Southeast Asian Becomes the Go-To
Over the years, almost every region of Asia—from Sichuan to the Indian Punjab to the imperial cuisine of Kyoto, Japan—has had its fifteen minutes of fame. Now, thanks to the success of Andy Ricker’s ever-expanding Pok Pok empire, it’s Southeast Asia’s turn. If you don’t feel like joining the hordes of food tourists and bearded spicy-larb experts who gather each evening for a taste of Ricker’s uncanny brand of northern Thai cooking at the mother-ship establishment on Columbia Street, then I suggest you wander across the street to the brand-new Whiskey Soda Lounge, where the friendly barkeep sells tamarind whiskey sours for $8 during happy hour. The real specialties at this bar, however, are the drinking dishes, like bowls of crackly, coral-pink shrimp chips, platters of the famous Pok Pok chicken wings tossed in chile peppers and spoonfuls of sticky fish sauce, and a strangely addictive delicacy called sai muu thawt, which look like dark, inky-colored potato chips but turn out to be a Thai version of fried chitlins, which Ricker’s cooks stew in five-spice powder, deep-fry to a frizzly crisp, and serve with a dipping bowl of sweet black vinegar on the side.
Ever since my discerning colleagues at Underground Gourmet anointed Bún-ker as the finest cheap-eats destination in town, members of the city’s Vietnamese-food cognoscenti have been making the long trek out to chef Jimmy Tu’s charmingly ramshackle restaurant, which opened in January among the old scrap yards out in the wilds of Ridgewood, Queens. Everything I sampled on the carefully edited menu is excellent, but pay special attention to the nontraditionalist bánh mì sandwich creations (stuffed with lemongrass short ribs or crispy flounder and tartar sauce) and the velvet coconut curry, which Tu pours over tender cuts of Bo Bo chicken for $15 and serves with a stack of fresh-made roti.
The best version of Hanoi-style beef phô that I’ve enjoyed outside of Hanoi in the past few years is the one that Rob Newton makes with gently boiled strips of brisket at his inspired new Smith Street establishment, Nightingale 9. And if hipster Laotian food is your passion, you’ll find decent facsimiles of tongue-twisting dishes like ping-nok-noi (ginger quail) and tam-mak-hong (smashed papaya salad) at Marc Forgione and Phet Schwader’s latest Tribeca restaurant, Khe-Yo, where the friendly waiters bring mounds of steamed sticky rice to the table in wicker baskets and encourage you to eat it with your hands.
For the ultimate in lip-smacking, Southeast Asian–style verisimilitude, however, you won’t do much better than Matt Danzer and Ann Redding’s affectionate ode to ye olde expat dive bars of late-twentieth-century Bangkok called Uncle Boons. Redding and Danzer met in the kitchens at Per Se, but she spent much of her childhood in Thailand. There are mementos of her former life on the walls of this small Soho restaurant (photos of dancers and old Thai monarchs, pastel paintings of water buffalo). There’s a decent version of southern-Thai massaman curry on the menu (made with braised beef short ribs), and an improvised home-style Thai larb salad made with lamb instead of the usual pork. The house chicken is grilled on the rotisserie and served with a small flotilla of dipping sauces, the way they do in Thai boxing arenas, but be sure to save room for the festive ice-cream-sundae dessert, which is dressed with swirls of whipped cream and drifts of toasted coconut.