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At PuTawn, Tasty Thai Is Just a Subway Ride Away

January 1 of this year was a big day for New York, and especially for anyone who lives or works on the Upper East Side. It was the start of a new era, an era heralded by a sight rarely seen: people joyfully waiting in line for the privilege of entering the subway. Yes, the opening of the Second Avenue line was a wondrous thing, and not just for those who now find their commutes significantly shorter or less crowded. It’s worth the ride just to emerge at one of those three crisp new stations, but even better to surface within easy reach of restaurants that used to require trekking two long blocks or more. And though the neighborhood may not teem with hot new joints (at least not yet), it does have its fair share of good ones, including PuTawn Local Thai Kitchen, an unassuming newcomer with a noteworthy background and an equally noteworthy menu.

PuTawn’s chef, Therdthus “Tony” Rittaprom, who owns the restaurant with partner Chanchai Khampinchai, was previously the chef at Zabb Elee, the popular Jackson Heights restaurant specializing in the foods of Isan, or northeastern Thailand. The original Zabb Elee closed back in June after nearly a decade (a sibling outpost is still open in the East Village), but not before receiving much critical acclaim and, during Rittaprom’s tenure, a Michelin star in the 2015 guide. It’s one of only four Queens restaurants — and one of just two Thai restaurants — to attain the ranking.

PuTawn is a cozy neighborhood eatery too closely resembling a standard takeout spot to earn a Michelin. But after only three months in business, it’s already cultivated a devoted roster of regulars. This is partially thanks to Pedcharad Rittaprom, the chef’s former wife, who oversees the dining room. Always dressed to the nines from a rotating wardrobe of traditional Thai clothing, she and the other servers are warm and attentive, good at remembering faces. But it’s also thanks to the menu, which is broad but consistently well executed.

Chef Rittaprom, who grew up in the northeastern Roi Et province, serves some of the Isan fare that made Zabb Elee stand out: sweet, pungent som tum (papaya salads) and bright larbs (minced-meat salads) sluiced with fish sauce and lime juice. The basic som tum thai is sweeter than some but pleasantly balanced via a blitz of unforgiving bird’s-eye chile. Meanwhile the som tum mu sua, a pile of shredded green papaya, rice vermicelli, long beans, tomatoes, raw Thai eggplant, fresh shrimp, barbecue pork, and crisp pork rinds, is an irresistible jumble of acid and umami, crisp and tender.

The larbs — made with pork, beef, chicken, duck, or mushrooms — also lean a hair lighter and sweeter than other versions I’ve had. They’re good, but the nuer num tok, a salad of grilled sliced steak dressed with the same mix of fish sauce and lime juice plus onion, herbs, chile flakes, and toasted rice powder, is a bit heartier and more flavorful. And the best use of that larb sauce (as it’s called on the menu) appears among the list of “chef’s specials”: larb pla grob, a whole red snapper fried until the skin is crisp as a potato chip, piled with a tangle of red onion, cilantro, mint, and slivered kaffir lime leaves, then doused with the pungent dressing. The result is punchier and more texturally satisfying than the meat larbs, best eaten with your hands using a pinch of sticky rice to pluck the tender fish from the bones.

But the menu at PuTawn is not overwhelmingly Isan. It divides its attention evenly between sharp, fiery Isan flavors, comforting stir-fries, and warm, hearty dishes from the north (Chiang Mai and the surrounding area). Those stir-fries, served with a mound of rice and a fried egg, appear on tables as regularly as the core set of Thai takeout classics: pad thai, penang curry, pad see ew. They’re solid, and Khampinchai emphasizes that they’re cooked from scratch, not from premade sauces, which tend to be sweet and are often missing the salty funk of fish sauce. But I was more excited to see the section of the menu devoted to northern Thailand, a region still underrepresented in New York’s flourishing Thai food scene.

Rittaprom lived in the north for years, and tells the Voice that he imports many of his herbs and spices from there so that his dishes will taste the same. He makes his own sai ua, a coarsely ground pork sausage fragrant from kaffir lime and red curry. At PuTawn it’s grilled until it splits and the edges char, then sliced and served with red onion, fresh ginger, and peanuts — a great drinking snack, especially with a $4 Singha. There’s also larb moo kua, a wholly different take on minced-pork salad than the Isan version, which gets its flavor from warm curry spices, garlic, and scallions rather than fish sauce and lime. Gang hung lay, a rich, slightly sweet stew made with melting pieces of pork belly, curry, and ginger, is just the thing to order when a winter wind is whipping down First Avenue.

