The Queens neighborhood of Elmhurst is where you go when you want a Thai restaurant that will lead you to the dance floor and push you into dips and twirls that the places in Manhattan haven’t learned yet. You go there for Lamoon’s mango salad dotted with ant eggs, and Ayada’s chile- and garlic-laden raw shrimp.
At first the four-month-old restaurant Thai Cook doesn’t seem to fit that description, although it sits across Broadway from the cluster of restaurants that contains Lamoon.
“Manhattan Thai food,” a Jackson Heights friend pronounced soon after the first dishes arrived.
This was premature, and she took it back once we’d tried the hot dog salad.
Hot dog salad is not the dish’s Thai name, of course. Yum is the word for salad, which in the central part of Thailand means red onions or shallots, cilantro, fresh chiles and so on (the ones at Thai Cook have chrysanthemum greens), dressed with lime juice and fish sauce. This particular yum was yum sai krok, translated as “sausage salad.”
The sausage in question was skinny, pink and a little salty, like a hot dog, although it is in fact made by a Vietnamese butcher in California. I think it may be the saltiness that makes Thai Cook’s sausage salad so compelling, although I wouldn’t discount the fresh red and green bird’s-eye chiles that had been lightly smashed so that even if you avoided eating a whole one you couldn’t avoid eating some of its fiery shrapnel. In any case, the hot dog salad was enough to change my friend’s mind about Thai Cook. As for me, I already knew the place was anything but ordinary.
It’s true that the menu shares things in common with garden-variety Thai restaurants around Manhattan and, for that matter, many other American cities. There are, first of all, the yums, although not every takeout Thai menu will offer a yum made with pork liver, or with a translucent sphere of preserved egg yolk, or with another kind of sausage called moo yor that is wide and pale, more boudin blanc than frankfurter. And it’s reasonably certain that Thai Cook is the only restaurant in the city where you can order “Yum What the Heck,” a riotous assembly of all the preceding ingredients plus squid, steamed mussels and the uncooked claws of blue crabs.
The yums and some other features of Thai Cook’s menu look familiar because the restaurant’s chef, Boonnum Thongngoen, makes dishes from Bangkok. (She grew up outside the city, where her mother was a cook for the Royal Thai Navy and her husband was a partner in several restaurants.)
Bangkok supplied most of the recipes for the first wave of Thai restaurants in the United States, and for some New Yorkers, Bangkok-style cuisine is still synonymous with Thai food. For others, it refers to dishes that have been degraded by careless cooking, grown dull through excessive familiarity, and been turned into old news by the chile-pummeled larbs of Isan, the fragrant khao soi of Chiang Mai, and other specialties that chefs from parts of Thailand far from Bangkok have brought to New York, and to Elmhurst in particular.
There are reasons the food of central Thailand has spread so widely, though, and you’ll remember them when you are in Ms. Thongngoen’s hands. She runs a restaurant in Brooklyn that has a more expansive menu, Am Thai Bistro, but at Thai Cook she restricts herself to Bangkok street food. She almost has to, because of the limitations of her kitchen. Along with the rest of the Thai Cook operation, it has been carved out of the dining room of another restaurant.
The front door on the left leads to a Chinese hot-pot place called iCook Buffet. The one on the right takes you to Thai Cook, after you walk down a long hall where toy models of tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled taxis of Bangkok, dangle at the end of rainbow-colored Slinkys. Between the restaurants are waist-high partitions and a few tied-back curtains. No wall separates the diners who are dunking enoki mushrooms into boiling chicken broth from the ones spooning out panang curry.
Ms. Thongngoen and two or three other cooks are out in the open, too, lined up behind a counter that might have been a service bar in a former incarnation of the space. On the left are two tall wood mortar-and-pestle sets. This is where Ms. Thongngoen stands, shredding papayas and cucumbers with an imposing knife, then hammering them with a small bat she holds in her left hand, mixing in chiles, peanuts, bean sprouts and lime hulls, scraping down the sides with a metal spoon in her right hand as she goes.
Bangkok papaya salads do not come at you with a fire hose of heat, like the northern Thai tom yums you’ll get at nearby restaurants. But you will notice the chiles, as you’ll notice the saltiness and sharpness, the way you will when a tom yum has been smashed with care.
Slide along the counter of this skeletal kitchen to the right end, and you’ll find a couple of induction burners. One of Ms. Thongngoen’s deputies, stationed there, prepares the desserts, like soft taro, or pumpkin cubes in warm coconut milk that has more than a trace of salt. She also makes cool emerald-green pearls of pandan tapioca and coconut-milk shaved ice, infused with enough jasmine to affect your dreams; cantaloupe balls and white sheets of fresh young coconut are dropped on top.
What’s missing from this mise en place? Quite a lot, including the gas burners, woks and deep-fryers that Thai Cook would need to make spring rolls or fried tofu. For appetizers, there are slippery, thickish sheets of steamed tapioca and rice flours — “fresh crepe” on the menu — folded over chopped pressed tofu with chives and splashed with a soy dressing. Or, less interestingly, something called “steamed fish,” which is what it sounds like, with the addition of fried pork skin.
But Ms. Thongngoen uses a behind-the-scenes burner to simmer the base for her excellent noodle soups. She also cooks pork or beef into an excellent panang curry, a little thicker than usual, which may be why she calls it “home style.” Whole chiles are scattered over the top but, unless you eat one, they won’t take over the coconut-milk sauce; the dominant aromatic is lime leaf, sliced into threads. Other curries are worthwhile, but the only one that’s as compelling is the clear, sour one called kaeng chuk som in Thai; it is particularly delicious when she makes it with very fresh grouper.
The clay-pot noodles, full of pepper and fresh ginger, are nicely done, too, particularly the one made with crab. When it arrives, take the shot glass that comes on the side and pour it over the noodles. It contains a rough, green sauce, like a salsa verde but with the ingredients you think of when you think of Thailand: minced garlic and shallots, fresh chiles cilantro, culantro, lime leaf, fish sauce and lime juice. Ms. Thongngoen calls it millionaire sauce. “I named it after my husband,” she said.
Is he a millionaire? She laughed. In fact, she said, he lost “almost a million” in the restaurant business in Thailand, but when it was over he still had his family’s recipe for the sauce.
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Source: Thanks https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/dining/thai-cook-review-pete-wells.html