Like many Buddhist monks, Thawin Puhkao—the abbot of the Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram temple in the Elmhurst neighborhood in the New York borough of Queens—is always smiling. But, if you want to catch him at his happiest then you’ll have to stop by the temple after mealtimes. Buddhist monks tend to eat simply, surviving on offerings from their congregations, but Puhkao must have especially good karma to have become the abbot of one of the most diverse and delicious neighborhoods in the world.
The temple’s offering tables support veritable feasts of international cuisine. “It’s good food! Indian food, American food, Thai food, Chinese food whatever,” Puhkao fondly recalls one meal this summer. As the nexus of New York’s largest and most vibrant Thai communities, his temple is especially popular with the area’s many restaurateurs and as Puhkao says laughing “that’s good for me!”
In some ways, Elmhurst is unique among metropolitan immigrant enclaves, and is especially exciting for enterprising foodies who don’t mind long subway rides if it means superlative Thai cuisine.
First, unlike most of Queens’ many immigrant communities, the Thais in Elmhurst aren’t from one particular region, but hail from all over the country meaning that excellent restaurants have sprung up to cater to all types of Thai tastes from the more refined urban cuisine of central Thailand, and the fiery heavily salted dishes of the south, to the funky, potent dishes of the north and northeast. No matter where the chef in the kitchen hails from, everywhere there is a zealotry for authenticity.
“The Thai food here is nothing like most American people think Thai food is like,” says Duangjai “Kitty” Thammasat the co-owner of one of the first—and still one of the best—Thai restaurants in the area. “I’m cooking Thai food. If they come here they have to eat real Thai food, not American Thai food.”
While most foreign cuisines are doomed to be shadows of the food in the home-country, there is a consensus among the Thai cooks and eaters in this neighborhood that the Thai food in Elmhurst is often better than the food sold on the streets of Thailand itself. Kitty is typical of most of the chefs we spoke to when she says that many of her Thai customers marvel that her food is better than what they’ve had at home. She says that the main reason for the quality of the food in Queens is the ingredients: “Many of the ingredients in the U.S.—like the meat and also the produce — are much better than they are in Thailand.”
Rudee Ritichailerk, a co-owner of another popular local restaurant, Kitchen 79 was born in Bangkok, and says she was shocked at what ingredients she could find in Queens: “I was surprised when I came here that you can find anything you want to eat here. There are a lot of dishes that I was surprised they have here. … I think the food here is really close to the food at home. It’s just like we make in Thailand.”
What ingredients Thai people can’t find in the shops, they grow themselves and residents still grow their own Thai basic, curry leaves, and other specialized herbs and spices which they sell to the area’s restaurants. “A lot of Thai people here are able to grow authentic Thai ingredients like kaffir leaves, and lemon grass. They grow it here,” says Sayamol Voraragsa, a dentist who serves the area’s restaurant community and whose mother ran a restaurant outside of the city for 20 years. For anything they can’t grow they can still find, “because New York City is so international, we have purveyors who import ingredients directly from Thailand.” Even produce like the pea eggplant which has bedeviled Thai chefs in America for generations are now available year-round, grown on farms in Florida.
The hardest part of finding success in Elmhurst’s food scene is not opening the restaurant, but distinguishing yourself among the ever-expanding roster of excellent authentic eateries. The Thai community is growing everyday but chefs now also cater to hordes of non-Thai foodies who are more knowledgeable—and whose palates are more sophisticated than ever before. “You can’t fool the customer these days. Sometimes even the non-Thais know Thai food better than you. They research on social media. They do their homework before they come to the restaurant, says Jutamat Voragsa, Sayamol’s mother, shaking her head. “American people eat more spicy than Thai people now. It’s unbelievable!”
Where to Eat Great Thai Food in Elmhurst
Elmhurst in Queens is home to one of New York’s largest Thai communities. There are great places to try cuisines from every region of the South East Asian kingdom. These are some of the best, but to be honest it’s hard to find bad Thai food in Elmhurst.
37-70 79th street, New York, 11372 Tel: 718-803-6227
This casual southern Thai restaurant serves up excellent noodles and some of the best Thai iced coffee around. Come midday when the area’s best lunch special is on offer.
77-08 Woodside Ave., New York, 11373 Tel: 718-424-0844
One of the oldest and still arguably the best Thai restaurant in town, Ayada serves up potent authentic home cooking from Central and Northeast Thailand. Everything is good, but the Issarn sausage appetizer is a must-order.
78-23 37th Ave, New York, 11373 Tel: 718-205-5559
A favorite with locals, Arunee serves up punchy pitch-perfect renditions of Thai classics. It’s soups and Penang curry are especially satisfying.
64-13 39th Ave., New York, 11377 Tel: 718-899-9599
Don’t let the inevitable long lines deter you, Sripaphai is worth the wait. Pretty much everything that comes out of the pan-Thai kitchen will leave you speechless and wanting more. When they say spicy they mean it, so come prepared and get ready to sweat.
76-20 Woodside Ave, New York, 11373 Tel: 718-806-1807
This small unassuming restaurant is the place to go in Elmhurst for curry. Modeled after the raan khao kaeng (rice and curry) style restaurants so popular in Bangkok, diners pick two or three mains from steamer trays, all served up with a side of rice about the size of a small dog. Not for diners who can’t handle spice, be sure to pick up a homemade —as in literally made in someone’s home — on the way out.
Chao Thai Restaurant
85-03 Whitney Ave, New York, 11373
Chao Thai is where you should go if you want to explore the pungent, many-splendored world of Thai salads. The yam pla-duk is especially stunning. Chao Thai doesn’t have a liquor license but they encourage diners to bring a six-pack or a bottle of wine from home, and so do we.
Recipe for Som Tum (Thai Papaya Salad)
by Jutamat Voragsa
1 Fresh green papaya (finely shredded)
1 clove of garlic
A couple of grape tomatoes (or any type of tomatoes)
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 Tbs sugar
Ground roasted peanuts (Optional)
1 or 2 Thai chilies (Optional)
In a medium or large mortar or mixing bowl, mash the clove of garlic. If you like spicy, mash 1 or 2 Thai chilies (Optional, warning Thai chilies are really spicy. A little goes a long way)
Mix the rest of the ingredients into the mortar and gently mash or mix. Cut lime in half and squeeze fresh lime juice into the mix, taste as you are mixing and adjust the taste to your personal preference. Serve on plate, top with roasted ground peanuts (optional)
Usually eaten with side sticky rice and grilled chicken.