Eating out in New York gets really expensive. Sometimes you don’t feel like forking over $60 for some small plates. And it can get really competitive too. Why does it seem like 5:30 pm or 10:00 pm are the only times available on Open Table? And no, you don’t feel like putting your name down at a walk-in only restaurant where the wait can be 2 hours.
Luckily there are tons of low maintenance, under-the-radar places that will have seats readily available. It’s true that there’s a reason why those seats are open–maybe the ambiance isn’t as nice, or it’s in a not so glamorous part of town. But I tend to care less about these issues when my goal is to just eat a solid meal that doesn’t cost too much.
One great option is Lan Larb Soho, a restaurant that specializes in the Isan cuisine of Northern Thailand. I’ve been hearing about Isan Thai food a lot these days and always wondered what made food from this region different from the pad thai takeout that I’ve grown up on. From what I’ve observed after eating here, and at other Isan places like Zab Elee and Somtum Der, is that intense spicy heat seems to be the norm in Isan cuisine. Your mouth will be on fire and begging you for a glass of water, but the burn will linger for the whole meal. There’s definitely less emphasis on the kinder and gentler pan fried noodles or penang curries that we’ve come to expect from a Thai place in the States.
If you do drop by Lan Larb, know that the atmosphere is very casual and looks like the interior of a Panera Bread, and that they don’t serve any sort of alcohol. Definitely order the kaoh mun kai, a steamed chicken dish over rice that comes with a ginger dipping sauce and has a lot in common with Haianese chicken, and the pad ped pla dook, a stir-fry featuring crispy, juicy pieces of catfish. You should also try one of the larbs, and we were pretty happy with the pork larb moo that we ordered, although a word of caution, you definitely need to eat this with rice because the minced meat is so saturated with onion, cilantro and other intense flavors. I will say that I did order pad kee mao, one of the more conventional items on a Thai menu, and it wasn’t that memorable. It’s a good idea to stick to the Isan specialties instead of latching on to the familiar.
If atmosphere is even less important to you, then take the train down to Chinatown and pull up a seat at Sheng Wang for some noodles and dumplings. I’m not kidding when I say the atmosphere here is lacking. You will feel like you are eating inside the DMV of a lower tier city, and you’ll be surrounded by a lot of ethnic Fujianese. Ruoxi is actually from the Fujian province, so he felt at home with his peeps.
Sheng Wang is known for its hand pulled noodles, and they’re really at their finest in the fried beef hand pulled noodles dish. The noodles retain a firm but springy consistency, and they are coated in the delectable oils of the pan fried beef and egg pieces. You could also try them in soup form, as I did when I ordered the fish ball noodle soup, but the broth was a little too one dimensional. The fish balls, however, were fantastic. I’ve typically had dry fish balls that consisted of only batter and fish cake, but these had little nuggets of juicy ground beef in the inner core that were just delicious. The steamed pork dumplings are also one of the best I’ve had in Chinatown. I liked how the wrapper was thin so that the flavors of the filling really came through.
No fuss, no frills and super cheap. These places check the box on all three. You’ll come away full and satisfied, without burning a hole in your pocket.
Lan Larb Soho
227 Centre St (between Grand and Broome St)
New York, NY 10013
27 Eldridge St (between Canal and Forsyth St)
New York, NY 10002