Thai Break: 10 of NYC's Best Southeast Asian Eateries

Julie Besonen, 11/17/2010

Queens' famous Sripraphai has long been the standard-bearer for great Thai cuisine in the City, but Manhattan is edging its way up the ladder with the heralded arrival of Lotus of Siam and Harold Dieterle's Kin Shop. Earlier this year, the West Village's happening Betel also helped set the bar higher, with a multifaceted menu and exotic cocktails. Reserve, in Murray Hill, is another new addition to the Thai scene, with an international wine list to match its small-plates offerings. The essence of Thai cuisine features jolts of heat, sweet, tangy and sour flavors. It can be big and bold or subtle and soothing, and is always fragrant with herbs and spices. Check out our slideshow to see where to get the best tastes of it.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

The Elephant
58 E. 1st St., 212-505-7739, East Village, Manhattan
The Elephant, a chaotic little East Village joint with a fun vibe, suggests exotic travel and French colonialism—an old trunk, a shelf of cigar boxes and a cocktail menu stamped like a passport help illustrate the theme. In the past year, both Chelsea Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have been spotted at festive dinners here—yet there's nothing upscale about it. The small Formica tables are unstable and the light, aromatic Thai food doesn't strive for authenticity. Open since 1997, The Elephant started out as a Thai-French restaurant, but the French part is pretty minimal these days (except for the occasional ballad on the sound system). Pork dumplings, green papaya salad and grilled salmon all hit the spot.

Photo: David Mehr

60 Thompson St., 212-219-2000, SoHo, Manhattan
Kittichai shimmers with beauty, adorned with shelves of orchids suspended in jars of clear liquid, radiantly lit and lined up like so many science experiments. The elegant, otherworldly restaurant, housed in the boutique hotel 60 Thompson, has a new chef—the aptly named Ty Bellingham—who trained at top Thai restaurants in Australia. Several new dishes have been added to the menu, including pork tenderloin in complex jungle curry and rich, creamy, coconut-braised short ribs with Kaffir lime leaf and mint. Bellingham has also bestowed new twists on the restaurant's signature dishes, such as Mekong whiskey barbecue sauce on the baby back ribs. Prix-fixe lunch is $20, while dinnertime tasting menus start at $50, with a $20 supplement for a four-course wine pairing.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Little Basil
153 E. 26th St., 212-689-1444, Gramercy, Manhattan
This serene, candlelit oasis in the Gramercy area excels at attentive service and crisp duck spring rolls as long as cigars, punched up by tomato-chili sauce. The smaller sibling of the East Village's Holy Basil, Little Basil is two years old and offers a similar, value-driven wine list that goes with spicy food. Not that everything here is spicy: steamed dumplings shaped like beggars' purses are comforting, filled with a tasty blend of minced pork, shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. The benchmark pad Thai and pad woon sen—stir-fried glass noodles with chicken, shrimp, bamboo shoots and wood ear mushrooms—are soothingly flavorful. If you want to turn up the heat, try superspicy panang curry with duck breast, Kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk and holy basil. Cool the fire with ethereal coconut flan.

Khao soi braised short rib. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Lotus of Siam
24 Fifth Ave., 212-529-1700, Greenwich Village, Manhattan
Saipin Chutima is a marquee name in Las Vegas. The Thai chef's restaurant, Lotus of Siam, has been a magnet there for more than a decade; back in 2000, Jonathan Gold, writing for Gourmet, called it the best Thai food in the country. Now, Lotus of Siam has taken over the former Cru space on Fifth Avenue, an upgrade from the Vegas strip mall original (the proportionately higher rent means higher prices, though dishes are mainly in the low $20 range). So far, Chutima is offering one-third of the roughly 150 items from her Vegas menu, perfecting each one as she goes along. Northern Thai is the focus, incorporating flavors from Myanmar, Laos and the Hunan province. Expect treats like crispy fried shrimp rolls wrapped in bacon, spicy coconut milk soup with mushrooms, and seared sea scallops with garlic and cilantro pepper sauce. An impressive wine list also sets it apart from other Thai specialists.