The universe of Manhattan Thai restaurants has greatly expanded in the past five years, to include trendy spots like Uncle Boon’s and Isan specialists like Somtum Der, so that PuTawn may never be the destination that Zabb Elee was. But it is a destination for the Upper East Side, and there’s no better time to visit than now. The new 86th Street–Second Avenue station has an entrance on 83rd, just a block from PuTawn. So you can go, take in the Chuck Close mosaics and that new-subway smell, then saunter east for a taste of Thailand’s northern regions from a seasoned cook.

PuTawn
1584 First Ave.
New York, NY 10028
T: 212-988-8800
www.putawn.com

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Thai Diva Takes the Stage in Sunnyside

By now, New Yorkers are no strangers to the flavors of northern Thailand, or to the notion that Thai food extends well beyond pad see ew and coconut curries. Dishes like larb (a spicy, herbal minced-meat salad) and funky, fishy papaya salad are in vogue thanks to a wave of Thai restaurants like Pok Pok,
Uncle Boons, Larb Ubol, Somtum Der, and Prospect Heights’ recent Queens transplant, Look by Plant Love House. Too bad, then, that the owners of Sunnyside joint Thai Diva relegate their excellent show “northern Thai–style” dishes to a separate single-sheet menu, which they aren’t yet in the habit of bringing to the table along with the heftier book of noodles, fried rice, curries, and other Thai takeout standards.

But do ask for it, because the entries on that menu are not only delicious but also distinct. Most of New York’s trendy northern-Thai restaurants focus on the foods of the northeastern Isan region, with just a few nods to the cuisines of Chiang Mai and the far north. But Thai Diva does a deep dive into the latter,
including some dishes not often found in New York.

Among them is a bamboo shoot “salad” that’s actually more of a stir-fry. The tangled pile of shoots, fibrous yet tender in a way that almost mimics meat, is sautéed in the restaurant’s nam prik noom, a mellow paste of charred green chiles and garlic, and comes with a side of pork rinds (as many offerings here do). It’s best eaten with sticky rice. And there’s tum kanoon, a stir-fry of young jackfruit (another great meat impersonator), red curry paste, and a little pork; shreds of kaffir lime leaves lend a floral citrus fragrance. The chile-garlic paste is also served on its own, salsa-like, with assorted vegetables and slices of boiled egg for dipping. Another version, nam prik ong — a hearty blend of ground pork, tomatoes, fermented shrimp and soybeans, and chile — is even better. (I couldn’t help but think it’d make stellar filling for a sloppy joe.)

Thai Diva’s owners, sisters Rattanaporn and Vasinee Jamtetaree, hail from Chiang Mai and learned to cook from their mother. Rattanaporn usually covers the front of the house, though she’ll sometimes steal back into the kitchen to oversee the less experienced cooks, who are still learning the repertoire of unwritten recipes. “I taste everything,” she tells the Voice, “and if it’s not right, I make them throw it out and do it again.” But Vasinee, she says, is the real chef of the two, and the specialist in northern cuisine.

Vasinee only cooks during the day on weekdays, but if you can’t make it then, sample her handiwork in some of the dishes she preps in advance. That includes sai ua, a tender pork sausage flavored with kaffir lime leaves and enough curry powder to stain it yellow, made in-house and nothing like the sour Isan
sausage more commonly found at northern Thai restaurants. Closer to Isan sausage is naem moo, a mix of sticky rice, ground pork, garlic, and pork skin wrapped in banana leaves and fermented for 48 hours before being grilled; the
result is startlingly, refreshingly tart.

Even the larb distinguishes itself: The restaurant’s larb muang, made from chopped chicken, beef, or pork, is drier than its lime-juice- and fish-sauce-sluiced Isan counterpart and comes tossed in a more complex blend of spices (including cumin and cinammon). The chicken version lets the herbs shine through, whereas pork offers meatier depth. And though it omits the traditional addition of pig’s blood, it does contain slivers of liver and springy skin. Like most of the menu, the larb comes spicy, but not blindingly so.

This is the sisters’ first restaurant (both previously worked at a spa in the city), and some growing pains are apparent. On a recent visit, Rattanaporn doubled as server and kitchen manager while also juggling takeout orders. Her sister, she explained, was in Thailand, stocking up on spices they’d had trouble finding in the States. As a result, service could be a little slow, and the food came out of the kitchen somewhat unpredictably. But the cooking didn’t seem to suffer for it, and Rattanaporn was unflaggingly cheerful as she fielded questions from curious diners and picky takeout customers alike. Now, if only Thai Diva knew how pleased so many New Yorkers would be to encounter their Chiang Mai–centric menu, and would remember to bring it to the table.

