Spicy Thai at Ugly Baby in Carroll Gardens

ugly baby in carroll gardens

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen at Ugly Baby, which cranks out some of the spiciest Thai food you will ever eat in New York City. Chef Sirichai Sreparplarn intentionally keeps the spice levels high to authentically reflect how food is seasoned in Thailand, and guests must accept the dishes as is with no modifications. There’s heat in almost every single item, so get ready to sweat it out and down pitchers of water if dinner here is in the cards in the near future.Read More

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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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.

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

Hot Thai Nights at Pok Pok

Now that the weather’s so nice in New York, all I can think about is getting away. Clearly it’s not possible to fly whenever you want, but a great way to fake it is to take the train to Brooklyn and have dinner on Pok Pok‘s outdoor patio, where you can almost feel like you’re eating in one of those homey, hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Bangkok. They really have the details down–the old school Thai music playing in the background, the kitschy table cloths, the OUTDOOR PATIO–that you truly feel like you’re in a different time and place. The prices are a little high for what they are, but it’s a small price to pay for a mini stay-cation.

ike's vietnamese fish sauce wings
ike’s vietnamese fish sauce wings

Everyone talks about the famous chicken wings, which are notorious for a reason. These chickens are coated in a bold, spicy marinade consisting of a ton of garlic and fish sauce. Great if you like your chicken wings a little sassy, not so great for the person sitting right next to you. I personally found the wings a little too sweet, but otherwise I thought that they were perfectly cooked–crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.

hoi thawt (egg crepe with mussels, garlic chives and bean sprouts)
hoi thawt (egg crepe with mussels, garlic chives and bean sprouts)

The real standout here was the hoi thawt, an amazing egg crepe filled with mussels, chives and bean sprouts. It sort of looks and sounds like a hot mess, but the flavors are so pure and undeniably delicious. The question I ask myself is, why don’t we see more hoi thawt on Thai menus? There’s a ton of pad thai and green curries, but never mussel crepes. These restaurants are holding out on us!

papaya pok pok salad
papaya pok pok salad

The papaya pok pok salad is very solid, although it is extremely spicy. At first you’ll find it sweet and refreshing, but then the heat suddenly builds, and builds, and BUILDS. I chugged my water and picked at every grain of rice as if my life depended on it. Ruoxi was sitting in a pool of his own sweat. I can handle moderate levels of heat, thanks to my Korean background, but this was way too much for me. Ruoxi, a novice to spicy foods, nearly died.

laap muu khua phrae (hand-minced pork salad)
laap muu khua phrae (hand-minced pork salad)

The only item that I didn’t really like was the laap muu khua phrae, a minced pork salad that tasted a little too fragrant and funky. And this one was extremely spicy as well. I essentially felt like I was eating spicy pork laced with potpourri, so needless to say it made me feel a little funny inside. It comes with a side of vegetables like Thai eggplant and cucumbers, which help relieve your palate of the heat, but not of the aromatic spices.

mango sticky rice
mango sticky rice

No Thai dinner is complete without some mango sticky rice, and the version they serve at Pok Pok is awesome. The mangoes were perfectly ripe, and the rice was sweet without being cloying. It was just the thing you would want after setting your mouth on fire. Afterwards, you can walk along the water taking in the views, and you start convincing yourself that you could actually move out to Brooklyn…until you realize the walk to the F train is 15 minutes, and the next train is another 15 minutes away. Traveling the distance for something special, just like a real vacation!

Pok Pok NY

Pok Pok NY
117 Columbia St
Brooklyn, NY 11231
(718) 923-9322

Central Thai Food at Kiin Thai

Kiin Thai is a college date night type of place. Like you’re tired of eating in the dining hall, but you want something nicer than pizza or Mexican, so this stylish Thai restaurant hits that sweet spot of serving interesting food at a reasonable price point.

But that “college date night” qualifier says something. In college, you’re not really all that picky about what you eat. Instant ramen noodles and Totino’s boxed pizza were all fair game. But as you get older, you start eating a lot more real food and developing standards, and the college hot spots don’t cut it anymore.

I wasn’t expecting Kiin Thai to be a college date night type of place. I thought it would be many notches above that, as it is run by the owners of the highly regarded Isaan Thai restaurant Somtum Der. But there’s a real difference between the two restaurants. Somtum Der is like the sure footed parent with a strong point of view, whereas Kiin Thai is the people pleasing college kid still figuring it out.

