SriPraPhai Thai

I recently read somewhere that Lonely Planet designated Queens, NY as the top U.S. destination for 2015. I’m thinking the Queens Tourism Board aggressively pushed Lonely Planet for that title, because, let’s be honest, Queens is up-and-coming, but it’s not quite there yet. The borough does have a lot of good ethnic eats, though.

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sripraphai

One of the star attractions in Queens is the restaurant SriPraPhai, an authentic Thai restaurant located in Woodside, an ethnically diverse part of Queens that was home to Irish, German and Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, and now includes Central and South Americans and Asians among them. Back in the day, like in 2005, SriPraPhai was the place to go for Thai food. People would complain about how the Thai food in the city sucks, and then someone would tell them to take the train to SriPraPhai in Queens.

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outdoor patio

Now we have more options in the city–Zabb Elee, Lan Larb, and Uncle Boon’s, to name a few–and so I haven’t made it out to SriPraPhai in awhile. However, I found myself in Queens after an afternoon at MoMA PS1, one of my favorite summer activities, and I decided that there would never be a more convenient time to stop by.

I found that the restaurant had undergone a renovation of sorts since we last went maybe 4 or 5 years ago. It feels bigger and spiffier, and they opened up a large outdoor area to accommodate even more diners. This being a nice summer day, we of course opted for the outdoor tables, although the mosquito situation was a little annoying.

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green curry chicken
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chicken rice and coconut rice. get both.
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crispy chinese watercress salad with shrimp, squid, chicken and cashews

We always get the green curry here, and it was just as good as ever. The creamy curry sauce is rich and comforting, good enough to sip on its own, until the heat and lime kick in to bring you to your senses. We hadn’t ever tried the famous fried watercress salad before so we ordered that, although I wasn’t quite sure how to consume it. On the right you had crunchy deep-fried watercress covered in batter, and on the left you had large bits of shrimp, chicken and squid in a sweet marinade. Were you supposed to somehow get a little bit of everything in your spoon? But how would you even attempt that? Did you have to manually break down the watercress pieces and the shrimp to make that happen? Were you supposed to pour the marinade on the watercress to soften it up? Clearly I was overthinking it and eventually just ate both sides separately. I felt like i was just filling up on fried batter, but I did like the marinaded meats a lot.

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tom zap beef offal soup

Ruoxi was feeling adventurous and ordered the tom-zap soup, which translates to beef’s offal soup. I’m not a big beef guts offal person, so I took a few sips and left it at that. There were some regular beef pieces in there, which were tender and inoffensive, but there was no escaping the intense flavors of tripe. If you’ve ever had menudo, the flavors are similar to that. Never liked menudo the band or the dish.

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seasoned shrimp with garlic and pepper

We also ordered something a little off-menu, which was exciting. In the a la carte section, they list a seasoned pork with garlic and pepper, but we requested that they make this with shrimp instead. The shrimp, which were big and plump, were covered in a ton of salty garlic. I loved this dish, especially with a bowl of coconut rice, whose sweetness I found to be a perfect complement to the salted shrimp, but the garlic is very intense. If you’re one of those close-talkers, I would advise that you steer clear from this plate.

Pleasantly stuffed, we made our way to the 65th St stop and took the train back to Manhattan. The train ride felt a little long, but the good thing was by the time we came home, some of our dinner had been digested and we had room for dessert. We made our way to Morgenstern’s, which of course had a line out the door, and ordered two scoops of the raw milk and tonka bean. Our meal had plenty of salt, a lot of heat, and tasted a little sour, but the sweet was a little lacking, and now with this ice cream it was officially complete.


SriPraPhai
64-13 39th Ave (between 64th and 65th St)
Woodside, NY 11377
(718) 899-9599
Take the 7, R, F or E trains

Cafe Dining at El Rey Coffee Bar

It’s been a crazy winter in New York. We’re already into March, yet the snow continues to fall and the temperatures continue to drop. I’m so over the slush and snow, and I can feel the mutual pent up frustration of others around me.

el rey - signage

Which is why I love hanging out at El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette, because for a moment I can trade in the weather-induced anxiety for some laid-back California calm. Everyone here is very friendly, which is impressive, as the tiny cafe usually gets packed, but instead of losing their cool, the staff cheerfully tells you that things will be ok. If space permits, you can find seats in the very back by the small but functional kitchen, where you can watch Chef Gerardo Gonzalez create his wholesome, vegetable-driven small plates. Not surprisingly, he’s also a very nice guy who’s happy to tell you what’s in his green mole sauce (answer: everything under the sun that’s green) or to give you wine pairing recommendations (the sparkly Macabeo white was a good call).