Thai Diva Cuisine
45-53 46th Street, Queens
929-259-8132
thaidivacuisine.com

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Best Weekend Food Events: Burgers, Wine on Wheels, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Dinner

Fleishers Craft Butchery Pop-Up
Northern Spy Food Co. (511 E 12th Street)
Friday through Sunday 

Fleishers Craft Butchery will host a burger-filled weekend in the old Northern Spy Food Co. space. Guests can grab three different kinds of burgers, including a classic hamburger, a 100 percent grass-fed burger, or a bacon, egg, and cheeseburger. The menu also includes beef-fat fries, kale salad, and drinks. Dishes range from $6 to $15. The pop-up will be open on Friday (5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.), Saturday (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.), and Sunday (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.).

Thai Restaurant Week
Multiple locations
Friday through Sunday

Take advantage of the final days of Thai Restaurant Week for Songkran (Thai New Year) with lunch and dinner deals. Participating locations — which offer a variety of special off-menu regional dishes — include the Williamsburg and Time Square locations of Qi, and Room Service. Select dishes include spicy papaya salad with crispy salmon, and Chiang Mai curry noodles. The full lineup of restaurants (and offerings) is on the Songrkan Thai Restaurant Week website.

Alice in Wonderland-Themed Dinner
Court Tree Collective (371 Court Street, Brooklyn)
Friday, 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Break out your best top hat or pinafore for an Alice in Wonderland-themed dinner ($77.87). Dishes include mock turtle soup, pork pie, and fried whiting. There will also be plenty of wine, cake, and — of course — tea. Don’t be late for this important date.

Wine on Wheels
City Winery (155 Varick Street)
Saturday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Wheeling Forward will host its annual Wine on Wheels event with Yannick Benjamin, where guests can enjoy a three-hour wine tasting featuring over 200 wines. More than sixty New York-based sommeliers will attend and help educate guests on varietals, with five seminars planned throughout the evening. Seminar topics include the art of the blind tasting, sake, and natural wines. Tickets start at $95 for the grand tasting. Reserve your spot here.

Brooklyn Mac and Cheese Takedown
Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club (514 Union Street, Brooklyn)
Sunday, 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Sample Brooklyn’s best mac and cheese recipes (or make your own for a chance to win culinary prizes) at this all-you-can-eat affair. Contestants must make two trays of an original mac and cheese recipe. Those interested in participating can find more information here. Tickets are $20 for all the mac and cheese you can stomach. Get yours here.

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Michelin’s Bib Gourmand Awards Elmhurst’s Chinese and Thai Restaurants

Last week, Michelin announced the recipients of its coveted stars for 2016. This year’s list varies only slightly from previous ones, with New York’s leading lights — like Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, and Le Bernardin — crowned once again as top dining destinations. Many of the honorees are also exorbitantly expensive, and represent a limited number of types of cuisine (French, Italian, New American, and Japanese figure prominently).

Arguably a more interesting (and certainly more affordable) list, reflective of NYC’s cultural variety and abundance, is Michelin’s Bib Gourmand, which is published alongside the stars and recognizes cheaper and more casual venues. These awards reveal the bounty of delicious, budget-friendly options in the outer boroughs. Notably, three restaurants in Elmhurst were included. The smallish neighborhood is a fascinating place, at once considered Queens’ second Chinatown and its Little Bangkok; we checked out the winners to see if Elmhurst lives up to these monikers.

Big tray chicken from Uncle Zhou
Big tray chicken from Uncle Zhou

Uncle Zhou (83-29 Broadway, Queens; 718-393-0888)
One of many enticing spots on this eatery-packed strip of Broadway, Uncle Zhou specializes in the cuisine of Henan, a province of China considered the nation’s breadbasket for its wheat production. Accordingly, the menu features many variations on knife cut noodles, which here are noticeably thick and doughy. Dumplings are worth ordering, and a deal at 10 for $4. The lamb version was very juicy, rich, and just a bit funky, and the pork and chive, brightened by the herb, were equally good.

Big tray chicken, a dish that’s a little different in every place it’s served, is a crowd-pleaser not only for its size, but its depth: tender nubs of white and dark meat chicken and potato soak up a mellow-spiced sauce redolent of anise; red and green peppers add a bit of crunch, but the best part are the long noodles that must be carefully extracted from the bottom.

Dial oil noodles are a gentler take on dan dan noodles, with less Sichuan peppercorn but more vinegar and garlic; the thin strands are mixed with plenty of bright green bok choy. For something even milder, but still compelling, the wheat noodles appear in another vegetarian dish, paired with egg, wood ear mushroom, and tomato, an ingredient not often seen in Chinese cooking.

