09/06/21 1:00pm

Like many a good eater, I’m a fan of crispy pork belly. Here in Queens, Colombian chicharron and Filipino lechon kawali abound. And in my little corner of the World’s Borough—Elmhurst’s Thai Town there’s moo krob—Thai style crispy pork.

At its best, it is shatteringly crisp, and last night I was quite pleased to have the best version I have ever eaten at Sabay Thai Cuisine. Run by Chef Busaya Jeamjenkarn, Sabay is a sleeper of a restaurant, better known in the local Thai community than by foodies. It boasts a vast menu, including lots of Isan specialties. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’d never set foot in the place until I moved into the neighborhood last summer.

Until recently those Northeastern dishes like Isan style beef tartare and an excellent, well-balanced pad Thai were the sum total of my experience with Sabay’s menu. The other night I had a hankering for Thai style crispy pork though. “Is it really crispy?” I asked before ordering, since there’s little worse than soggy fried pork belly.

I opted for moo krob kra pow, a preparation made with a spicy Thai basil sauce. Soon a plate piled with golden brown pieces of pork belly along with blistered bits of skin all shot through with basil, chilies, garlic and onions appeared. I could hardly wait to eat it! I snuck a piece of crunchy skin to munch on before taking the requisite photo.

Ordered medium spicy, Sabay’s moo krob kra pow still packed respectable heat thanks to a trifecta of dried chilies, fresh Thai birdseyes, and long green hots. Typically I like to add a few spoonfuls of chilies in fish sauce, but not this time.

“You are making me hungry,” Chef Busaya said as she heard me happily crunching away on her creation. “How do you get it so crunchy?” I asked. “Do you pour hot oil on it?” “No we just boil and then let it marinate in vinegar and lime overnight,” she responded. “And then we bake it the next day. It’s easy.”

I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect that Chef Busaya’s moo krob recipe is slightly more complex than she makes it out to be. I’m absolutely certain that I will be eating much more of her crispy pork in the near future though.

Sabay Thai Cuisine, 75-19 Broadway, Elmhurst, (718) 424-9054

08/22/21 10:17pm
Gai yang, corn salad, and pork tongue made for a great late summer meal.

One of the best things about living in the heart of Elmhurst’s Thai town is that I have a front row seat to all the goings on in New York City’s hotbed of Thai culinary culture from the bad—like the closing of northern Thai stalwart Lamoon—to the good surprises like fresh durian at Thai Thai Grocery and new restaurants like Eat Gai, the Elmhurst outpost of the critically acclaimed Essex Market khao man gai specialist.

I’ve been eagerly watching the development of the Eat Gai space, which used to be Indonesian restaurant Upi Jaya, for months. I’m pretty sure owner Bryan Chunton and his partners got tired of me and every other neighbor stopping by to ask “You open yet?” Well, this Saturday as tropical storm Henri sidled into town Eat Gai opened its doors for a soft opening dinner. As a rule I don’t write about restaurants when they are in soft opening mode, but I made an exception, especially since I was eager to try what Chunton had described to me as Thai style rotisserie chicken. I’m a big fan of pollo a la brasa—whether Colombian or Peruvian—but I’d never had Thai style rotisserie chicken.

I found the specialty of the house gai yang or “roast chicken” just below and to the left of the menu’s tag line “Thai Chicken Specialist.” I opted for a half bird ($16.95), rounding it out with a Thai corn salad ($9.95) and roasted pork tongue ($7.95). The bird itself was fragrant, juicy, and tender. Chunton told me the restaurant uses smaller birds because they’re tastier. Something about really good roast chicken always makes me want to eat like a caveman and Eat Gai’s version was no exception.

The bird is served with two variations on jaew sauce, one is only slightly spicy the emphasis on tamarind, the other fairly vibrates with salt, chili, and lime leaf. I prefer the spicier version, but really chicken this good needs no adornment. The corn salad, a summery take on tom yum, rounded everything out making for a great meal on a rainy night.

Chunton was kind enough to introduce me to his chef, Mukda Sakulclanuwat, who hails from the town of Mukdan in Thailand’s Isan region. She shared a few of the secrets of her glorious chicken with me. For one thing she marinates it for two days in a mixture of lemongrass, cilantro, garlic, and coconut milk, rendering it tender and fragrant.

