Where to Find Great Thai Food from Coast to Coast
Photo By: Dakota Fine
Photo By: Candace West ©Copyrighted© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved
Photo By: poncharee
Photo By: Moris Moreno ©2015 Moris Moreno
Photo By: Kitti TOM PENPARKkul tompenpark.com
Beyond Pad Thai
Thai food has been popular in the United States for decades. But recently there has been a renaissance in regional Thai. What were once greasy and sugary pad thais, coconut-heavy curries and bland chicken satay dishes have become green papaya salads from the Northeast, rich and complex noodle dishes from around Bangkok, and mouth-searing Indian-influenced curries from the South. Looking to go beyond the old takeout? Here’s where to find great regional Thai across the country.
Night + Market Song — Los Angeles
What started as an informal experiment for Chef Kris Yenbamroong — an art space offering his personal riffs of Thai street food, annexed to his family’s decades-old West Hollywood restaurant, Talesai — has since morphed into one of the most-acclaimed Thai concepts in the country. Both his West Hollywood original and the newer Silverlake outpost serve his unique versions of fully flavored, highly complex Northern Thai fare, like grilled fatty pig neck with jaew, a thai chile dip. The menus differ slightly, but both offer three different khao soi variations and a selection of spicy salads with somtum and larb, all in a hip setting with sensational, unexpected wines.
Go to: Night + Market Song
Little Serow — Washington, D.C.
Johnny Monis opened his Greek-inspired restaurant, Komi, at just 24 years old. Now winner of a James Beard Foundation Award, the chef shows serious commitment to any dish he prepares. To wit: Monis traversed the globe to research dishes for his second concept, Little Serow, before its opening in 2011. The seven-course tasting riffs on the night-stall fare found throughout Thailand’s north and northeast. Set in a cool, nearly hidden basement space, the casual restaurant doesn’t allow for substitutions or even reservations. The weekly changing selections are served in a set, family-style meal with a complex balance of sugar, sour and plenty of spice. For $49 per person, fill up on Mekhong whiskey-marinated pork ribs and gai laap Chiang Mai, which features every single edible component of the chicken (offal included) hand-minced and mixed with an intricate paste of dried spices. It’s so good it’s worth the line queued out front.
Go to: Little Serow
Panya Thai Restaurant — North Miami
South Florida’s serious Thai food aficionados head to this North Miami restaurant for its diverse regional specialties, including noodles, curries and satays. Everything offered is done well and layered with plenty of spice. If you can’t take the heat, order the mild — even the medium is scorching. While all the old reliables are present, the real treasures of Panya are more enigmatic: rich soups infused with offal, like liver, kidneys and blood. Filled with tofu and wide rice noodles, guay jab soup features pig intestine, flavored with oyster sauce, star anise, cinnamon and garlic. Boat noodle soup is also on the menu, with options for tamer proteins like pork or beef meatballs. There’s also yen ta fo, pink noodle soup made from preserved red bean curd, filled to the brim with noodles, shrimp, squid, white fungus and fried wonton, presenting plenty of flavor, with no meat.
Photography courtesy of Candace West
Go to: Panya Thai Restaurant
Little Uncle — Seattle
In a city where Thai food is more popular than pizza, it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd. Chefs Wiley Frank and Poncharee Kounpungchart have managed to stake a claim operating not just one of Seattle’s best Thai restaurants, but one of the best restaurants in the country. The duo is hailed for perfecting noodle dishes that are ubiquitous, despite being too often bland, greasy or overly sweet. Pad thai is prepared as it would be in Thailand, with peanuts, roasted chiles and sugar on the side. The khao soi is so rich and full of flavor from proprietary Peeks Pantry red curry paste that the duo has made the paste available for purchase to help sate diners’ cravings.
Go to: Little Uncle
NaiYaRa — Miami Beach
While manning the stoves of the now defunct Khong River House, just off Lincoln Road, Chef Piyarat Arreeratn (aka Chef Bee) earned rave reviews and a nomination for a James Beard Foundation Award. Now, at a restaurant co-owned with his mom, the Chiang Rai native is serving a selection of elevated Northern Thai specialties in a cool, retro-contemporary space. Bee’s khao soi (referred to as Chiang Rai curry) replaces the chicken with braised beef over perfectly cooked noodles in an aromatic yellow curry base. His neau dade deaw (beef jerky) is highly seasoned with coriander and smoke, served with a bold Thai dried chile dipping sauce. Although much of the menu consists of Bee’s chef-y takes on classics, there are some fantastic family recipes too. The organic crispy bok choy with garlic chips in a sweet sesame-soy sauce is the exact preparation Bee’s grandmother used to sell at their village’s local market.