Paet Rio (81-10 Broadway, Queens; 917-832-6672)
Elmhurst also has tons of Southeast Asian spots, and its Thai restaurants alone represent some of the best in the city, like Ayada and Chao Thai. Paet Rio attracted Michelin’s notice; owner Phimploy Likitsansook is also at the helm of Wondee Siam in Manhattan. But this is the place to find real-deal Thai, and the setting is cozy, a long, narrow dining room with exposed brick and weathered wooden tables.

Steamed dumplings hold a potent, garlicky mix of minced chicken, shrimp, and pork; the same combination is even better wrapped in fried bean curd, which makes for a thin, crispy casing. Soft shell crab is hidden under a layer of crispy garlic, which yields to the fresh, creamy crab. And crispy duck has crunchy nuggets of the bird, strewn with chilis and fragrant Thai basil. The restaurant also serves a range of whole fish, fiery curries, noodles, and spicy salads.

Soft shell crab with garlic from Paet Rio
Soft shell crab with garlic from Paet Rio

Sweet Yummy House (8313 Broadway, Queens; 718-699-2888)
The name is charming, though a bit misleading: the Sichuan grub here is more spicy than sweet, a counterpoint to Uncle Zhou’s milder Hainanese fare. The region’s peppercorns — which were  banned for years in the States — speckle many of the dishes, creating the tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue called málà. These come into play in entrees like fish in hot pepper, the mild white fish rendered vibrant as it swims in a fiery red sauce, and mapo tofu, the silky tofu and minced pork buzzing with heat.

You can give yourself a break with cooler appetizers, like cucumbers in sesame oil. Some of the less spicy menu items even verge on Chinese-American (lo mein, beef with broccoli), but with Sichuanese, it’s more fun when a little pain is involved.

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Stoke Your Passion for Northern Thai Cuisine at Red Hook Pop-Up Chiang Mai

Barley and blood. Mix the two and you’ve got the beginnings of a black pudding. Substitute rice for the barley and you’re on your way to another blood sausage, the northern Thai dish kao kan jin. Unlike its European cousin, this ruddy parcel is wrapped (and served) in banana leaves rather than sausage casing, its sanguine base marinated with lemongrass leaves. At Chiang Mai (293 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn; 646-858-5185) in Red Hook, unearthing the rust-colored mixture of jasmine and sticky rices from its verdant pouch reveals layers of ground pork. Murky and earthy, it shares the plate with cucumber slices, chopped shallots and scallions, and stalks of cilantro for sharp contrast.

It’s a dish I’d eat every day. Sad to say, my appetite will be irrelevant unless chef Kanlaya Supachana finds a permanent space for Chiang Mai. A few months ago she left her previous venture, Kao Soy, in a split from business/domestic partner Carlos Padillo. Having traded stability for creative and personal freedom, Supachana has temporarily relocated a mere half-block south on Van Brunt Street, where she operates a pop-up out of the quirky housewares shop Home/Made. The space is small but comfortable, thanks to generously spaced tables; you won’t feel squeezed unless seated at the four-seat bar. Even then, Supachana’s uninhibited cooking and her staff’s cheery service will offer ample compensation.

Jin som mok: Fermented ground pork served with peanuts, bird's-eye peppers, and lettuce leaves

Nose-to-tail eating typically occurs as part of a groaning-board feast. But here you can devour an array of pig parts without moving past the appetizer section, labeled “Small Dishes.” Like the kao kan jin, jin som mok arrives in a banana leaf, but this steamed package contains pungent fermented ground pork, strips of pig skin, and crunchy pig’s ears. Wrap hunks of the magical pork-scrap meatball in lettuce leaves and sprinkle them with peanuts, diced onions, and ginger — and, if you dare, a scattering of mince-it-yourself bird’s-eye pepper. Tum kanoon finds tomatoes and shredded jackfruit stirred with curry paste and topped with slivers of sweet, chewy pork belly and fried hibiscus blossoms; a pile of crisp pork rinds sits to the side. Spear a bit of everything on your fork, taste, and fall silent.

Sai ua sausage, paired with slabs of bologna-like pork pâté and fiery green chiles

Among the main courses, khao soi, a hot and heady soup from which Supachana’s previous venture derived its name, radiates with the same low hum of chile heat that plateaus to a tingle. A pair of chicken drumsticks hides at the bottom of your deep bowl, sunk in an aromatic, coconut-milk-based curry loaded with egg noodles and crowned with a nest of the same pasta, fried to a crisp. Other entrées include coarsely ground sai ua sausage, which comes sliced and paired with several accoutrements, including slabs of bologna-like pork pâté and a fiery mash of green chiles. Partnered with longtime friend and kitchen co-conspirator Sirichai Sreparplarn, Supachana, a Chiang Mai native who inherited her love of cooking from her father, constantly references family recipes. Among them, kang hung leh might be the heartiest. She plates the salty-sweet Burmese-style pork belly and shoulder curry with grilled rib tips on the side.

