Since moving to New York, I’ve had the feeling that Thai food in this town lags behind its California counterparts. On average, I’d still bet that this statement is empirically true. In the Bay Area, I can get a very decent Thai curry or noodle dish, full in flavor, replete with fresh California produce and sold at very decent prices, most anywhere I turn. The average Thai dish in Manhattan and Brooklyn is watered down and overpriced. There are gems here and there, and sometimes a crappy plate of pad see-ew does the trick no matter how off-key it lands, but I tend to hold my cravings for Thai food at bay until I can catch the northbound R train. As David Farris once quipped, “You may not be able walk down any street in Manhattan and find a decent Thai meal, but you can walk down the right street in Queens and find Thai food better than any I’ve had in California.”
Chalk up another victory for New York’s most savory borough. It turns out that the right street is Queen’s Broadway, which leads into the heart of Elmhurst, an ethnically dizzying locale whose diversity stretches the taste buds just as much as it does the social fabric. I’ve hopped off the train several times to sweat my way through a bowl of laksa at Taste Good, but until recently I had never realized that another gem of the neighborhood stands right next to the subway entrance, like a gatekeeper of flavor.
My first visit to Ploy Thai (“Ploy” translates to “gem”) took place under the auspices of Jeffrey‘s Thai Ambassador event. Ruen Tira, one of the many sages of culinary culture I’ve been lucky to learn from in the Ambassador program, wrote her graduate thesis on the history of Thai food and was happy to walk us through the background and the practice of a Thai meal. To that end, she punctuated her synopses of origins and flavors with hands-on demonstrations of how she would eat the dish. Squeezing a clump of sticky rice into a ball, she informed us that using sticky rice as a hand-held vessel for meats and sauces is a custom practiced in Thailand’s Issan (northeast) region.
Since dining with Ruen, I’ve been back to Ploy Thai a few more times to soothe the Thai food itch, and I have never walked away disappointed. Queens, is there anything you don’t eat?
Ploy’s Longan drink, on offer only as a summer season special, infuses the tropical sweetness of the lychee-like fruit into what tastes like barley tea. I doubt there’s actually barley in the mix, but it’s a refreshingly malty and fruity drink that avoids the creamy sweetness of Thai iced tea and iced coffee. I’m tempted to buy a gallon of this stuff next summer and steep black leaves in it to put the immigrant song into American sweet tea.
Ploy Thai’s daily specials are not always offered with an English translation, so it’s a good idea to ask about them before placing any order. Miang kana, a potpourri of dried pork, peanuts, fresh ginger, red onion, Thai chiles and lime chunks (rind-on) bundled in a Chinese broccoli leaf, is now a bit of a buzzword, thanks to the efforts of Jeffrey and Veronica. As part of the Asian Feastival recruitment team, they and Ruen brought Ploy Thai to the Queens-centric event to serve Miang Kham, which wraps the same mixture in betel leaf.
The restaurant itself only offers miang kana, but either option is a must-try. Like Laos-inspired nam kao, this crossbreed of snack, salad and appetizer sends ripples of flavor in every direction. Dishes like this have convinced me that when it comes to shock-and-awe for the taste buds, no one beats Southeast Asia.
Everyone seems to have a different flagship dish in mind for judging the skills of a Thai cook. I’ve never put pad kraprow (crispy pork with basil) on that list, but Ploy Thai’s rendition is outstanding. Nicely seared surface, good balance of spicy, savory and meaty, and enough of sauteed basil to give every bite a slightly aromatic quality.
Pad ke mao and chicken larb, two of my Thai stand-bys, also pass with flying colors. A clean texture makes both dishes fresh, flavorful and satisfying without the abdominal regret that too often comes with a plate of greasy pan-fried egg noodles or a pile of ground meat to go.
Every time I make it to a Thai restaurant with four or more people, whole fried fish becomes a priority, but it’s rarely the standout of the meal. That said, this particular fried fish with mango salad is a delightful addition to these crisp-on-the-outside, flaky-and-moist-on-the-inside memories, but it is far from the pinnacle of cooking at Ploy Thai.
If that award were mine to grant, I’d hand it to Jungle Curry, the purest pulsar of flavor I’ve sampled at Ploy Thai. Apparently, this northern curry isn’t necessarily a spicy dish; in fact, its biggest distinction is the bright, punchy taste that comes with green peppercorns, kaffir lime and shrimp paste — not to mention a complete lack of coconut milk.
At Ploy Thai, the option of ordering this bowl “Thai Style” is too enticing to resist. So spicy that my nose begins to run as soon as I smell the fumes of heat radiating from its surface, Jungle Curry on high is nothing short of a challenge for even seasoned and adventurous eaters. Matching tidal waves of spicy and savory illustrates the great mystery of how Thai food manages to crank up the intensity level on every square millimeter of the tongue without losing its sense of purpose, and I’m left to scratch my head in a puddle of my own sweat.
Ordering jungle curry on medium grips a respectable notch on the Scoville scale while allowing the palate more time to enjoy the less brutal aspects of Ploy Thai’s cooking. Generous cuts of green bean, bamboo and eggplant make for a texturally robust dish and accent the curry’s fruity, herbal character, helping make this an accessible yet adventurous foray into regional Thai cuisine.
I jumped at the chance to eat at Ploy Thai because I had been disappointed in New York’s Thai offerings. Not only have my meals above the Elmhurst stop eased that pain, they’ve reminded me of how little I know about most food – the most tasteful outcome possible. It’s hard to walk the talk of authenticity in every context, and sometimes I just want the most consistently comforting rendition of any dish. Ploy Thai gives New York the best of both worlds, whether or not an ambassador will be there to shepherd hungry travelers across the border.
Elmhurst, NY 11373