Go to: NaiYaRa
Pok Pok PDX — Portland
Since opening Pok Pok PDX in 2005, James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Andy Ricker has been a spokesperson for Thai flavors, appearing in print and on TV to share his thoroughly researched, delicious regional Thai dishes. He popularized piquant Isaan-style papaya salad in the states, bringing more heat, more flavorful fish sauce and more sour notes than many Americans were willing to eat before. Though not Thai, his signature Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings are named for his daytime chef’s recipe, and they are a perennial fan favorite. Isaan-style charcoal-roasted chicken (Kai Yaang) and sticky rice are another must-try and the launch pad for Ricker’s burgeoning restaurant empire, which now has locations in Portland, Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Go to: Pok Pok
Somtum Der — New York City
The New York spinoff of its Bangkok original, this East Village restaurant does not temper its heat for American palates. The uninitiated often leave sweating and rosy. There are eight variations of its eponymous dish, somtum, the refreshing, funky and chile-riddled green papaya salad that hails from Northeastern Thailand. The original tom Thai is the most straightforward, but it still packs spice and plenty of small dried shrimp for a salty, umami-filled bite.Those who prefer more-intense versions of the salad can order toppings of salted egg and sweet chile sauce, Thai mackerel or a combination of fermented fish sauce and field crabs. Finish up with one of six Isaan-style spicy mincemeat salads, called larb (the most popular are duck and pork), and an order of the deep-fried chicken thighs.
Go to: Somtum Der
Teton Thai — Teton Village, Wyo.
Set at the base of the Tetons, just a short walk from the chairlift, this lauded family-run Thai place is the ideal place to warm up with a kick of chiles apres ski. The menu offers regional specialties that are difficult to find in big cities, let alone the middle of Wyoming. The customizable spice scale, ranging from one to five, offers pepper lovers a chance to fulfill their pungent passions. The excellent barbecued pork with sticky rice is a sweat-inducing four on the spice scale, with thin strips of pork fillet slathered in sweet sauce, sprinkled with sesame seed and cilantro, then served with a side of fiery chile dip and a basket of sticky rice. Another favorite is the pad gar pow duck: savory duck breast, basil and vegetables in a standout garlic-chile sauce.
Go to: Teton Thai
Erawan — Philadelphia
The decor is basic at Erawan, but the staff is friendly, the food is inexpensive and the menu offers dishes from around Thailand. There’s Indian-influenced yellow and massaman curries from the South, sausage from the North, and papaya salad and larb from the Northeast. Most of the dishes hail from the central part of the country. Standouts include the green curry and pad prik king, a fiery, currylike stir-fry of chile sauce, string beans, kaffir lime leaves, bell peppers and diners’ choice of meat, without the softening coconut milk. Much rarer is the Imperial Golden Bags, a popular Thai appetizer for celebratory occasions like weddings or New Year’s. Erawan’s version features chicken and shrimp in a wonton wrapper, deep-fried with sweet chile dip.
Go to: Erawan
Lers Ros — San Francisco
A favorite after-work haunt among Bay Area chefs, the original Tenderloin outpost of Lers Ros is renowned for its interesting, regional dishes that diverge from the ordinary Thai offerings. More than 120 different menu items are available at the three locations. Avoid the ubiquitous with picks like stir-fried quail, smoky grilled pork shoulder with chile sauce, duck larb and kra prow moo krob, thick slabs of chewy pork belly stir-fried with basil and sliced red bell pepper. Many go for the hearty proteins, but lighter selections are just as good, think skillfully prepared seafood such as steamed fresh bass with chopped chile and lime juice.
