Monday, February 20, 2006

Pronouncement Sripraphai New York City Entry #72

In a city as varied and as disputatious as New York, to find unanimity on anything is as rare as coming upon a parking spot. Yet, as far as Thai restaurants are concerned, one name is on everyone's lips - even if that name is routinely garbled. Sripraphai, located in the heart of Woodside, Queens, a few blocks down from the Jackson Heights subway stop. One imagines that the staff keeps a list detailing how customers scramble three simple syllables - two dozen entries would be a start. The menu helpfully provides the correct pronunciation (See-PRA-Pie).

Since opening Sripraphai has expanded, and in its current incarnation, it has a simple elegance, particularly in the back area away from the front door (it also has a garden for summer visitors). Sripraphai now also has a liquor license, and serve some Thai wine and beer. But the restaurant remains efficient, we turned over in just above an hour, having spent a mere $24 apiece.

I learned Thai food in Chicago, which along with Los Angeles, is reputed to be the American nucleus of Thai cuisine. The most creative menus in Chicago are "secret menus" - once written in Thai script, but now translated for their Anglo patrons (see - an essential Chicago dining companion).

I was impressed by the food served at Sripraphai, but often felt that the dishes were improved and subtler versions of dishes found at serious Thai restaurants, rather than some of the incandescent dishes found in Chicago at Siam House, Sticky Rice, TAC Quick, or Spoon Thai (try the Exploded Catfish Salad), or the haute Thai appetizers at Arun's.

This should not suggest disappointment. Our dishes (at a level of heat between medium and "Thai spicy") ranged from quite good to superb. We began with papaya salad with crispy catfish meat. The texture of the strings of green fruit were delightful as was the crispy coating, an ethereal fat. As wonderful as the coating was, little catfish graced the plate. A better balance between fish and crisp was called for.

Sripraphai is rightly known for their tom-yum pork leg soup (a hot and sour soup). The broth was exquisite. Light and full of heat. The fatty pork leg was less to consume than to perfume the perfect stock. I dream of unhurried, unsullied, immaculate pork leg consomme.

Our quartet ordered three main courses: roasted duck in hot and spicy sauce with Thai eggplant and bamboo shoots, jungle curry (a red curry) with beef and mixed vegetables, and fried soft-shell crab with green curry, pineapple, pumpkin, and long beans. Of the three, the green curry grabbed our attention. It is startling that a dish can be simultaneously hot and subtle, but this green curry made it seem easy. Sharing one order, we didn't consume quite enough of the beautiful crab, but the sauce and vegetables made up for the absence. The vegetables reminded me of the accompaniments at the most storied haute restaurants. The other two dishes were superior examples of Thai cuisine, but recognizable. I enjoyed the well-cooked eggplant, which mixed nicely with the fatty duck. The jungle curry was rich with spice, even if recognizable from dishes at other Thai restaurants.

Dessert at Sripraphai is an afterthought. We ordered pumpkin custard, a simple sweet which only disappointed because of its profound predecessors. Better stroll to the nearby Paraguayan-Uruguayan (??) bakery a few blocks along Roosevelt Avenue.

I make no claim to have conducted a census of Thai food in New York, but cannot quibble over the conventional wisdom. Dinner at Sripraphai was not transformative, but it was powerfully good; an establishment easy to reach and easy to love, but hard to pronounce.

64-13 39th Avenue (off Roosevelt Avenue)
Queens (Woodside)
Closed Wednesdays

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