“I grew up with this food in my neighborhood in Isan,” she recalled. “Every day I helped my friend make this. After we would finish here Mom would let us go play.”

When asked whether she brushed it with anything while it was cooking, she thought for few beats and said, “Oh yes pork fat.” And that folks is why I always seek a specialist when it comes to street food.

Eat Gai, 76-04 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst

10/05/20 11:20pm

Spicy and herbaceous, a contender for Elmhurst’s best chicken feet.

Pata Market, located in the heart of Elmhurst’s Thai Town is many things to many people: a community bulletin board for those seeking apartments and jobs; a source for Thai snacks, including Lays chips; and a place to score bespoke tom yum and prepared foods.

A month ago I moved into the neighborhood and now I find myself at Pata Market more and more, which is how I found the subject of today’s post. When I saw the container marked kanom jeen nam ya pa on the counter whose ingredients included rice noodle and chicken feet, I was wondering where the noodles were, but my friend behind the counter pointed out another takeout container filled with noodles and all manner of herbs. (more…)

08/16/20 10:03pm

I’m not sure whether the catfish pad prik khing from iCook Thai Cook falls under what’s sometimes referred to as Thai Royal Cuisine. What I do know is I can’t resist a punny headline. Nor can I resist Boonnum “Nam” Thongngoen’s vibrant Thai cooking. So I was very happy to hear her Elmhurst restaurant, which shares a space with the hotpot restaurant iCook, reopened on Friday for outdoor dining.

Like a lot of things these days, P’Nam’s menu has adapted. The major change is the addition of a half dozen $15 set menu items that I call Thai happy meals, each served with soup and rice. That’s where I found catfish pad prik khing.

“I have order envy,” my dining companion said eying the translucent fried basil leaves and curlicue of green peppercorns adorning the ruddy catfish. It tastes even better than it looks, thanks to the curry paste that hums with the warmth of chili and ginger and the perfume of galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves. The fried catfish is lovely, and, like the paste itself, unabashedly spicy. So I was glad for the rice as well as a mellow bowl of kai pa lo, egg and tofu in a sweet five spice broth.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in addition to offering extra rice, the waiter encouraged me to finish my soup. Welcome back P’Nam and company!

iCook Thai Cook, 81-17 Broadway, Elmhurst, 929-522-0886

04/16/20 8:59pm

“It’s all gone. You should call ahead next time and pre-order,” my friend Elvi at Indo Java Groceries said the other day when she read the disappointment on my face. It was scarcely 1 p.m. and they were all out of the soup I’d planned to have for lunch.

I’d learned about the soup—whose name is lost in a fog of COVID anxiety—from looking at the store’s Instagram page, which I dutifully checked last night to reserve a plate of lontong cap go meh. Longtong, a pressed rice cake is often eaten with satay and in a spicy soup, but I’d never had this version. Chef Rebecca of Mamika’s Homemade Cuisine told me lontong cap go meh is a Central Javan specialty eaten on the 15th day of Lunar New Year.

It was sold as a kit of sorts at the shop. One compartment of the plastic takeout box was filled with chewy lontong topped with the ground soy bean that Rebecca characterizes as “a must,” and other devoted to a giant bag filled with a broth of chayote cooked in a chili-laced coconut milk broth. The last compartment was occupied by opor ayam—chicken cooked with onion, garlic, coriander powder, turmeric and coconut milk—and sambal goreng ati ampela, spicy chicken livers and gizzards. All in all it made for a very satisfying late lunch.

Like Fefe Ang of Taste of Surabaya, Rebecca is helping to feed workers at local hospitals. And like Fefe she delivers, just send a DM to her Instagram account. So even if you can’t make it to Indo Java, you can have a taste of Indonesia come to you. But if you can, you might want to stop by on Saturday’s when the market is stocked with all sorts of dishes trucked in from Philadelphia. Talk about brotherly love.

Indo Java Groceries, 85-12 Queens Blvd, Elmhurst, 718-789-2241

03/08/20 11:10am

A weekend special of xian da xia chow fun at Elmhurst’s Little House Cafe.

Little House Cafe, a gem of a Malaysian restaurant masquerading as a Chinese bakery, is one of my all-time favorite spots in Queens. Located on a stretch of Corona Avenue in Elmhurst that features several Chinese businesses it’s always a stop on my Elmhurst food tours, usually for the amazing chow kueh teow. The tangle of stir fried noodles shot through with all sorts of goodies—shrimp, squid, and fish cake to name a few—arrives at the table alive with the energy, flavor, and color of wok hei.

