(After dinner at SriPraPhai, be sure to check out the refrigerator cases of take-home goodies, like these handmade Thai marzipan $3.50)
SriPraPhai (64-13 39th Ave., Woodside)
11:30am - 9:30pm (Closed Wednesdays)
I've unfortunately learned the hard way that just because something exists in abundance does not necessarily mean it is something you should explore. Take Japanese restaurants, for example. Unless you happen to reside in a pricey apartment above Nobu or Gari, chances are that the most local joint isn't really the best option. Sushi bars seem to have sprung up all over the city like dandelions after a summer rain, but if you aren't cautious, you'll find yourself tediously gnawing at nori that resembles more of a black rain tarp encasing tepid mock krab and browning bits of cucumber, surrounded by sticky little polka dots that taste more of vinegar-drowned air niblets than sticky rice. It's sad but true that if you want quality, you have to pay--or at least be willing to travel--for it.
Thai restaurants are no exception. In Indiana, I'd never even heard of lemongrass or tasted anything with curry. Tom Yum was a frighteningly hairy neanderthal who sat at the local biker bar and grunted "yummmm..." at his fried appetizer sampler basket and malted chocolate milkshake, alternating between drags of his Marlboro reds, bites of fried cauliflower dipped in ranch, and terrifyingly noisy slurps from his melted ice cream beverage.
After living briefly in Manhattan and having my first rendezvous with chicken curry puffs and actual tom yum soup, and the sweet and savory deliciousness that is pad thai, I nearly did a roundoff-back-handspring-into-the-splits sequence upon realizing there were thirteen Thai restaurants within walking distance of my current apartment in Astoria... eleven of which deliver directly to my front door (who'd have thought!?) That is, until, I actually began trying some of them. After several devastating encounters with grease-soaked frozen chicken curry "un"puffs, and hot and sour soups that were neither hot nor sour, but rather lukewarm bathtub water with celery strands, merely thrown in to make the lunch special seem like a real bargain... well, I realized that just as with sushi, sometimes the road (or in my case, the subway or cab service) less traveled makes all the difference.
I was ready to throw in the towel last week, after a particularly horrific meal of overcooked rice noodles dowsed in sugar heavy syrup with frozen shrimp, wilted basil leaves and bamboo shoots that tasted more like hay, garnished with a dried out yellowish-brown lime wedge. I threw nearly the entire meal away without even opening the bath water soup, settling instead on a hot dog I found in the fridge with a Kraft single and some mustard relish folded in a piece of Wonder bread. As I grumpily drifted to sleep later that night, I was teetering at the precipice of calling it quits on my quest for outstanding Thai, when I suddenly remembered a couple I adore telling me about this magnificent Thai restaurant they love in Queens.
This is how my stomach works. I must have been extremely discontent with my dinner that night, because these friends had shared this tidbit literally years ago. Feeling like a failure to completely give up hope on any particular cuisine, my brain must have sent an S.O.S. to the synapses in my brain, triggering the long-repressed memory and only remaining shrapnel of hope. I vaguely recalled that they would frequently sojourn from their apartment on the Upper East Side all the way to Woodside for this favorite little joint. Groggily, I opened my MacBook and Googled "woodside thai" and seven of the entries on the first page of results screamed to me the answer: SriPraPhai.
The very next morning, I sent a text message to one of my dearest friends and favorite food explorers, Mikey, to ask if he would be up for a blog adventure. The excitement must have been glaringly evident in my text, and he wrote back "YES!!!" Though the restaurant is just off the 65th street stop on the R train, I was far too excited to walk to a station and then wait for a train, and so we hopped in a cab. From my apartment in Astoria, we were there in just 7 minutes.
