Sunday, August 17, 2008

What Is There to Say About Sripraphai?

I've been trying to figure how to write about what is almost universally acclaimed as the best, most authentic Thai restaurant in New York, a place that has been widely reviewed, not to mention discussed to death on foodie chat boards. I really have nothing of substance to add. What would be the point of trying to write about Sripraphai?

So should I instead talk about what I had for lunch on the day of my second dinner at Sripraphai? I had a falafel and tabouleh sandwich at Marrakesh, at 235 E. 53rd Street, one of my regular lunch places in my new work neighborhood. The food is good, the prices are reasonable, the staff are all very friendly, and one of the waitresses is stunningly beautiful.

Perhaps I should talk about what I had for breakfast as long as I'm beating around the bush. I had a bowl of Kashi Heart to Heart, which tastes like a grown-up version of Cheerios, with some almonds and raisins. I eat it because it tastes good, not because of the health claims.

I don't know. What can I say about Sripraphai?

I paid my first visit to Sripraphai about two years ago. It was the inaugural dinner of my monthly outer-boroughs dining club. Everybody was bowled over by the food, but I couldn't figure out how to write about it. After all, it had already been written about extensively. I couldn't come up with an angle. So I kept quiet. Mum was the word.

Well, what is there to say, now that I've gone back? At least I have an angle, if only the difficulty of writing about Sripraphai.

I could talk about the state of Thai food in America, or about the history of Thai food in New York, the little I know of either, that is.

Over the past twenty or so years Thai restaurants have become almost as common across America as Chinese restaurants, and most are as bad as most Chinese restaurants. I'm not sure how Thai food caught on so quickly and in such a big way. I suppose to some degree it has to do with American palates becoming more open to spicy food in recent years. But just as most Chinese restaurants that claim to be "Szechuan" serve mediocre, Americanized versions of Sichuan cuisine, most Thai restaurants take the major dishes of Thai cuisine and adapt them to what the restaurateurs consider to be American tastes. That's the generous interpretation of why most Thai food is so mediocre. Another reason may well be that people who have no business cooking except that cooking is their business are opening Thai restaurants to capitalize on the popularity of the cuisine. Many Thai restaurants, like many Japanese restaurants, have Chinese owners and chefs who don't really know the cuisine first-hand, though, to be fair, many are probably run by ethnic Chinese from Thailand. Thai food in America is often greasy, gloppy, and underspiced. For some reason there's also a sweetness to many dishes that you wouldn't find in the true Thai versions. But bad Thai food happens to be very popular. Indeed, one of the most popular chains of Thai restaurants in the city is Lemongrass Grill, a poster child for everything that's wrong with Thai food in America. The original Lemongrass Grill, in my neighborhood, Park Slope, is always crowded.

I've been to Thailand, and there the spicy dishes have a real bite without masking the complexity of flavors. Some of the best food I've eaten Thailand was at night markets, where the food was dirt-cheap. I think there's only a handful of Thai restaurants in the U.S. that prepare Thai food as it's prepared in Thailand. Sripraphai is one of them; Thai House Express, in San Francisco, is another.

I think I first tried Thai food in the 1970s. Back then it appeared that all the Thai restaurants in New York were in Hell's Kitchen, in the mid-50s around 8th and 9th Avenues. I have no idea whether there was ever a Thai community in that neighborhood. Now, of course, just about every neighborhood has a Thai restaurant.

There are supposedly a few excellent, authentic Thai restaurants in Queens in addition to Sripraphai. The New York Thai community is, I believe, centered in Elmhurst, which is not far from Woodside, where Sripraphai is located. I really do need to try some other Thai restaurants in Queens.

But what can I say about Sripraphai? I can tell you what we ate, I guess.

There were four of us, and we all loved everything we ordered. One of the frustrations at Sripraphai is choosing from the extensive menu, augmented by a copious list of specials. Soft shell crabs with basil and chili, from the specials menu, were fabulous. Also from the specials menu was a noodle dish served with a northern Thai curry with spare ribs. There were little webs of rice noodle accompanied by a spicy curry that was pretty much a "jungle curry," one of the few Thai curries without coconut milk. A grilled catfish salad was spicy, sharp and pungent, similar to, if not precisely, a larb. The green curry with duck reveled in its own lemongrass flavor. The one non-spicy dish we ordered, a repeat from our first dinner there, was the pork leg with mustard greens, flavored with star anise and other herbs.

That's about it.

I don't think this is a very good blog post.

What can I say?

Sripraphai on Urbanspoon


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