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