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


Day 1 in DC: Waiting in Line for Little Serow

front door at little serow
front door at Little Serow

You know a restaurant is hot when it has no phone number, no online reservation system and no Twitter presence, yet it manages to draw crowds of people willing to brave an hour-long wait in hopes of scoring a coveted walk-in dinner seating. Little Serow, a Thai restaurant based in Washington, DC, has this high class problem of being too popular, a result of the numerous accolades it has won from publications such as GQ and Bon Appétit as one of the best new restaurants in the country. Snagging a ressie for Little Serow isn’t easy, but this post will give you some tips on what to expect so that you won’t walk away disappointed when the hostess turns you away.

1. LINE UP EARLY – The restaurant technically opens at 5:30 pm, but people start waiting in line for dinner much earlier than that. We arrived at the restaurant on a Friday night at around 4:45 pm, and there were already ~20 people in front of us. In about 10 minutes, a line around the block had formed behind us.

2. THERE ARE SEVERAL SEATINGS FOR PARTIES OF 4 OR LESS – If you’re one of the first 30 people in line, you will likely make the 5:30 pm seating. If not, you can leave your name and number with the hostess, who will then message you once the first seating wraps up. Even if you make the first cut, you have the option of choosing to dine later, in which case the restaurant will text you once your table is ready. The first seating ended around 6:45 pm. You can’t really predict when they’ll message you, so just plan on hanging out at a bar nearby and leaving once you get the greenlight. I would say there are roughly 3 seatings per night, with each one lasting 1.5-2 hours.

3. FOOD COMES OUT FAST – This isn’t a typical tasting menu where items are served one dish at a time. The servers will bring out things in groups of two or three in quick succession. Sometimes you won’t be done with a course, and 6 plates will pile up in front of you. Unfortunately this makes you uncomfortably full really fast. Make sure to eat an early lunch and try to pace yourself as best as you can during the meal.

So now that the logistics are out of the way, what about the actual food? The food here, which is inspired by Northern Thai cooking, is SPICY. There is no option for mild or medium spiciness, it’s off the charts hot for everyone. I knew I was in trouble when I was already struggling with the first course nam prik narohk, which consisted of fried pork rinds and a dipping paste made of catfish, tamarind and chiles. I had only used a miniscule amount of the sauce but my mouth was already on fire. I read that carbs can help take the edge off spicy foods, so I quickly helped myself to some sticky rice and lots of sips of beer. After dodging that bullet, my heart sank when the waitress told me that the levels of spiciness would continue to build with each dish and would be scaled back down midway through the tasting. I was on dish 1, it would only get hotter until at least dish 4 or 5. Oh boy.

nam prik narohk
pork rinds with nam prik narohk dipping sauce
sticky rice and vegetables (free refills provided!)
sticky rice and vegetables (free refills provided!)

The nam prik narohk was followed by the tom kha het, a creamy and delicious coconut soup made with mushroom, pumpkin and galangal, a close cousin of the ginger root, as well as the bla chorn lom kwan, which had the texture and taste of chopped eel covered in lime flakes. Despite the warning that spiciness would build with each subsequent dish, I found these next two courses to be much more mild. The soup was one of my favorites from the night–Little Serow’s light and refined rendition avoided the extremely heavy creaminess that you tend to get in other versions. The bla chom lom kwan, on the other hand, was a little to dry and salty for me.

tom kha het and bla chorn lom kwan
tom kha het (coconut soup) and bla chorn lom kwan (snakehead fish, lime and rice powder)

Things started heating up again with the arrival of gai laap chiang mai, a minced chicken liver dish, and the naem khao tod, an amazing platter consisting of crispy rice nuggets coated in a spicy, sweet sauce, sour pork cubes and peanuts. The first few bites of the minced chicken were memorably fragrant and floral, but then the spiciness kicked in and totally hijacked the striking flavors of the dish. I had to basically eat the whole leaf basket and almost finished off my beer to make it through this course. It pains me to say that we couldn’t handle the heat and left half of it untouched. The spice level of the crispy rice and pork was much more manageable, which was a relief because I could fully appreciate the delightful sensation of biting into the sweet, fried bits of rice.

naem khao tod (cripsy rice and sour pork)
naem khao tod (cripsy rice and sour pork)
gai laap chiang mai (minced chicken and chicken liver with long peppers)
gai laap chiang mai (minced chicken liver with long peppers)

As promised, the last two dishes were on the lower end of the spicy Richter scale. I wasn’t a big fan of the nam ngeow, a pork dish that can best be described as a Thai version of the Sloppy Joe. I loved how the tender pork meat fell right off the bones in the si krong muu, and the light fish sauce and whiskey dill marinade was a nice touch.

nam ngeow (pork and crispy garlic)
nam ngeow (pork and crispy garlic)
si krong muu (pork ribs in fish sauce, dill and whiskey marinade)
si krong muu (pork ribs in fish sauce, dill and whiskey marinade)

The pacing of the meal in which the courses were more or less brought out all at once wasn’t ideal and didn’t leave enough time to recover from the intensity of the previous dishes. At the end of the tasting, we were just overwhelmed by how stuffed we were, and we were very much aware of the unpleasant spicy aftertaste coating our mouths. The dessert course was a small yet delicious piece of coconut rice, a short and sweet antidote to all the fire that came before it.

I think in all honesty, like Mission Street Chinese, Little Serow is a bit overhyped. I probably truly enjoyed 4 out of the 7 dishes, but I would not go out of my way to wait 45 minutes in line again. It was a novel dining experience, and some of the flavor combinations I experienced were quite interesting and unique. I’m glad that I did it, but in more of a check-the-box sort of way. A more low-key night at Sripraphai or Zabb Elee is fine by me.

coconut rice dessert - not spicy!
coconut rice dessert – not spicy!

Little Serow
1511 17th Street NW
Washington DC 20036