Go to: Lers Ros
Jitlada — Los Angeles
With a perpetual spot on Los Angeles’ must-visit lists, Jitlada is the City of Angel’s temple of spice. It consistently ranks as one of the top Thai restaurants in the country for its supremely scorching Southern Thai specialties. It’s a heat that starts slow and keeps on building. Even so, this place doesn’t get the acclaim for fiery gimmicks. The chiles are well-matched in balanced, complex dishes. The menu offers various curries (including spicy southern, southern dry, yellow and green), noodles, rice (with a blush-inducing turmeric fried rendition), aromatic soups and pages upon pages of other delicacies. On the more esoteric side, there are options like fish balls stuffed with salted duck eggs, fish kidneys and acacia-blossom omelets that aren’t often available. Though it is hot enough to make most cry, the Crying Tiger Beef or Pork is worth an order.
Go to: Jitlada Restaurant
Sapp Coffee Shop — Los Angeles
Los Angeles has the largest community of Thai expats in the world. There are so many great restaurants in LA’s Thai Town specializing in so many diverse dishes and regions that it’s nearly impossible to single one out. Inexpensive and delicious, Sapp Coffee Shop is one of the top picks, though. This small diner in an L-shaped shopping center is best known for two things: boat noodle soup and jade noodles. The former, kuay tiew rua, is served all over Thai Town. Originally sold from boats (hence the name) lined up along Bangkok’s canals, boat noodle soup features meat, liver and blood — usually from a pig, but also with beef — with fresh noodles in a chile-, cinnamon-, star anise- and citrus-laced broth. The less common jade noodles are delicate spinach-infused noodles topped with barbecue pork, crabmeat and roast duck with peanuts, chile, herbs and a sprinkling of sugar.
Go to: Sapp Coffee Shop
Bambu Asian Cuisine — Richardson, Texas
This casual North Dallas restaurant prepares outstanding Isaan-style dishes with high-quality ingredients, many grown in-house by owner Shelly Nan and her mother, Bounmee Nanthaphak. They are masters on the grill, which says something in steak-loving Texas. Their prowess shows in dishes like Crying Tiger Beef — slices of nicely marbled beef are seasoned, then cooked on the grill, topped with scallions as well as crushed and toasted rice, then served with citrus-chile sauce. Beef jerky with hot chile sauce is another meaty hit. Those wanting vegetables shouldn’t miss the papaya salad.
Go to: Bambu Asian Cuisine
Immm Rice & Beyond — Chicago
This Uptown shop focuses on the fare found at Thai food stalls and street carts. The specialty is khao rad gang, which roughly translates to "rice plate lunch." A plate of rice is served with up to three items from a steam table. The rotating offerings include curries like dried panang curry with pork, green curry with featherback fish balls, and five-spice stew with pork, eggs and puff tofu, as well as more familiar options. The made-to-order menu includes regional dishes from across the country. A half-dozen papaya salads are listed with the pungent Isaan-style preserved crab and fish rendition. Those are rounded out with stir-fries, noodles and bowls like traditional khao soi and veritable pig blood-infused boat noodle soup.
Go to: Immm Rice & Beyond
SriPraPhai — Queens
For years, New Yorkers craving more than green curry have headed to Queens for SriPraPhai’s diverse dishes. Anticipate a national overview of Thai cuisine, from the Mekhong River Valley and hills surrounding Chiang Mai down the Malay Peninsula. Everything here is done impeccably well. There’s fantastic khao soi, the Burmese-influenced curry-coconut milk-broth chicken noodle soup that hails from the north. Central Thailand, the area surrounding Bangkok, is represented with curries and stir-fries featuring sauteed Chinese broccoli with crispy pork belly. Diners who order the fiery Southern-style curry (a mix of shrimp paste, turmeric, chiles, vegetables and meat in an aromatic broth) will be forewarned by affable servers about its sweat-inducing spice. You try it, you buy it, whether or not you can stand the heat.
Go to: SriPraPhai
Lotus of Siam — Las Vegas
Set in a modest Eastside strip mall, Lotus of Siam has long been hailed one of the best Thai restaurants in the entire United States. James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Saipin Chutima created an extensive menu that spans most of Thailand. Everything is bright and fresh, but the real specialty is the medley of Northern Thai plates. Khao soi is richer than most, with crisp duck served atop a luxurious egg noodles and curry base. Isaan-style sausage is made with home-grown herbs. Nam prik noom, green chile dip, is verdant and spicier than so many renditions. Make sure to peek at the wine list too; the impressive selection offers aromatic bottles that pair perfectly with the bold dishes.
Go to: Lotus of Siam