Sripraphai’s Incomparable Thai

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Take the
Queens-bound 7 to 61st St.-Woodside. It’s a rush-hour express stop, so
the ride is only about 10 minutes from Grand Central. Walk down to the street
and continue directly under the train, in the same direction it was going. You’ll
go through an underpass with civic-pride murals painted on the walls. Four blocks
up, at 65th St., take a hard left and you’ll be able to see Sripraphai.

funny how most people won’t do this. It falls into a special category of
inaction. If you have the peanut allergy or a new baby at home, fine. But the
majority of people reading this, I bet, are more than amenable to a short trip
for superlative ethnic dining. Now, one must convince some companions. If your
most likely prospects haven’t ever experienced great Thai food–which
was an exceedingly difficult thing to do in New York, until Sripraphai–trust
will have to come into play. Because when the journey’s object is to any
extent unknown, Queens is very far away.

If anything
is true of all Manhattanites, it’s that we don’t haul ourselves all
the way to Queens for what might prove to be a not-so-good reason. It’s
valid to think that our island has everything, and it makes sense, because that’s
why we bear the expenses. And yet there is no bustling Thai community in Manhattan,
while there is one in Woodside. Once you allow that there might be a Thai restaurant
on the level of the legendary one you (or this girl you know) ate at in L.A.
(or San Francisco, or Chicago or Bangkok) one time, the invisible barrier along
the East River becomes something else. Then, the endless planning-to-make-it-out-there-eventually
becomes an urban provincialism–the same apprehension that keeps Hobbits
in the Shire, only with unreasonable fear masquerading as a more locally acceptable
fault, such as self-involvement or skepticism.

It was in
the guise of the skeptic that I visited Sripraphai most recently. I didn’t
carry a notebook and affect a lemon-juice countenance, but I did arrange my
mind as such. The buzz on Sripraphai has been gaining decibels over the last
year. It’s been cited in all the annual cheap-eats roundups and reviewed
on several websites. Such accolades make a restaurant seem like one in a crowd–maybe,
one might think, like how Thailand Restaurant, the jury-duty staple at the corner
of Bayard and Baxter Sts., is one in a crowd. Though I already knew from previous
visits that Sripraphai is an all-borough star, I went in determined to be tough.
I’d rather be dragged on a fool’s errand than be the overzealous,
dragging fool.

Five minutes
later, I was again ready to say that it is your duty as a New Yorker to eat
at this restaurant. The opening-act turning point was Sripraphai’s papaya
salad. It is not possible to acquire a sun-ripened fresh papaya in wintertime
New York, but this shredded one was as close as it gets. It was tossed with
cherry tomatoes, narrow Thai string beans, dried baby shrimps, peanuts and red
chili peppers. The dressing is a lime and chili concoction, bright orange, and
brighter as you eat, because all colors seem to grow more intense when a fruity-salty-sweet-nutty-spicy-sour
combination sparks and short-circuits the coarser faculties. I was hearing parrots
and monkeys while I ate, and it wasn’t even my appetizer.

What I chose
for a first course was listed as a vegetable soup with shrimp. It arrived looking
like the dirtiest dishwater, and smelling vaguely foul. I stirred it with my
spoon and found stewed zucchini and yellow squash, which was encouraging, because
it explained the fragrance. Also in there were baby corns, some wide and stringy
bits of fungus, the promised shrimps and something green. That last turned out
to be sprigs of cilantro, which, with less looking and more tasting, dramatized
the hearty vegetables. The weird smell was doused in another eye-opening flavor
shower. Again, but not similarly, dramatic sensory interplay altered perceptions.
It was pungent seafood broth on the tongue, cilantro in the inner cheeks, and
the last trickle of every spoonful left behind a mist of herb-infused citrus,
mild like a sunset reverie after an active summer day. I loved the soup. The
absorbent mushrooms imparted its complexity best, adding an unobtrusive, woody
base note.

Let me back
up a bit.

has a storefront dining room, with racks of Thai candy and a television, usually
tuned to NY1, up front. There’s two menus, listing a total of at least
50 dishes. The non-pictorial menu names entrees that the scrapbook doesn’t
show, and vice versa. Nearly everything is priced in the $5-$8 range. Nothing
in the snapshots looks appealing, and none of the descriptions are complete
or even clear. Sripraphai doesn’t value its Thai clientele above gringos,
who constitute at least half the crowd on a normal weekend evening, but the
speedy servers are too busy to lend much guidance. They will, at least, let
you know if they doubt you’ll enjoy what you’re trying to order. Still,
don’t expect the adventure aspect of your meal to end with the 7 train.
To eliminate the risk of dissatisfaction, order backups.

