Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Ban Yai

97-20 Queens Blvd., Rego Park, NY
718-897-8202

Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo

I enjoy having a birthday in March. For one thing, it's in the middle of Lent, so I have an excuse to break any abstinence I'd imposed on myself. But I end up feeling like I'd overgorged, and I also usually get a cold this time of year, too. Or a throat infection. Either way, I end up needing/wanting a big bowl of hot, hot soup. Being that this is a multi-ethnic town, "Jewish Penicillin" normally gets the nod -- chicken broth with short, skinny noodles and a matzoah ball dumpling -- but sometimes I crave something spicier. The Fish Soup at Salon Mexico is excellent, as is the tripe soup at the long-closed Theresa's. But another possibility is the "soup noodle bowl" offered by many small Chinese and Asian shops. It's cheap and chock full of great things. And the doctor and your mother are likely picking on you to increase your intake of liquids while you're sick, and soup qualifies!

In particular, Thai soups are great. The now-closed, Thai-inspired Foraga had wondrous soups with good spice, and I often went there on cold, rainy afternoons. There are spicy, tangy ingredients in a hot broth that cut through in-head stuffiness fast. You will need tissues while consuming these, even when healthy!

I was originally headed to Ben's, where they make great chicken soup, but we had trouble finding parking nearby. We ended up a few blocks away, and as we walked toward Ben's, we came across Ban Yai, and we looked at the menu. There is a Thai place closer to me, but I didn't like it as much as I loved Foraga (which is a hard act to follow), so I was willing to try Ban Yai just to see if I could use this as my rainy day soup place. It doesn't look remarkable from the street, but that doesn't mean it's not potentially good!

The place is narrow and tiny, and it was empty when I went in. That normally makes me nervous; understandable, don't you think? Then while perusing the menu and having ordered, a rather violent noisy movie started playing. They turned the sound down, and I initially thought it was a Thai movie, but it was a Hollywood movie with Thai subtitles. That's really annoying. I was sitting facing way from the screen, but my dining partner -- who is a movie junkie -- couldn't resist watching. I find that really annoying and rude, but the place started filling up with Thai and mixed groups. Perhaps this is a Sunday afternoon feature of the place?

They also got my order wrong -- twice! They kept putting chicken in a dish when I had pointedly asked for shrimp. And they gave me a take-out order once instead of my order. But really, the food was very good and they were apologetic and embarrassed; they discounted my bill 10% for the "inconvenience," which was rather nice of them. I did get my food in the end after all, and it was excellent.

We started with soup. Tom Yam (filled with vegetables, coconut milk, chili oil, straw mushrooms), and "crystal soup" -- a clear noodle soup (great, flavorful chicken-based broth, galanga (sprouted ginger), cellophane noodles) were really good, exactly what I wanted! They were a great balance of spicy, herby, salty. These were also not too over-filled with stuff in the soup, so you get to enjoy what a soup is: thin broth, great flavor, comforting warmth, with great flavor and presence.

Most of the dishes were described in terms of their vegetable offerings, with a note saying they'd add chicken, beef or shrimp for $2 extra. With most of these dishes in the $5 to $8 range, an extra $2 is hardly onerous. These "add-ins" were in the categories of Fried Rice, Noodles, Curry, Sautéed (or Stir-Fried). The offerings were mixed into categories by course or main ingredient, as in the add-ion categories. Others included Appetizers, Soup, Salad, Duck, Whole Fish, Desserts. How can you not love a place that has a category called "Duck"??

I love duck, but we ordered Crispy Calamari and Satay. The former was amazing -- the hoods are cut flat then scored. It's coated and deep-fried, allowed to curl up into a tube while still tender, and served with a thin chili sauce. It was amazing, reminiscent with the look of the best fried chicken, but with a melting texture. The satay comes in chicken or beef; the outstanding part of this dish was the satay sauce -- a sweet peanut paste. It was so good I dipped my calamari into it, and we asked for more for other courses.

As I said, I love duck, but part of the reason I walked into this place was the smell of curry ... and I love noodles! It's Lent, as noted ... and we all traditionally have to give up something during this period leading up to Easter. I had given up pasta ... but if it's made from rice and not Italian in origin, it's not pasta, right? And it's served with a very dry curry sauce, folded over and over onto a flat sheet, and chopped into thick but loose bundles ... that's not pasta at all, right? But it's so good!

As stated previously, I ordered fried rice, with shrimp, and it took three tries to get it to me. It was worth insisting -- the shrimp were fresh, butterflied, and they came out slightly undercooked, still a bit translucent, just perfect! The addition of tomatoes was different from Chinese friend rice, and it was great, too. I also loved the simple garnishes -- a strand of carrot and of beets, twirled lightly onto the place, and carrots cut into flowers, string beans cooked just right. And who doesn't love baby corn??

We also ordered the Basil Fish, which is served in the translucent red chili sauce, made with Thai green chilies, vinegar and a bit of sugar. The fish is deep fried and finished with a topping that is a combination of deep-fried spices and herbs, including tiny red chilis and Thai basil. The waiter said, "Today's fish is red snapper, is that okay?" as if it might not be ... It was crunchy, succulent and sauced perfectly. We ate that with some of the aforementioned peanut satay sauce, too. The broccoli was good in the satay sauce!

We took the leftovers with us and I made a curry-based broth with vegetables and put the leftover noodles and rice in the bottom of the bowl and enjoyed another meal. My sore throat and congestion were gone, and more's the pity, since now I have to wait till after Lent to imbibe again. I do think this place will be my new rainy day soup place. It's a little far, but if I have to walk that far, I get to eat more curry noodles to compensate, right?

What's more, the total bill for all this food with enough leftovers for another meal was under $60 including tip, even before they applied the 10% discount for the "inconvenience" with my friend rice. Gotta love it, and I do!


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