Sripraphai's Incomparable Thai

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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.

It's 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.

Sripraphai 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?

There's 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.

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

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