I experienced
disappointment only once at Sripraphai. An acquaintance had raved about the
crispy catfish-salad appetizer, calling it amazing and unique. It is both of
those, I guess. The fish is somehow processed into toothpick-sized sticks that
come out of the fryer in a battered, interlocking web. They make a Thai salad
into something more akin to an American bar snack than an American greens mix,
but if it’d been delicious I wouldn’t have minded. I think part of
the reason my friend thought ordering this dish was such a bright idea is that
all the non-Thai people at Sripraphai steal glances at one another’s plates.
The crispy catfish salad tends to make competitive Manhattan foodies swallow
their pride and ask what the dish is called.

The most
conspicuous dish I ordered this time was massaman curry beef. It came with a
special speech from the waitress, warning about a long wait, because the meat
needs time to soften. She might have wanted me to change my order so the table
could be turned (on Saturday nights there’s often a line for seating),
but I required a moment with my beer to cleanse my palate of the appetizers
anyway. (The restaurant doesn’t sell alcohol, but a corner bodega within
sight of Sripraphai’s front door has a decent selection. I find that a
sweet beer like Beck’s extinguishes mouth fire quickest.) During the interlude,
a foursome at one adjacent table loudly discussed Robert Altman. Off our other
flank was a young Thai couple, speaking the language and laughing a lot.

The massaman
sauce looks like red cooking oil, thickened with beef fat and devoid of vegetables.
The dish was yet another surprise, this time because its flavor wasn’t
explosive in the least. I’ve had plenty of massamans that tasted like lemongrass
or coconut. Sripraphai’s bore no resemblance to those haphazard tropical
blends. It was mellow. What bubbled up from the sauce’s maroon depths were
hints of slow-cooked garlic and, even more subtly, cinnamon. The beef was in
dense, stringy lumps like oxtail or brisket. They were soft, but not enough
to convince me that the preparation wasn’t rushed. No matter–a few
threads of these rump cuts, dribbled with the thick sauce over rice, yielded
something like a wise, introverted version of the spicy kinetics enjoyed earlier.
The last sauce I had that tasted anything like this massaman curry was poured
over lobster as part of a French Thanksgiving banquet.

Then it
was back to the oral fireworks show with imported Thai catfish in spicy sauce.
We got this to sample Sripraphai’s doings with a basil and peppers saute,
which even Manhattan’s Thai restaurant chains don’t screw up. Here,
every ingredient approached an extreme–red bell peppers almost sugary,
green bells bitter with youth, basil as herbaciously potent as rap-star marijuana,
chili and lime galvanizing the plate like sweet and sour lightning. It’s
typical of what goes on in Sripraphai’s unseen kitchen that the chef brings
in catfish from Thailand, even though it must (surely, given the price of the
dish) come in frozen, because it’s still tastier than local, farm-raised
product. It is indeed. There can be no weak link in an ensemble anchored by
basil so powerful. On such a brightly lit stage, chili fire isn’t a mere
special effect. The heat of a Sripraphai spicy dish is challenging (bring tissues,
pre-dose with Pepcid–whatever it takes), but never out of step with the
high drama of the other elements.

I can go
on about chilis escalating the flavor of bamboo and coconut in the sweltering
yellow curry chicken, or the sensations Sripraphai evokes with Chinese broccoli
and crispy pork, but you get the picture. Thai cuisine is genius, and the fact
that it’s doled out without highbrow trappings makes its brilliance fantastically
accessible. It’s like being able to work in the Pantheon or saunter on
your lunch break through the Louvre–if you know where to get it done right,
and the place is within easy striking distance, which you do and it is. Is this
not why we live in cities?

a world of Thai desserts that I understand is also worth exploring at Sripraphai,
but I’ve never had room for anything more than a few of the dried, sugared
tamarind pods that come in a plastic box for $3.50. The seeds are a bit of a
pain to deal with, but the friendly sourness of tamarind is a flavor that’s
hard to come by here. That’s strange, because so many people like it. Contrary
to popular belief, word about plenty of good things has yet to spread across
this globe.

64-13 39th Ave. (betw. 64th & 65th Sts.), Queens, 718-899-9599 (closed Wednesdays).