Monday, July 18, 2005

Restaurant 53: Sripraphai

RESTAURANT: Sripraphai
LOCATION: 64-13 39th Ave. (Queens) Between 64th and 65th Sts
DATE: July 10, 2005
FOOD: Split the following: Crispy Watercress Salad with Chicken, Shrimp, and Squid; Pork Drunken Noodles; Sweet Sausage; String Beans with spicy sauce and shrimp; Fried Fishcakes
BEVERAGE: Split a bottle of Lychee Wine from Thailand
COST: $33.00

Don’t let the auto repair shop veneer fool you. You’re in the right place. This is the veritable home away from home for Thai food in this or any other part of the United States. Trust in the fact that your trip on the 7 train was worth the schlep. This is Sripraphai and if Thai food pleases you in even the faintest degree, you’re in for an amazing night.

A few things to remember before your meal and a few things to make sure you bring along for the feast:
1. A huge appetite – At Sripraphai, they don’t mess around. The portions are generous and the spiciness of the food makes a meal incredibly filling.
2. An open mind – Sure you’ve never had fried watercress elsewhere, but this salad, along with a litany of other unique dishes are why Sripraphai is as renowned as it is. Whatever you do, don’t order the Pad Thai.
3. A penchant for heat – When the waiter or waitress asks you how hot you want your dishes, be careful, but don’t be cautious. After all, Thai food is as influenced by peppers as Washington is by corporate interests. Be bold, just don’t be stupid and take on more than you can handle.
4. A friend…or many of them – You want to be able to split things in order to try as much as possible
5. Patience - If it’s later than 6 pm, there’s probably going to be a line, regardless of the night.

The menu is as extensive as Swann’s Way, but unlike Proust, it comes with pictures to give non-Thai diners a clue as to what to order. The list of exotic and challenging salads at Sripraphai are perhaps the most enticing category and it would be near impossible for even the most savvy and seasoned eater to not find some item previously unknown to his or her palate. On a previous visit, I ordered the Papaya salad, but was unprepared for the level of heat it packed. After a single bite, I consumed an entire glass of water. The salad was delicious, but too much for my still evolving Westernized tastebuds. Thus, on this later visit, I opted instead for the sublime and hair-raising fried watercress salad. Without Sripraphai, who would know such wondrous combinations existed? The watercress, apparently ignorant of the fact that it is a green and has no business being fried, is lightly battered and then cooked to a deep-fried perfection. If all salad greens came with the same crunchy tempura coating, kids would be begging, demanding in fact, that there parents serve salad every night. The fried watercress is rounded out by dry cashews, adding another notch of mild saltiness and delightfully chewy chicken, shrimp and squid. The trio of meats mimic the resistance of raw vegetables, seemingly inverting all notions of the conventional salad. That the salad’s spice creeps up on you with the stealth of a CIA operative not-outed by Karl Rove, is what completes the fullness, the utterly satisfying and tremendous nature of this dish.

But that’s just the beginning. Fried fishcakes, as red as bricks, are an ease-into-Thai appetizer for everyone. Though slightly rubbery, the flavor of the cakes is as fresh as the Fulton St. seafood market and a peanut vinaigrette with the intensity of a Joe Louis fist will leave your sinuses clear for days to come. Thus, with heat running around as unfettered as a lawyer at an accident, the sweet sausages were a needed mild and calming influence. As thinly sliced as the Thai basil leaves that they shared the plate with, the sausages powered through with a complexity of onion, garlic, and pork fat flavors, not unlike the more common Italian sweet sausage.

The sausage wasn’t the only cross-cultural similarity. Sripraphai’s drunken noodles are legendary. Brushed with the rich green of Thai basil, the noodles themselves are sautéed and silky. Whereas other Thai restaurants have a propensity to make these noodles as oily as a worn out shamy, Sripraphai’s are layered with meticulously portioned amounts of oil that cause no complaints of greasiness. Previously, I tried the noodles with chicken. Though the chicken version left me speechless, the pork Danny and I ordered this time was unbelievably better. The pork’s inherent fatty composition furthered the gluttonous intention of the entire dish. The only negative of the entire meal was the overly hot string beans and shrimp. Sriphraphai’s spiciness has a sophistication seldom experienced elsewhere. It’s a heat that evolves over the course of the meal. The flavors are complex and tiered, a bite promising to supply as many stages as an old-school Nintendo Mario Brothers game. The beans, however, were just hot, and didn’t layer in the same way as the drunken noodles and watercress salad. Anywhere else, the beans would have been more than expected. But at Sripraphai, they became ordinary.

One final novelty was the Lychee wine, decidely different from normal grape wine, but worht ordering all the same. Not as sweet as Longan Juice, it cooled the mouth nicely after the scalding of the peppers.

Departing, you’ll realize there’s a reason the storefront is as innocuous as it is. At Sripraphai, the attention is on the food and the food alone. As long as teleporting stays an impossibility, Sripraphai remains the best way to get to Thailand without laboring in the sultry weight of Bangkok humidity. But Sripraphai has brought the heat to this side of the Pacific. And New York is that much the better for it.

RATING: 9.5/10

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