My excitement admittedly took a momentary blow when we pulled up to the restaurant only to see a crowd of hungry diners waiting on the sidewalk for tables. I felt like an out-of-towner at the box office lottery for tickets to see Wicked on Broadway, knowing darn well that the people getting seats before me had probably already eaten here numerous times, and should graciously forego their seats for me, the eager first-timer who would inevitably appreciate it exponentially more. Considering the fact I have won lottery tickets to Wicked far more times than I am willing to admit on the worldwide web, I figured karma probably wasn't on my side. So I politely pushed through the growling stomachs, and gave my information to the hostess. In exchange, she handed me a pink Post-It with the number "68" written in ballpoint pen. "30 minutes... more or less..." she stated, and returned to the receipts she had been sorting. A lit number board both above the counter inside and on the sidewalk outside would flash our number when the table was ready.
Placing my Willy Wonka golden ticket into the side pocket of my cargo shorts, I gazed around the dining area, which extended into two rather large rooms that could easily seat a few hundred patrons. Several non-Asian families happily twirled glistening noodles of pad thai onto wooden chopsticks, but as servers walked by with trays of strangely exotic and colorful dishes for the numerous tables of actual Thai families gathered for dinner, the non-Asian families would strain their necks to see what mysterious culinary treats they were missing out on.
Now when it comes to driving, I might accidentally waste an hour on a sidetrack because I refused to pull into a gas station for directions. But when it comes to food, I'm never too proud to ask an expert for advice. What happened next is one great trick I have learned, and one of the best tips I can give to any first-time diner at a new restaurant. I approached the host stand, and politely asked the cashier if she had a moment. "This is my very first time here. I love trying new things. In case this is my only visit, and I never get to return, is there any particular dish on the menu you think I simply have to try?" The cashier smiled at me. "Oh yes..." she grinned, as she grabbed a takeout menu and proceeded to circle a few items with a black Sharpie. "Here, try these. You will be pleased." I thanked her, and walked back outside to share my new information with Mikey.
After only about fifteen minutes from when we had taken our ticket, 68 lit up on the number board, and I nearly hurdled the other waiting patrons while Mikey trailed behind me chuckling at my enthusiasm. I mean... sometimes you just know when a place is going to be fantastic. A hostess guided us to a very tiny table near the front, packed tightly next to a row of other two-tops, creating a feel similar to a long communal table. After squeezing into our seats, she then handed us thick menus that seemed more like spiral-bound dissertations than a list of curries, rice, and noodle dishes. Just as I flipped open the cover to peruse, I heard some rustling coming from behind me. The menus were suddenly snatched from our hands as quickly as they had been given. Were we being kicked out because I had inadvertently toppled a senior citizen on a walker in my excitement? Had I accidentally trampled a toddler in my haste?
To my surprise, it was the same cashier who had given me her menu suggestions, and she appeared to be scolding the hostess who had seated us. Her face softened as she turned to me, "come... I will show you a better table." The tables around us glared, as if we'd been granted a free upgrade to some mysterious first class cabin of which I had no awareness. "Naw... It's okay, this table is fine for us," I replied, a little frightened by the small scene we were now causing. "Trust me... come..." she smiled. Out of respect for the woman who had offered her sage advice, we rose from our seemingly perfect window table, albeit somewhat cramped, and followed her... beyond the large dining room, past the kitchen, and through a back doorway I had assumed led to an alley.
Like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, I gasped at the outdoor garden into which the cashier led us. Out here, diners seemed even happier in the breeze, and laughter floated from all of the tables as men and women feasted on a kaleidoscope array of dishes.
Our new hostess placed the menus on a large table intended for four people under a canopy of leaves (someone must have gotten the memo that I order a lot), with a gorgeous view of the entire garden area. She winked at us, and grinned, "see... better table..." like a playful told-ya-so, and then disappeared back into the busy dining room. Needless to say, the rest of the evening was magical. Beyond the exceptionally friendly service and unique atmosphere, SpriPraPhai executes what numerous magazines, blogs, and critics have heralded as some of the best Thai food anywhere outside of Thailand. This food blogger is no exception. We took our cashier's advice, and added a few choices of our own, as well.