Tum kanoon: Tomatoes, jackfruit, pork belly, fried hibiscus flowers, and pork rinds

[pullquote]Spear a bit of everything on your fork, taste, and fall silent.[/pullquote]

Half of the menu is devoted to seasonal dishes. During summer that translated to thick, snappy slices of raw green mango served with a sticky sweet dipping sauce stocked with shallots and chiles. Grilled dishes included beef meatballs, smoky squid, and head-on prawns. Supachana serves up one hell of a medium-rare hanger steak, presented in backyard-barbecue fashion with simply grilled vegetables and a chile-lime dipping sauce.

Raw green mango, served with sweet dipping sauce, shallots, and chiles

Chiang Mai has wine, but I didn’t order any. You won’t find a better beer list in any local Thai restaurant. There are 26 options in all, arranged according to brewing style — from pale ales to pilsners, saisons, scotch ales, and ciders. Most are priced at less than $10; three are available on tap.

With a time limit placed on their temporary experiment, Supachana and her team work with a palpable energy. Given a little luck, they’ll find a home when the current arrangement expires at the end of this year. The pleasures of a French cider sipped with banana blossom fritters may be fleeting, but Chiang Mai ought to be more than just a memory.

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Favorite Dishes #21: Lan Larb Soho’s Ba Mee

Isan cooking maven Ratchanee Sumpatboon cooks pungent and fiery northeastern Thai food at Larb Ubol in Hell’s Kitchen, and she’s likewise lent her creativity to the menus at both locations of Lan Larb (227 Centre Street, 646-895-9264). But instead of sticking rigidly to the Isan playbook — which favors intensely sour and spicy flavors — she offers a diversified roster of gems in her role as consultant, including ba mee, a straightforward and wonderfully nuanced street food staple.

The industrious dish piles yu choy greens, slices of barbecued pork, and lump crab littered with scallions over thin, springy egg noodles twirled into a nest. Mix them up and eat them dry, or pour in the accompanying bowl of aromatic pork broth to stir up some pervasively savory surf-and-turf. Both swine and crustacean bring sweetness to the table, mellowed out by rich stock and toothsome noodles. In a city that often doles out wan Southeast Asian soups, Sumpatboon’s recipes cement her status as one of New York’s best Thai chefs. The $11 bowl makes for a hearty and satisfying lunch or dinner.

The Village Voice is counting down to our Best of New York City issue in October. We’re combing the city every day, one dish at a time, to guide you to the most delicious food in NYC. These are our 100 Favorite Dishes for 2015, in no particular order, save for the top 10. To read about previous dishes, browse our 100 Favorite Dishes page.

