Tong – Thai Small Plates in Bushwick, Brooklyn

hoy jor (fried stuffed tofu skin roll with pork and crab meat)

I usually equate small plates with dim sum and tapas, but not with Thai food. Thai food brings to mind either big heaping plates of pad thai noodles or fiery servings of curry and minced meat. You don’t really go to a Thai restaurant to nosh on some small snacks while drinking some beer. But Tong, a new Thai restaurant in Brooklyn–more gritty Bushwick than fancy Williamsburg–wants you to do exactly that. Its menu features kub klaem or small plates that are meant to be ordered in multiples so that you can nibble on a few things here and there. Which is great because the small plates are fantastic and you’ll want to try as many things as you can.

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Bo.lan in Bangkok

Bangkok is an exciting city that’s defined by a chaos that overwhelms your senses. Examples include the maddening gridlock at all hours; the crush of people clamoring for photos with golden buddhas; the stifling heat; and the fragrant aromas from the outdoor markets. This is a city that commands your attention at all times, and the only moment of respite might be at the massage parlor. Although there’s no guarantee with even that if your Thai masseuse is bending you in all sorts of contorting positions.

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the oasis of calm at bo.lan

Sometimes you need a break from all that stimulation. Sweaty and stressed from haggling with a cab driver who didn’t want to use his meter and from elbowing all the tourists at Wat Pho, I needed to get away, asap. As I walked down the driveway towards the entrance at Bo.lan, I could feel the weight of Bangkok city living slowly being lifted off of my shoulders. The beautiful and sturdy teak walls blocked out all the craziness outside so that the urban din was just a distant memory. I felt very regal sitting on the dark wicker chairs and fanning myself like a rich Thai spending time in her summer home.

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stylish traditional hanging lanterns

Bo.lan is indeed a high-end restaurant serving traditional Thai cuisine using local ingredients. One of the hosts described the restaurant’s commitment to the Slow Food movement. A free range chicken used here, for instance, takes longer to grow and might be smaller in size compared to commercial chickens amped up on corn feed and hormones, but there’s no mistaking the superiority in flavor. It was great to see that the commitment to local farmers and sustainable agricultural practices is alive and well in Thailand.

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the lunch amuse-bouche

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the smoked fish and coconut soup of prawn in the foreground with red curry chicken, squid salad and fried ocean fish in the back

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the sweet and crunchy fried ocean fish. my favorite course.

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grilled pork jowl salad with native tamarind stuffed with salted duck egg relish

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stir-fried long beans with relish of chinese black olive and minced pork on the left, red curry chicken on the right

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old style tom yum soup with fish

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prawn green jungle curry

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assorted fruit

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a refreshing thai sorbet

Normally a meal at one of Asia’s Top 50 restaurants will cost you $65 USD at a minimum, but a lunch will cost only half as much. The pre-fixe menu consists of 4 courses that make up a typical Thai meal–a soup, a salad, a curry and a fried dish. The flavor profile reflects the Thai cooking principles of balance, in which fiery heat is counteracted by muted creams, and sweet is balanced out by salty. Thai food in the States is usually very sweet and homestyle in nature, but Bo.lan’s preparation is much more refined than anything I’ve ever come across. The curries and coconut based broths are so smooth and elegant and without imperfection. It takes great skill to whittle away all the different seasonings that go into a sauce or a paste into one harmonious blend. The level of heat was also authentically off the charts. There’s no Western option of spicy, only Thai spicy, and the burn from the seemingly harmless squid salad and the green jungle curry was brutal.

After cooling off with a dessert, it was back to the chaos outside. A meal here is fit for a king and not for the everyday, so I knew that I wouldn’t be back anytime soon. Bo.lan does have a more casual sister restaurant called ERR near Wat Pho and Wat Arun that is more accessible for the tourist budget that can only stretch so much. For many of us, we’ll never be royal, so this down to earth option might make more sense but will still be plenty tasty.

24 Sukhumvit 53 Alley, Khlong Tan Nuea, Watthana,
Bangkok 10110, Thailand
+66 2 260 2962

Cheap Eats: Lan Larb Soho and Sheng Wang

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.

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kaoh mun kai (steamed chicken with ginger rice and thai herbs ginger sauce)

lan larb - pad ped pla dook
pad ped pla dook (stir-fried catfish with thai eggplant, peppercorn, basil and wild ginger)

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larb moo (ground pork with shallots, mint, scallion, cilantro, roasted rice and chili powder)

lan larb - pad kee mao
pad kee mao (flat rice noodle with egg, basil and long hot pepper)

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.

pan fried hand-pulled noodle with beef and bok choy

steamed pork dumplings

fish soup with hand-pulled noodles

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
(646) 895-9264

Sheng Wang
27 Eldridge St (between Canal and Forsyth St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 925-0805