77-08 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst; 718-424-0844
Not to take anything away from the great Sripraphai, but Ayada is everything that once-homey mom-and-pop shop is not: small and comfortable, shockingly unhurried, ecstatically mellow. Factor in the superfriendly service, the cheerful décor, and maybe a tableside visit from chef Duangjai “Kitty” Thammasat, and you have the city’s best Thai restaurant. Which is not to say that food comes second to atmosphere here. On the contrary, the green papaya with dried shrimp is spot-on, the duck salad beautifully composed and compulsively edible, the larb extra larby. Best of all is the panang curry, which Kitty recommends you order with the most delicious duck we’ve ever had in a Thai restaurant. Like just about every dish here, it’s a master class in the Thai art of getting a bunch of headstrong flavors—sweet, hot, pungent, sour—to play nice. As everyone knows, you order dessert in an Asian restaurant at your own peril, but if there’s anything more perfectly ripe and sweet than Ayada’s mango sticky rice, we have yet to try it.
6. Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan
42-47 Main St., Flushing; 718-888-0553
If the name of this Chinese yearling is geographically disorienting, so’s the menu. Only denizens of the regions in question—and maybe Chinese-food brainiac Fuchsia Dunlop—could discern which dishes are Hunanese and which are Sichuan (or, in the case of the orange beef and the broccoli with chicken, in the “Chinese dishes” section, something else entirely). Many of the choices, regardless, will be familiar to habitués of the very loosely affiliated (but independently owned) pack of Chinese restaurants called Grand Sichuan, which stretches from the Upper West Side to Bay Ridge, and now, with this outpost, to Flushing. (The Grand Sichuan addict will recognize not only signatures like spicy double-cooked pork, but some front-of-the-house faces, too.) To the long and venerable history of culinary trash-talking between the provinces, about whose food is spicier and more delicious, we haven’t much to add. We can say unequivocally, though, that the chile-dappled Hunan-style pickled cabbage is as piquant and crunchy as the Hunan eggplant is smooth and deliquescent; that not only is the skin of the sautéed crispy duck crispy, but the meat tender and chewy and full of flavor; and that the white-pepper smoked beef tastes like a soft, succulent jerky, blanketed with the wispy skins of white and red chiles—a trademark of the Hunan kitchen, Grand Sichuan’s and otherwise.
7. Han Joo
41-06 149th Pl., Murray Hill; 718-359-6888
Although Han Joo bills itself as a naeng-myun (or Korean cold-noodle) specialist, our Korean-barbecue consultant begs to differ. “Skip the naeng-myun; get the pork belly,” he says, as if quoting from some Korean version of The Godfather. Almost everyone at Han Joo, you see, orders the pork belly. And understandably so. That the meat gets cooked on quartz-crystal tabletop grills that look like New Age backgammon boards does not deter them. Once you’ve filled your nostrils with the intoxicating scent of pork belly sizzling away on your neighbor’s table, that’s it. Resistance is futile. All that’s left for you to do is choose “thick” (steaklike slabs) or “thin” (ribbon-candy curls) and your marinade (garlic, green tea, bean paste). Order the do ya ji combination and get all of the above, a nonstop parade of pig, plus a salad bar’s worth of panchan, pristine lettuce wrappers, and zingy condiments. The whole shebang could feed a small Korean army and costs $69.95, which isn’t bad for a veritable pork-belly-palooza.
8. Mapo BBQ
149-24 41st Ave., Murray Hill; 718-886-8292
Like its neighbor Han Joo up the block, Mapo BBQ serves pork belly, but according to our aforementioned Korean-barbecue-pork-belly adviser, who also moonlights as our Korean-barbecue-beef guru, you go here for kalbi (grilled short ribs of beef). To do otherwise is to risk being looked askance at, like the poor bumbler who goes to Peter Luger and orders the chicken. Not that you have much of a choice. Before you’ve even taken a seat, it seems, a cheerful scissors-and-tongs-wielding waitress pops up as if from a trap door with the well-marbled specialty of the house. What distinguishes Mapo from most other Korean barbecues around town is that the meat gets cooked at your table over hardwood charcoal. That and some delicious curveballs in the panchan department, like a sizzling platter of charred and creamy corn that eats like a kooky Korean version of Mexican esquites. Still, corn—however well-charred and creamy—is corn. It’s the primordial joy of beef cooking over smoldering chunks of wood that sets off the wild rumpus in your brain’s pleasure center.