Here’s our countdown up to now:
#100: Laminated Blueberry Brioche at Dominique Ansel Kitchen
#99: Egg Shop’s Golden Bucket Fried Chicken
#98: Ramen Lab’s Torigara Shoyu
#97: Cannoli at Ferdinando’s
#96: Breakfast Sandwich at Dimes
#95: Banana Royal at Eddie’s Sweet Shop
#94: Fletcher’s Burnt Ends
#93: Almayass’s Mante
#92: Empellon Taqueria’s Fish Taco
#91: El Rey’s Sardine Tostada
#90: General Tso’s Pig’s Head at the Cannibal
#89: The Vegetarian at Meat Hook Sandwich Shop
#88: The 21 Club’s Creamy Chicken Hash
#87: Deep-Fried Olives at Via Carota
#86: Pougi at Loi Estiatorio
#85: Shelsky’s Hot Pastrami Sandwich
#85: Pearl & Ash’s Smoked Bread with Chicken Butter
#84: Gluten-Free Pizza at Rossopomodoro
#83: Perry St’s Chocolate Pudding With Candied Violets
#82: Whit’s End’s ‘Fuckin’ Bluefish Dip’
#81: Morgenstern’s Salt and Pepper Pine Nut Ice Cream
#80: Levain Bakery’s Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie
#79: Delmar Pizzeria’s Pizza
#78: Cafe Cluny’s Avocado Toast
#77: Brooklyn Star’s Cinnamon Bun
#76: Pork Belly Cotton Candy at Carnem
#75: Ippudo’s Pork Buns
#74: Mission Chinese Food’s Oil-Cured Anchovies
#73: Johnnycakes at LoLo’s Seafood Shack
#72: The Starving Artists Steak at Belle Reve
#71: The Spotted Pig’s Gnudi
#70: Xi’an Famous Foods’ Tiger Vegetable Salad
#69: Crème Brûlée Truffle at Kee’s Chocolates
#68: Pok Pok’s Muu Paa Kham Wong
#67: Cacio e Pepe at Upland
#66: Pulpo at Toro
#65: Junior’s Something Different
#64: Duck Carnitas at Cosme
#63: Banana Miso Ice Cream Sandwich at Neta
#62: Breads Bakery’s Chocolate Babka
#61: Braised Lamb Neck at the Gorbals
#60: Dough’s Passionfruit Doughnut
#59: Uncle Jesse Bao at Baohaus
#58: Patatas Bravas at El Colmado
#57: Lupulo’s Razor Clams
#56: Bar Masa’s Spicy Dancing Shrimp
#55: Underwest Donuts’ Halva
#54: The Virgola Platter at Virgola
#53: Noreetuh’s Monkfish Liver Torchon
#52: Amarena Cherry Merveilleux
#51: Roasted Mushrooms at Bara
#50: Fonda’s Oaxacan Black Mole Enchiladas
#49: Flinders Lane’s Lamb Rump
#48: Blue Ribbon Sushi’s Temaki Honnin
#47: Dirty French’s Chicken and Crepes
#46: The Vegetarian Combination at Zoma
#45: Merguez Sausage Flatbread at Irvington
#44: Le Grand Aioli at Marlow & Sons
#43: Shelsky’s Hot Pastrami Sandwich
#42: Hippie Banjo at Pies ‘n’ Thighs
#41: Malted Milkshake from Dizzy’s Diner
#40: Graffiti’s Graffiti Burger
#39: Beef Rolls at Kottu House
#38: Cafe Katja’s Wiener Schnitzel
#37: Norma’s Potato Pancakes
#36: Goat Milk Soft Serve at Victory Garden
#35: Okonomi’s Onsen Egg
#34: ‘Njuja Pizza at Obicà
#33: Paulaner Sausage Sampler
#32: Triple Chocolate Chunk Cookies at The Whitney
#31: Momofuku Ssäm Bar’s Dry Aged Rib Eye
#30: Bar Boulud’s Escargots Persillade
#29: Marta’s Roman-Style Pizza
#28: Untitled’s Roasted and Fried Chicken Salad
#27: Sweet Corn Goat Cheese Tamal at Confessional
#26: Crispy Duck Necks at Trestle on Tenth
#25: Emily’s Emmy Burger
#24: Manousheh’s Jibneh Manousheh
#23: Herbie’s International at Ivan Ramen
#22: Bhutanese Ema Datsi’s Namesake

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Favorite Dishes #68: Pok Pok’s Muu Paa Kham Wong

Andy Ricker, chef/owner of Pok Pok Ny (117 Columbia Street, Brooklyn; 718-923-9322), is a genius — he almost single-handedly reinvented the American idea of Thai cuisine. Once upon a time, most stateside restaurants served watered-down curries and overly sweet pad Thais, but these days determined eaters can find sweat-bursting, funky-hot Isaan-style papaya salad and wings coated in fish sauce much more readily.

Everything on the menu at Pok Pok Ny is worthy of a spot on our 100 Favorite Dishes, but the unsung hero is the Muu Paa Kham Wong ($18). The dish begins with boar collar, which is rubbed with garlic, pepper, and coriander root, brushed with seasoning sauce and sugar, then grilled over charcoal. When it’s done, the meat is sliced thin and drenched in a briny, mouth-searing sauce made from lime, fish sauce, garlic, chiles, and coriander leaf — the result is only for serious spice lovers. Iced mustard greens are served on the side for a crisp textural contrast to the rich meat, and also for the sake of authenticity — Thais believe that protein must be balanced with vegetables for nutrition and proper digestion.

The dish is typical pub grub or drinking food in Thailand, as it has all the customary elements: extreme spice, chewy texture, and salt. “All those things make you want to drink more beer or booze, which in turn makes you want to eat more of that kind of dish,” says Ricker. “They go hand in hand.” We’ll most certainly raise a glass (and some chopsticks) to that.

The Village Voice is counting down to our Best of New York City issue in October. We’re combing the city every day, one dish at a time, to guide you to the most delicious food in NYC. These are our 100 Favorite Dishes for 2015, in no particular order, save for the top 10.