The decor at Kiin Thai is very nice, but it feels a little out of character for a Thai restaurant. There’s a lot of whitewashed wood and mason jars, which to me reads more farm-to-table American than central Thailand. This is the whole people-pleaser aspect that I was talking about earlier. I feel like the owners thought this farm-to-table decor was trendy and was what New Yorkers wanted, and hence they decided to furnish things this way, rather than being driven by authenticity. Maybe things have changed in Thailand, but when I was there several years ago, things weren’t being served out of mason jars…

pad thai with shrimp wrapped in egg crepe
pad thai with shrimp wrapped in egg crepe

Here’s an obvious example of Kiin Thai not quite figuring things out–the pad thai did not come fully seasoned. Instead, the peanuts, red pepper flakes and sugar came on the side. I’m a little confused by why the restaurant didn’t have the confidence to assert its point of view and season everything fully beforehand. It’s a cop out, frankly–no one can blame them for the flavors if the diners have to season the dish themselves. I guess on the plus side, because it wasn’t fully seasoned, the pad thai wan’t overly sweet like bad takeout style, but in the same vein, it was also pretty bland.

grandma's grilled pork and grilled sticky rice
grandma’s grilled pork and grilled sticky rice

I did enjoy the grandma’s pork chops, which were served playfully as lollipops. The ground meat was seasoned well, with a hint of coconut, lemongrass and cilantro in the blend, and the patties really came alive with the dipping sauce, which generated a lot of explosive heat.

royal seafood omelette
royal seafood omelette

The biggest disappointment by far was the royal seafood omelette. There was nothing regal about this sad omelette, which had an unappetizing gray color about it. My suspicions were confirmed when I took a bite. I felt like I was eating this weird filler, like industrial powdered egg with bits of canned crab meat mixed throughout. It was so bad, we didn’t even finish it. When you think to how much potential this dish could have had, it made the misstep that much more tragic.

So this is what happens when you run a restaurant that isn’t true to its roots. There’s no strong point of view, other than to cater to as many palates as possible, which results in cooking that lacks soul. Everything looks very pretty, but like a bland pageant queen, Kiin Thai lacks real substance. Not that that bothered the NYU kids around me, who looked like they were enjoying themselves. They’ll know better in a few years’ time…

Kiin Thai
36 E. 8th St (between University Pl and Greene St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 529-2363

Kiin Thai

Let’s Do Lunch: Ngam

As a food blogger, I make a concerted effort to try out new and interesting restaurants for most of my meals. But there are days when I don’t want to think too much about where to eat, particularly mid-week lunches. I just want something that gets the job done reasonably well–I need off days that don’t involve documenting a meal at the best-place-ever as declared by Grub Street/Eater/Yelp for the moment being. I want something that’s no fuss, not too expensive and in the neighborhood. And I leave my adventurous palate at home–I want my lunch to be a sure thing, so I stick to safe, proven, familiar favorites.

Ngam, a modern Thai eatery in the East Village run by former model Hong Thaimee, fits my mid-week lunch criteria perfectly. For $8.99, you get a good-sized entree accompanied by a soup or a salad. Entrees offered consist of Thailand’s greatest hits, such as pad thai, green curry fried rice, green curry and red curry. Yes, I could go to Zabb Elee and try something more exotic like chicken larb, but I don’t want to. Sometimes you just want good old mainstream pad thai, which is extremely solid at Ngam. And so is another crowd favorite, the rich and creamy green curry with chicken. Drizzle the sauce over an order of coconut rice for an amazing makeshift side dish.

Ngam has received a lot of favorable press recently for its more adventurous creations like Chiang Mai fries or the Cutie Duckling “ghang ped” curry. The success I’ve had with its lunch offerings compels me to try its broader, exotic dishes for dinner. But when noon rolls around, I’m perfectly content with another order of the pad thai.

Ngam - authentic old school pad thai
authentic old school pad thai with chicken
Ngam - homemade green curry
homemade green curry with chicken
Ngam - kao mun coconut rice
“kao mun” coconut rice

99 3rd Ave (between 12th and 13th St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 777-8424