Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Sparticus, Jools, MostlyIrish, Diana, Laddie
As with most cuisines, once you've had the "real deal" then simulations and adaptations just won't cut it. Some of us who have lived in Thailand (and not just in Bangkok) missed the food that one can buy so cheaply and easily at roadside hawker stands or mom-and-pop shacks. The sense of taste and texture is not something that can apparently be reproduced outside of the country which used to be called Siam. Even in Manhattan, that beacon of over-the-top AND authentic food experiences, has not successfully housed an authentic Thai eatery. Many Thai ex-pats and those who love Thailand have lamented this, and are propelled to try one place or another, trying to speak the language to the staff to judge of authenticity might be attainable in each restaurant.
Sripraphai is the authentic place Thai folks and ex-Thailand inhabitants crave. They have been in business for years, and due to Zagat's and New York Times reviews, they have so much business that they doubled their size, added a "deck" behind the place, and spruced it up. The service is as patchy as ever, but the servers wear East Village style black t-shirts and black jeans with baseball caps, so they're tidy and uniform even if they are abrupt and not so good at their jobs. The energy of the place is a high-buzz, but you don't feel like you're being rushed. That is, unless you show up for dinner after 9pm! The kitchen closes at 10pm, but last orders are 9:15pm, then the staff makes it very clear they want to go home. There is only street parking, which is hit and miss (well, hopefully not hit!).
It sounds ridiculous and one might be incredulous, but the food makes it really worthwhile. We tried so many things over the many times we've taken each other and Thai-aficionados to this unobtrusive place. The reaction is universally positive, and people who don't live nearby actually request that we meet up in the wilds of Queens to partake! That's really saying something about the food.
What makes it so special? I mean, there are other places which can get the ingredients and stuff, but they tend to lack something. Many Thai places resort to using MSG and prepared sauces, which in moderation probably won't hurt you too badly. All Thai cooks tout the "salt, sweet, sour, spicy" balances, and undoubtedly tweaking it one direction or another makes a big difference, even if it's an almost undetectable difference. The cooks at Sripraphai have an excellent balance, and they also have one foot firmly planted in tradition so that everyone who eats theres feels immediately nostalgic.
We guess its like the famous lament of New Yorkers, who bitterly complain that they cannot find a decent slice of pizza outside of the five boroughs. Thai food groupies have done the same about their vittles, but they can just be quiet now.
We admit, there seem to be so many among us who are expats and aficionados that we generally leave the ordering to whoever misses Thai food the most at that moment. Even so, favorites have become prevalent: fried soft-shell crab with a mango salad; tam yam with vegetarian duck; noodle curry with tofu; drunken noodles with tiny fried tofu bits; chicken satay with a wondrous peanut sauce; laap; papaya salad; coconut rice; paad thai ... Okay, so the list does go on! Everything from omelets to to three-pork soup to red curry with eggs are good, you can't go wrong. And we've discovered that we always overeat because we don't have enough people for the number of "must have" dishes. So the moral of the story is expect to take some home (which is a pity it's too wonderful in situ) or have at least four big eaters on hand.
They have a menu which is a photo album of everything they serve, so you don't have to ask what that quizzically named item might be on the regular menu. They also do a good Thai iced tea and iced coffee, made with instant powder and canned milk. A fried banana dessert is recommended, but they've never had it when we've been here. When asking the proprietress why, she replied, "Those take up too much stove." So it appears you can only get that if the restaurant is slow, which it just never ain't. They do have a palm seed (a jelly-like, sort of harder mochi-ish translucent thing) served with sweetened coconut cream over sweet rice. There is a little lump of coconut ice cream over that and it's sprinkled over with peanuts, and it's very good.
There is a little market of Thai comestibles and foods in front, in a refrigerator case which once housed soft drinks, and on a set of shelves one might find in any garage. They sometimes have fried bananas here, but that's only a rumor; we've never seen any. They also have pork jerkey (good as a condiment instead of bacon), all manner of pastries, desserts, candies, and sometimes noodles.
Yeah, you can try to make this stuff at home, and we have, but it doesn't work. Look, if this is like the only Thai restaurant in this big city that Thai groupies clamor for, then you have to conclude that you can't reproduce it either. But you don't have to, as the food here is inexpensive. We do tend to overorder, but the tab rarely runs over $20 per person, including drinks, etc. and we are lolling-around-full and we generally skip any other meals that day! And sometimes the next day, too!
There are some quirks that have nothing to do with Thai culture. Like, they are closed on Wednesdays. We don't know why. But they are; every time we try to go there on a Wednesday, it's closed and dark. The lonely street is even emptier on Wednesdays. But any other day, expect a lively crowd and if you come at a conventional dinner or lunch hour, expect a line. This place does not take reservations, no matter how big or important your party is. But as repeat customers, the servers seem to remember us and treat us nicely when we come in the door. Also, their front is really really unassuming. It looks like a really plain laundrette from the sign and closed blinds, to be truthful. But once you get inside, the perception will totally change. And, you might want to consider ordering your dessert at the start of the meal, in case things do run out.
Remember, the service is patchy and disinterested, but that's a small price to pay for such superlative food. They are, for the most part, non-English speaking (though some will try). If you speak any Thai, they will smile and even giggle. (Darn that one of us only knows the Chinese for "Thank you." Will have to learn this in Thai!)
It's simply our favorite Thai restaurant in this hemisphere. Well, anywhere outside of Thailand ... and some have even commented that Sripraphai beats even those hawker stands in Bangkok and Chiangmai, too!
By the way, it's pronounced "SEE-PAH-FYE" and no, we don't know where the Rs went. This is a common phenomenon in Thai pronunciation ... and the Rs don't seem to represent a withheld or extended sound like a double-vowel might in Japanese ... Don't ask, just go there for the food!
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