Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Real Pam New York City Entry #41

Chicagoans are inordinately proudful of our Thai cuisine (perhaps only Los Angeles can compete). On more than one occasion I have lobbied for Ritchie Daley to name larb Chicago's city dish. I have hesitated before trying Thai food in New York. Many New Yorkers find Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens to be city's premier Thai restaurant, but Pam Real Thai Food in Hell's Kitchen has received high marks for its authenticity and price. The restaurant has recently expanded its menu, and doesn't have the secret Thai menus that LTHforum diners have made famous in Chicago, but the waitress offered to ask the chef if we wished a special dish. The space, near the theater district, is cramped, even by the standards of ethnic restaurants although the decor is pleasant enough - this is not a down and dirty restaurant.

The seven of us ordered four appetizers, five main courses, and four desserts, ranging from excellent to exotic to ordinary. After drinks, our total, including tip, was $20.00 - a Manhattan bargain. Pam can not equal Chicago's Spoon Thai, Sticky Rice, TAC Quick, or Thai Aree - all mainstays of the Chicago dining scene, but the dishes were a step above suburban Pad Thai or Beef with Basil.

Of our appetizers, the best were Duck Noodle with Dark Soup, a hefty, spicy duck noodle soup with a deep rich flavor, and a One-Bite Salad (I believe it was named Miang Cone) with roasted coconut, peanuts, ginger, lime, red onion, chili, dried shrimp in a lettuce leaf with a dab of syrup. I found it as compelling as Spoon Thai's one-bite salad, which is high praise indeed. Less memorable were an adequate Steamed Thai Chicken and Mushroom Dumpling and Fried Tofu Squares which tasted no better - or worse - than fried tofu, but which had a nice chili-peanut sauce.

Pam Real is known in some Chowist circles for its Kaeng Tai Pla. This is described as a unique southern Thai dish, consisting of "fermented fish kidney with turmeric. Lime leaves, chili paste and vegetables." The menu screams "!!!Kaeng Tai Pla is the most hot and spicy Thai food." Our good waitress tried - in vain - to warn me away from this dish, alternately describing it as stinky and spicy. But her tears would not move me. Kaeng Tai Pla is hot, but not overly so, and no more than another dish we ordered. There is a tendency for foodhounds to assume that anything made with fermented fish kidney must be delicious! I was not sorry to have ordered it. I do like fishy tastes and offal textures, and I enjoyed the somewhat harsh, spiky and fiery flavors, but I wouldn't order the dish again. However, each reader will certainly wish to try Kaeng Tai Pla to discover if this is the perfect dish. (It isn't.)

The best entree was Pla Chili Sauce Khun Pam's [Chef Pam's] Style: a crispy whitefish topped with a hot - and rich - chili sauce. This was a main course worthy of a banquet. The other main courses were less memorable, but quite adequate: a smooth green curry with vegetables and tofu, crispy pork chunks with basil, and duck with ginger sauce. None of these were particularly remarkable, but each was enjoyed by our table.

Pam Real Thai Food has a more extensive dessert list than most Thai restaurants - eleven choices. We selected Rice Pudding with Durian, Golden Jackfruit Seeds, Thai Creme Brulee (taro custard with coconut), and a Fried Banana Crepe. It is nice to see durian on the menu. While my companions were mildly repulsed by durian's aroma, it was less overpowering than I expected, and was a cross between soothing honeyed custard and old onions. Of course, the rice pudding cut the aroma, leaving just a bit of the stink and much of the sweet.

Of the other desserts the best was the Fried Banana Crepe, a perfect cooked cigar with drizzles of chocolate and cherry sauce. It was a charming creation that seemed more French than Thai. The creme brulee was more of a pudding-cake than a crackly, crunchy brulee. The jackfruit "seeds" were small round doughy cakes that while amiable lacked a distinctive taste.

Pam's deserves credit for dishes that are not seen on less ambitious menus. The Dark Duck Soup and Whole Chili Fish were outstanding. The remainder should easily please any novice with the exception of Kaeng and Durian, dishes at home in Hell's Kitchen.

Pam Real Thai Food
404 West 49th Street (at Ninth Avenue)
Manhattan (Hell's Kitchen)

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