el rey - kale salad with shaved almonds and pickled eggs
kale salad with shaved almonds, almond vinaigrette, lemon zest and pickled eggs
el rey - frittata one
“lost bread” egg frittata with shaved fennel salad and crushed avocado

What brings me back to El Rey repeatedly is the kale salad. With so much kale all over the place, I’m sure the trend for this superfood is probably on the outs, but El Rey’s version is a classic that should persevere when the fad fades. Almond is the key ingredient here that helps to differentiate the kale salad. Many places rely on heavy shavings of parmesan cheese to add depth to kale, but El Rey uses almond shavings instead. It’s an ingenious way of adding some weight to your leafy greens in a more healthful way. The vinaigrette dressing is a great blend of tangy, sour and sweet, adding a nice spring to your salad step. In the am you have the option of adding pickled or poached eggs–I would highly recommend the pickled eggs, if only for their bright pink color.

sesame banana bread and sweet potato bread
sesame banana bread and sweet potato bread

Any coffee bar worth its weight should have a selection of tantalizing baked goods, and El Rey doesn’t disappoint. I tried slices of the sesame banana and the sweet potato bread, both very good, but the sweet potato was divine. It was extremely moist with the right amount of sweet, and with the candied nuts on top, you almost felt like you were eating a slice of pecan pie.

With such a great breakfast and lunch menu, I returned to try out the dinner service, which was introduced just a few weeks ago. The coffee bar is less packed in the evening, as I’m sure not that many people know about the full dinner menu, and also most would prefer a guaranteed seat rather than risking the wait for one of the very few bar stools (I would guess there are roughly 15 spots).

papas bravas in pickled pineapple hot sauce and scallions
papas bravas in pickled pineapple hot sauce and scallions

With dinner, El Rey assumes more of a Baja California vibe. While Latin music plays in the background, Gonzalez starts cranking out funky tapas with flavors that are a little more spirited and in-your-face, and the heat factor really gets turned up. As an example, the sweet and sour papas bravas at first seemed deceptively mild, and the potatoes appeared to be coated in a harmless ketchup-like BBQ sauce. But then gradually the heat built, and I was taken by surprise by the tingling, fiery sensations coating my mouth.

marinated chorizo with orange zest, hazelnut and roasted garlic
marinated chorizo with orange zest, hazelnut and roasted garlic

Similarly, the chorizo was heavily spiced, absent the burning heat. I’m not totally sure what was in the marinade, but I could taste something like cumin and vinegar packed into every part of the chorizo sausage. If you ate the meat by itself, it would have been like eating a slice of pepperoni, which would be intense. Luckily the sweet roasted garlic cloves and the hazelnuts provided balance, as did the focaccia bread, although you could never quite shake off the presence of the marinade.

sardines with carrot top dressing, piquillo peppers, radishes, butter and tostadas
sardines with carrot top dressing, piquillo peppers, radishes, butter and tostadas

I preferred when the flavors were scaled back a little bit, more in tune with the tone set at breakfast and lunch. The sardines on tostada were fantastic–it featured such great textures and a good balance of flavors that were overall refreshing, never veering into salty, fishy territory as sardines tend to do, and not falling back on tons of rich aioli or a heavy poblano to cover things up.

green mole with burrata, burnt onions and za'atar bread
green mole with burrata, burnt onions and za’atar bread

The green mole burrata similarly impressed me with a complexity that still felt bright and clear. You could taste so many of the different herbs that had gone into the mole sauce, yet the multitude of ingredients served to enhance the mild burrata rather than overwhelming it.

shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette, white sesame and poached egg
shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette, white sesame and poached egg
the breaking of the egg yolk
the breaking of the egg yolk

The shaved cauliflower was probably the lightest and most wholesome small plate of the night, but that didn’t mean it was boring. The thin slices of raw cauliflower were coated in a bright vinaigrette, which again exhibited the distinctive qualities of sweet, sour and tangy. Cauliflower’s cruciferous qualities naturally provided the dish with a lot of fibrous bulk, but the poached egg softened the edges so that things didn’t feel too raw and crudite-like, and it felt like a proper appetizer.

After dinner is over, I would suggest that you take a short walk to Morgenstern’s, an ice cream shop  whose owner is a partner at El Rey Coffee Bar. Even though it’s freezing out, the ice cream here is so good that it’s worth the trip. The raw milk in particular is outstanding–I’ve never had a vanilla flavor feel so creamy, rich and genuinely pure. They also offer ice cream breakfasts, which is an intriguing thought, and whether you take them up on it or not, a meal at El Rey or Morgenstern’s is always worth the gamble.


El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette
100 Stanton St (between Orchard and Ludlow St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 260-3950

Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream
2 Rivington St (between Bowery and Chrystie St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 209-7684