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera. Follow @forkintheroadVV

Here’s our countdown up to now:
#100: Laminated Blueberry Brioche at Dominique Ansel Kitchen
#99: Egg Shop’s Golden Bucket Fried Chicken
#98: Ramen Lab’s Torigara Shoyu
#97: Cannoli at Ferdinando’s
#96: Breakfast Sandwich at Dimes
#95: Banana Royal at Eddie’s Sweet Shop
#94: Fletcher’s Burnt Ends
#93: Almayass’s Mante
#92: Empellon Taqueria’s Fish Taco
#91: El Rey’s Sardine Tostada
#90: General Tso’s Pig’s Head at the Cannibal
#89: The Vegetarian at Meat Hook Sandwich Shop
#88: The 21 Club’s Creamy Chicken Hash
#87: Deep-Fried Olives at Via Carota
#86: Pougi at Loi Estiatorio
#85: Shelsky’s Hot Pastrami Sandwich
#85: Pearl & Ash’s Smoked Bread with Chicken Butter
#84: Gluten-Free Pizza at Rossopomodoro
#83: Perry St’s Chocolate Pudding With Candied Violets
#82: Whit’s End’s ‘Fuckin’ Bluefish Dip’
#81: Morgenstern’s Salt and Pepper Pine Nut Ice Cream
#80: Levain Bakery’s Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie
#79: Delmar Pizzeria’s Pizza
#78: Cafe Cluny’s Avocado Toast
#77: Brooklyn Star’s Cinnamon Bun
#76: Pork Belly Cotton Candy at Carnem
#75: Ippudo’s Pork Buns
#74: Mission Chinese Food’s Oil-Cured Anchovies
#73: Johnnycakes at LoLo’s Seafood Shack
#72: The Starving Artists Steak at Belle Reve
#71: The Spotted Pig’s Gnudi
#70: Xi’an Famous Foods’ Tiger Vegetable Salad
#69: Crème Brûlée Truffle at Kee’s Chocolates

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With Understated Cool, Lovely Day Serves Comforting Thai Food in Soho

It was noon and Kazusa Jibiki sat in the corner of her restaurant on an almost perfect day in SoHo. Wearing a free-flowing white dress with thin, horizontal stripes, Kazusa, quiet and curious, was searching for the exact word; “Yes, like melting pot.” she said, describing the desire to have the restaurant she founded be much like the city in which it exists. And since 2003, Lovely Day (196 Elizabeth Street, 212-925-3310) has been just that — a mixture of the finest parts of this and that, all thrown together, to create something new.

Born east of Tokyo, Kazusa, first came to this country in the early 1990’s after her parents enrolled her to study English at a small college in Westchester, for fear that New York City might be a little too dangerous. From there it was on to New York University for a business degree. While a student, she befriended some local restaurateurs and asked to help out at their restaurants in her down time, learning what it took to open and run a restaurant. Also during that time, she was hired by a Japanese company to look for young New York fashion designers for the Japanese market. The young designer she ‘found’ had just left Perry Ellis; his name was Marc Jacobs.

In the mid-1990’s Kasuza, who’d always had an artistic eye, helped a friend design hair accessories. “Like crystal bands on clear elastics,” Kazusa describes, and they ended up selling thousands of them. With her earnings, she eventually began looking for a space for her own restaurant.

The spot she found was originally a vegetable storage room, with no door – just a roll-down gate. “There were literally hundreds of cabbages,” said Kazusa. 196 Elizabeth Street was on a still dangerous block in 2003. ”You would leave your bike for ten seconds and then it would be gone,” she added.

Setting out to make the food accessible and comforting, Kazusa centered the menu around some of her favorite dishes, like Thai shrimp curry and Japanese fried rice. A local Thai chef collaborated with her on the menu and the place opened up a just a short time later.

With a few outside tables, Lovely Day exists on a street of SoHo still relatively untouched. The Elizabeth Street Garden is just a few feet to the right and across the street; a nail salon sits on one side and the restaurant Peasant on the other.

Kazusa working the floor
Kazusa working the floor

“It’s like a Quentin Tarantino set,” my companion said when we recently went for dinner. With floral-stenciled walls, red leather booths from an old New Jersey diner, and mosaic- tile flooring from a previous life, Lovely Day looks like a 1970’s American-Japanese diner. A seven-stool bar sits on the left and a few small two-tops sit in close proximity to large windows facing the street. The service is easy and relaxed, and all servers seem to be full-time, part-time models. The clientele is a mix of cool designers, musicians, and lots of people wearing Birkenstocks. A mix of James Brown and Aaron Neville plays at the correct volume and a few assorted groups of people are usually waiting for tables outside.

A place in the middle of SoHo serving entrees under $20 is a good thing; lunch for two can be had for $25 with tip. I always seem to order a Thai-basil side dish whenever I go, and a vodka, muddled mint and lemonade cocktail is just as delicious as it is refreshing. The menu is simple; the food is not supposed to blow you away, it’s comforting. A green papaya salad with avocado, fish sauce and tomatoes ($8) is excellent. This past week a special sushi-grade tuna and avocado was fresh and easy.