Khao soi noodles. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Pam Real Thai Food
404 W. 49th St., 212-333-7500, Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan
No need to carry torn-out reviews from The New York Times, the Daily News or The Village Voice for consultation—critics' endorsements of particular dishes are listed right on the menu. And it's a vast one, ranging from steamed chicken and mushroom dumplings to fried, samosa-like curry puffs to noodles, stir-fries, curries, whole fish, crispy duck and crispy pork variations. The pad Thai here is more sweet than spicy. Chef Pam Panyasiri, a critics' darling, grew up in Bangkok and learned how to cook at her mother's knee. There's not much in the way of decor, save for blown-up reviews on the walls; the one from the Times is as large and colorful as a mural.

Photo: Kate Glicksberg

71 First Ave., 212-253-2742, East Village, Manhattan
The vegetarian Thai cuisine here is pleasingly cheap, with $3 soups and $4 appetizers, but doesn't taste cut-rate. Mushroom puffs, curry Thai pancakes and spinach toast with sweet lime chili are snappy with flavor. Pukk (the Thai word for "vegetable") advocates the principle "eat more greens." To that end, there's stir-fried spinach linguine with smoked tofu and the "green delight," a blend of Chinese broccoli, spinach, bok choy and cabbage in garlic sauce. Main courses top out at $9, including faux duck with spicy watercress and mushrooms as well as faux chicken with black beans and ginger. The weird, white-tiled space with lime-green accents may be off-putting to some—it's something like sitting in a swimming pool without the water.

Courtesy, Lush Lie Productions

Pure Thai Shophouse
766 Ninth Ave., 212-581-0999, Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan
The new kid on Ninth Avenue, which already harbors several Thai restaurants, is a cute spot for lunch or a quick dinner. Pure Thai has a country-store rusticity, with specials written on a blackboard and Thai grocery staples—jasmine rice, palm sugar—stocked on shelves. Quarters are tight, with a few butcher-block tables, a long wooden counter and a handful of seats facing the open kitchen where chef Vanida Bank stirs steaming woks full of noodles, rice, vegetables or meat. Her signature dish is Ratchaburi crab and pork nestled in dreamy handmade egg noodles. Snacks, which start at $2, include expert vegetable spring rolls and chicken curry puffs. A younger crowd flocks here, both for its modern decor and low-priced, stylishly presented dishes.

Pomegranate walnut duck. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

2686 Broadway, 212-870-0253, Upper West Side, Manhattan
A wall of golden bells is the first sight that greets you at Sookk, a serene Thai restaurant with solicitous service. The walls are golden, too, further brightened by vivid rolls of fabric that evoke being in a shop. The cuisine is inspired by Bangkok's Yaowarat neighborhood, whose curving, dragon-shaped main road bustles with street vendors. Deep-fried shiitake spring rolls, chicken pumpkin curry, duck with pomegranate and walnuts and ginger-coconut sirloin steak are among the specialties. Lunch is an amazing deal, with a choice of appetizer and main course for $7 to $9, depending on your choice of protein. Convenient to Columbia University, the restaurant caters to a local, intellectual crowd that can, on occasion, be overheard passionately discussing politics and jazz.

Steamed vegetable dumplings. Photo: Young Yun (via Flickr)

Wondee Siam
792 Ninth Ave., 212-459-9057, Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan
It's not just because Wondee Siam is ridiculously tiny that there's often a wait for one of its few tables—the restaurant serves some of the most authentic Thai food in town. Add your name to the list and kill some time by shopping at a nearby liquor store for beer or spice-friendly wine—it's BYOB. The pretty space is adorned with mirrors and blue upholstered chairs, where diners sit nearly elbow-to-elbow digging into big, low-cost portions of pineapple fried rice, seafood curry or shrimp sautéed with fresh basil, garlic, mushrooms and chili paste. Heat can be adjusted from mild to medium to three-starred, tongue-on-fire spicy. The popular $6.95 weekday lunch special includes a wide range of choices, from spicy bamboo with pork and red curry paste to stir-fried beef with oyster sauce.

Photo: Joe Buglewicz

723 Fulton St., 718-522-3510, Fort Greene, Brooklyn

Cobble Hill Thai hotspot Joya has a new branch in Fort Greene, featuring the same menu but a different name. National has a contemporary, industrial design, with an open kitchen where chefs busily stir up noodle and rice dishes in flaming woks. Classic soups (hot and sour tom yum), salads with spicy Thai vinaigrette, several varieties of curry (red coconut, green coconut, panang) and a wide selection of beef, chicken, pork and vegetarian dishes make it appealing for a range of tastes. Both staff and clientele are young and hip, and the music playlist is appropriately progressive. The liquor license is pending.