The first suggestion we took was the crispy Chinese watercress salad ($10). This required a significant amount of faith. Considering the alternative salads, like shredded mango or papaya, who on earth would choose a salad of floating cabbage? But thank goodness we heeded the advice, because it was one of the most delicious salads I've ever tasted. If the title had said, "deep-fried salad" my eyes would have gone straight to it... but watercress? Are you serious? There's no way I would have chosen watercress from the list of forty-three potential appetizers.
It was absolutely delicious. Peppery, tangy strips of fresh green watercress were lightly battered and fried. Like some fantastic Asian onion ring, the crispy nest of fried greens sits atop a generous pile of tender shrimp, calamari, and chicken, which have been tossed in a thai chili oil, with tiny slivers of fresh red onion and sprigs of citrusy coriander.
Thung thong, or stuffed fried golden bags ($6), were practically too beautiful to touch. Inside these surprisingly crispy parcels are a blend of shredded chicken, yellow corn, and snow peas. The sweetness of the corn with the delicate texture of the snow peas and the savory chicken, all gift-wrapped in crunch with a small dish of thai chili sauce for dunking made for an exceptional second course.
I couldn't help but snicker at the title of our next dish: vegetable soup with ground pork, squid, and shrimp ($5). In my experience, the last three ingredients don't make for a vegetable soup, but who was I to complain? The broth was absolutely packed with the flavors of the meats and vegetables and a variety of herbs.
The gai-kua sauteed noodles with chicken and squid were a dish we will definitely be ordering again on our next visit. Broad pappardelle-like rice noodles had been pan fried to perfection, expertly balancing the tightrope between tender and overcooked. Served over freshly washed bibb lettuce, the broad noodles are sauteed with egg and chicken, then tossed in a delicate garlic and fish sauce. Definitely a more savory alternative to the popular pad thai ($8.50).
That having been said, we simply couldn't resist trying the pad thai, which was sheer perfection. Narrow rice noodles tossed with egg, delicious and succulent shrimp, peanuts, kaffir lime, sugar, and a kiss of tamarind. Unlike many other imitations, the pad thai at SriPraPhai is exploding with flavors. This is absolutely the real deal ($8.50).
Served with a heaping bowl of sticky white rice for $8.50, the chicken and bamboo shoots with green curry is an absolute must-try for both first-timers and aficionados alike. Distinct from other curries because of the sweetness of the coconut milk and the fragrance of the basil leaves added at the end of the cooking, this aromatic dish packs a tangy and wonderful heat that brings just the right amount of sweat to your brow. Be sure to specify to your server the desired degree of spice, but do not be frightened by the zip. At SriPraPhai, this Thai favorite is beyond comparison.
Because some degree of heat is an element of many Thai dishes, I highly recommend a delicious accompaniment of a tall, refreshing glass of thai iced tea. Strong red tea flavored with a hint of orange blossom is sweetened with sugar and condensed milk, served chilled over ice cubes. It's an absolutely delicious counterpart to soothe your palate when the spice gets your brow glistening ($2.50).
Though many of the desserts are geared toward young ones with colored and flavored gelatins and rice, there's certainly a sweet ending for every age of taste bud. Mikey enjoyed this generous dish of lychee ice cream crowned with lychee fruit ($4.50).
For dessert, I savored a slice of mor kang... better translated as taro custard ($3). Made from the corm (underground stem) of the taro plant, this egg custard is sweetened with palm sugar (also know as coconut sugar, palm sugar is popular because of its low melt temperature and high burn temperature). The result resembles a Thai Thanksgiving confection, sort of like an outrageously delicious, crustless sweet potato pie, topped with sweet, fried onions. Another excellent recommendation we received, and the perfect ending to an exceptional dinner.
Though the website fails to list the desserts besides the ice cream, be sure to peruse the refrigerators by the main entrance while you are waiting. The extensive menu offers decent English descriptions and images of most of the offerings, though a firsthand glimpse always reigns supreme over menu snapshots. If dinner leaves you content without dessert, I highly recommend taking one home to enjoy later. These tiny pieces of art are just as fascinating as the menu itself.