A few years ago, Kazusa opened up a downstairs portion of the restaurant, in what use to be another storage room. Decorated like the coolest 1970’s cocktail den that Osaka ever saw, the room is relaxing — and popular. Kazusa said opening the basement lounge has helped reduce wait times for dinner patrons. In addition, patrons still line up early for Lovely Day’s famed brunch, where you can get an Irish-style breakfast of baked beans and pork sausage, along with some miso soup. Its fun and different, just like the city it calls home.

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Plant Love House Brings Thai Street Food to Queens

Thanks to places like Michelin-starred Zabb Elee, New Yorkers have become well acquainted with the fiery cuisine of Thailand’s northern Isan region. Now it’s Thai street food’s turn — restaurants serving rich noodle soups, grilled meat, curries, and sticky-sweet desserts like roti are popping up, particularly in the Queens neighborhoods where Southeast Asian spots proliferate. Plant Love House (86-08 Whitney Avenue, Queens; 718-565-2010), which opened on Elmhurst’s Whitney Avenue in December (the popular Chao Thai is a neighbor), may be the cutest and homiest of the bunch.

Despite the name, don’t expect vegetarian. Meat is definitely the star at the restaurant, which has the air of a whimsical sidewalk café but serves seriously rich and complex dishes. In fact, the only vegetable item is the corn fritter, a crowd-pleasing appetizer that predicts the sweetness — though not the spice — to come.

Sitting at the white patio tables, you might expect no more than a good cup of coffee to emerge from the tiny kitchen. Instead there’s num tok, a noodle soup that originated in Thailand’s floating markets. A small bowl could easily pass as an entrée; its broth is muddy with pig’s blood and makes for a sweet, rather than metallic, flavor. There are generous hunks of pork, bitter Chinese broccoli, and springy rice noodles to soak up the rich sauce. If you want the pig without the plasma, try the moo toon noodle, which comes instead with tender pork ribs.

Gang gai is also a good bet: Vermicelli noodles are doused in green curry, the color complemented by the purple skins of eggplant. The milder spice and the coconut milk in the curry are nicely offset by the fresh, herbal intensity of plenty of Thai basil.

Unlike many Thai restaurants, desserts are featured prominently here. Another popular street food, roti, which resembles a fluffy crêpe, has a Japanese flair. It’s served in a skillet with a scoop of matcha ice cream and sweet red beans, and when a server pours green tea over the whole thing, it sizzles like fajitas at Chili’s — only it’s leagues better, if you can devour it before the treat dissolves into green tea soup.

There’s no alcohol, so try a cold drink to counteract the sinus-clearing food — longan juice, say, made with a small, squishy tropical fruit similar to lychee — or chrysanthemum tea. Hardly any of the dishes crack $10, making for happy exploring through the menu.

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Where to Find Spicy Northern Thai Flavors on the Cheap

Thailand has a rich culinary background that extends far beyond pad Thai and green curry. With several distinct culinary regions, the country offers a wide mix of styles, flavors, and levels of spice. There’s sweeter, milder fare from the south, and Chinese-influenced dishes in and around Bangkok. It’s all spice when you get up north. Many of those bold, northern-influenced dishes can be found at Chai Northern Thai (124 North 6th Street, Brooklyn; 718-599-5889) in Williamsburg and midtown. And during lunch, there are a bunch of selections that ring up for a bargain.

Starting at 11:30 in midtown and noon in Williamsburg, the eateries both run special lunch deals until 4 p.m. For $7.95, guests can pick from fourteen different dishes and a complimentary soup, salad, or spring roll. And each entree comes with choice of chicken, beef, or tofu. Shrimp or squid cost an extra $2.

Some dishes pack the heat, like kra pow, a mixture of whatever protein you’d like along with chile and basil. Spicy basil fried rice with onion, red bell pepper, and green pea plays on similar flavors and offers a similar punch. And there are plenty of spicy curries like red, green, green curry fried rice, and chu chee curry sauce, a home-style dish similar to red curry, but without the zest of coriander and cumin. And if you happen to have a cold, order the tom yum noodle soup to clear it out. The clear chicken broth is full of spice and ground peanuts with choice of rice or cellophane noodles.

Other dishes aren’t going to sear the taste buds. Pad Thai is one of the specialties; it comes complete with shrimp, egg, peanuts, scallions, and bean sprouts. But less common stir-fries are on the menu, too. Pad khing is a mellow combination of ginger, mushroom, onion, scallion, and red bell pepper. Traditionally, chicken is the meat of choice for this one, but here, you can have your pick. Another reliable option is the pad see eiw, a savory blend of chewy rice noodles, egg, and broccoli in a special soy sauce.