouth, making me wonder where the heck all the waiters went because my glass was in desperate need of a refill (I know, I know, water doesn't do crap in muting the fire, but I couldn't help it—it took me by surprise!). With a very watery consistency, it's one of the few Thai curries made without coconut milk, there was no smooth creaminess to even slightly soften the heat.
I have no doubt that there are spicier choices available on the menu (I missed out on the southern curry, made with three different kinds of chilies) —and Sripraphai has a gigantic menu (our party of eight took nearly fifteen minutes to settle on what we were getting, and even then we had to write it all down). But here's the thing: the best spicy food is not necessarily the hottest, but the one that's able to blend both heat and deliciousness, which is easier said than done. Being able to stomach fiery heat might win me points in the Serious Eats office, but when all is said and done, I'd rather be eating something that actually tastes good too. Sripraphai walks that line well, with the spiciness of each dish rounding out the food, not hogging the spotlight.
64-13 39th Avenue, Queens, NY 11377 (nr. 64th Street; map) 718-899-9599
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