Woodside Thai: Stranded in Queens But At Least I’m Full

In food, restaurant on 04/17/2009 at 9:59 pm

Today I took my final official set of pre-clinical exams until my national boards at the end of June. A decade ago, I vowed I would never set foot inside the halls of academia again. Ever. Maybe I shouldn’t make promises I can’t keep. This called for some major food binging to celebrate. The end of something…and the beginning of more of the same? We saddled up and somehow landed in Woodside, Queens.

Our Filipino friend piled us in his Subaru and we tumbled out in front of Sripraphai, the Thai temple of food that everyone on the planet raves about. I’d been there once before, with my cousins, who rarely go out to eat, given that take-out in Flushing is so much easier. But if they think this one is worth the trek… At the time, I wasn’t aware of its mighty reputation, and it was before the contemporary makeover, so it was still a modest, grungy dive with plain a green painted non-cursive sign. I can’t say I appreciate the thousands of dollars that went into the rehab and expansion (automatic advancing plastic toilet covers!), but I can say, this is the only place for Thai food-haters (me) that converts hard-headed opinions.

Why do I hate Thai? Muddy flavors, too sweet, wannabe Vietnamese. Those are usually the terms that come to mind. Most Thai places don’t use authentic ingredients, and cook to please the unsophisticated palate of the clumsy American fast-food mouth. And, granted, subtlety is quite difficult to accomplish in the company of chile peppers. Sripraphai proves me wrong. They layer the sweet, salty, sour and spicy with a deftness not to be seen anywhere else, even at Sea (of Sex and the City fame, coolest bathrooms ever though) in the lil’ Thailand of Williamsburg. All the dishes weren’t a success, but the combination of flavors achieved in one dish is unique and evokes a national cuisine that nestles itself somewhere between Vietnam and Malaysia.

storefront back in the day

Sripraphai Pig-Out Menu (What We Ate, or, Why Do I Never Pack My SLR?):
1. Soft shell crab fried with green mango sauce – The other half always wants to eat soft shell, but every time we try it, it’s really hard shell and sticks to the throat going down. Here, delicious and light with a fantastic sticky sauce, sweet and tangy, a little heat.

2. Green mango salad with shrimp, squid, and chicken – The seafood doesn’t stand up to the green mango, which is thinly julienned. It’s a Thai version of ceviche. The green mango is equivalent to plaintain, versatile in its ‘unripe’ stage. Tastes more vegetable root-like than a fruit.

3. Roast duck with spicy bamboo shoot and Thai eggplant – This is more like a Chinese stir fry with thick chili sauce. The roast duck didn’t add much to the dish, just something to chew on. The standout is the eggplant, which looks like a fresh fig but tastes like crunchy seeds of a guava. It was done al dente. The dish would be better if it highlighted this very interesting veg instead of confusing the palate with other elements.

4. Yellow curry chicken with potato – Typical curry like roti canai, but more intense in flavor and with hints of heat and spice on different parts of the tongue. Most everything is just better than the normal executions of that dish.

5. Roast duck with ‘basil water’ – Too gamey, according to my Filipino friend. Yes, there was a smokiness to the meat, but what was weird about this particular one was there really was no taste to the sauce, hence ‘basil water.’

6. Coconut rice/chicken broth rice – Infusing flavors into rice is definitely a Southeast Asian specialty. Here, equal parts of coconut milk and water went into the steaming of the rice; the chicken broth one was not quite reminiscent of Hainanese chicken rice.

7. Seasoned pork belly with garlic and pepper – A favorite of the two Filipinos dining with us. Perhaps the least spicy? I thought it tasted like bits of overcooked meat. Meh.

8. Ground spicy chicken with basil – Our Persian friend’s ‘safe’ pick. Definitely aimed at tourists. You should know ground chicken has no flavor, especially if it’s not organic! The sauce in the tiny dish was slurped up by the other half though, tangy and spicy, with bits of tiny chile pepper floating around.

9. Sticky coconut rice with mango – Dessert time, the classic, warm glutinous rice with cold slices of ripe fruit. Done to a T here. There’s debate whether the rice is a form of jasmine. Topped with a coconut syrup and scattered mung bean.

10. Black sticky rice with custard – A variation on the above theme. Rice was mixed black and regular, which made the texture mushy and chewy. Not good.

11. Basil seed jelly – We were hoping for kueh QQ, but Thai use agar agar for their gelatin, so these end up being almost crunchy. These are pretty black dots floating in bricks of colored agar, slightly sweet.

12. Green jelly with coconut (Ka-Nom-Chan) – Not like kueh talam at all.

13. Taro ball in warm sweet coconut milk – QQ nice-ness. Balls are the size of lavender marbles, floating in a milky white. Pretty.

After our gut-bust fest, we waited for the M60 to ferry us homeward, back to safety of our isle. Waiting in the sun for over 30 minutes, I think I was sunburnt. It was the first 70 degree weather of the year. Tempers were getting very testy as bus after bus flashed ‘Not in Service.’ The only bus we could take managed to zoom away despite an old lady sacrificing her life to throw her body against the bumper to stop it. An airline pilot who was dropped off on the corner came over and egged us on, telling us that particular driver blew passengers off all the time. The other half furiously dialed a complaint to 311, as did the salty old lady who yelled at us, “Thanks for getting my back!” Ah, the mystery and wonder of the outer boroughs.

Our resident dessert chef’s new favorite dishes:

Sticky Coconut rice with Mango (Kow Neuw Moon)
1 cup sticky rice (glutinous)
1/3 cup coconut milk
2 tsp sugar
pinch of salt
1 ripe mango, cut into thick slices
1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)
1 tsp tapioca starch

Prepare sticky rice in rice cooker.

Mix together coconut milk, sugar, salt and bring to a boil. Set aside to cool. Reserve half of coconut milk to mix with tapioca starch for topping. Immediately after sticky rice is cooked, and still hot, put it into rest of the coconut sauce and stir together well. Cover for 1 hour and let cool.

Topping: Mix 1/3 cup coconut milk with salt, 2 tsp sugar and tapioca starch. Bring to a boil.

Put the sticky rice and mangoes on a serving dish. Pour the topping sauce over the sticky rice and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds.

Taro Ball in Coconut Cream (Bua Loi Phuak)
1 cup cooked taro root, mashed
2 cups glutinous-rice flour
1 cup cornstarch
4 cups coconut milk
1/3 cup palm sugar (can use cane sugar, palm adds an extra fragrance)
1/8 teaspoon salt
6-8 teaspoons water

Put the rice flour and cornstarch in a bowl. Add mashed taro and knead to a soft dough. Roll into little balls and set aside.

Dissolve palm sugar and salt in coconut milk over low heat, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil and add taro balls. When they are cooked through, remove from heat. Serve hot.

Optional: sprinkle with sesame seeds.

it's good to be queen! (the boss lady herself)

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