When I find myself in the neighborhood solo, I pop in to see what’s on the rotating menu of weekend specials. Which is exactly how I came to be eating a $12 plate of salted egg prawn chow fun for breakfast yesterday. Actually I suppose breakfast was the Malaysian style brown sugar cake and iced coffee that I sipped while waiting for my noodles. (more…)

01/22/20 12:09pm

Behold my new lamb rib crush.

It’s early days in 2020, but I’m confident to go on record that the Kashmiri lamb ribs that Chef Chintan Pandya just put on the menu at Adda Indian Canteen in Long Island City are the best lamb dish I’ve eaten this year. I am of course partial to the musky meatiness of lamb ribs, and still bemoan the loss of Peng Shun’s cumin-encrusted Muslim lamb chop.

There’s something about the combination of cumin, chili, and musky lamb that’s just perfect and Pandya’s lamb ribs are no exception. The two meaty specimens—available for $23 only at dinner—are stained red from a spice blend that includes cumin; red chili powder; and amchur, or dried mango powder. The combination of crunchy spice crusted mantle and tender meat is mindblowing. I gladly ate them as is, but the mint chutney did provide a nice cooling counterpoint.

“It is a very simple process to cook it’s just time consuming,” Pandya modestly says of his new creation. Part of that time is a leisurely simmer in a secret elixir for six or seven hours. Pandya says the inspiration for the dish is a Kashmiri classic called tabak maaz, where the lamb is first cooked in milk and then browned in butter.

“I don’t call it tabak maaz, I call it Kashmiri lamb ribs,” Pandya says because his cooking method is different. No matter, I call it delicious.

Adda Indian Canteen, 31-31 Thomson Ave., Long Island City, 718-433-3888

12/16/19 12:39pm

Tibetan stir fried beef with laphing conjures childhood memories of chow fun on Mott Street.

“The pork and mushroom was pretty good,” my friend Chef Jonathan Forgash said as we were deciding what to eat at Phayul, a Tibetan restaurant in Jackson Heights. We were at the new location, which sits across from the original second-floor location. For whatever reason they’re keeping them both open, which strange as it may seem businesswise, does means twice as much of Chef Chime Tendha’s delicious Tibetan food.

The menu at Phayul’s new, more elegant digs has several new items, including chicken tangkung, a soup of ginseng and jujubes that is Tibet’s answer to Korean samgyetang. We got the soup that evening, but didn’t order the pork and mushroom, instead opting for stir fried laphing with beef. Both of us are big fans of the slippery mung bean noodles, usually served cold in a sauce of vinegar and garlic, but had never had the hot version. (more…)

10/15/19 12:49pm

Beef sukuti chow mein comes with a sidecar of two-tone hot sauce.

The jhol momo—dumplings in a spicy soul-warming tomato and chicken broth—are so good at Nepali Bhanchha Ghar in Jackson Heights, that I often forget there are other things to eat at the homey spot whose name means Nepali eating house.

For a long time those other things consisted of sukuti thali—a platter bearing a mound of rice and funky goat jerky—ringed by various tiny heaps of pickles, including bitter melon and radish, and a bowl of buttery lentil daal. That and the rice and ghee doughnuts known as tsel roti.

Not onion rings, but rather tsel roti, a rice ‘doughnut’ that treads the line betwixt savory and sweet.

The other day though I found myself at Yamuna “Bimla” Shrestha’s restaurant craving noodles. I’d often seen the cooks frying up batches of chow mein, but ignored that part of the menu due to jhol momo monomania. (more…)

10/02/19 10:11am

Tong, a tiny festive Bangladeshi food stand, in Jackson Heights has the honor of being America’s first fuchka cart. This post is not about those amazing crunchy orbs though, it’s about aam bhorta, or Bangla style spicy mango.

For some 30 years I’ve been a fan of spicy South Asian pickle. It all dates back to a college roommate, Harold, who was the ringleader in many a Patak’s lemon pickle eating contest. Since then I’ve branched out to mango pickle. I’m especially fond of amba—the tangy Middle Eastern mix of pickled mango and turmeric—on my falafel. So when I learned Tong offered spicy mango, I had to try it. (more…)