Some new restaurants so cannily address local needs that they immediately and seamlessly fit into the fabric of their neighborhoods. Take, for example, Pat Pong (93 East 7th Street; 505-6454), a tiny, twenty-seat Thai restaurant between First and Avenue A that the Underground Gourmet wandered into one recent summer’s evening with no great expectations. A plateful of pad Thai and a bowl of mocha-tofu ice cream later, this cheap no-liquor-license joint had taken its place in the Gourmet’s culinary wardrobe of East Village essentials.
Decoratively, Pat Pong has the allure of the demure: a modest sprinkling of copper tables, sponge-painted yellow walls, some small but earnest paintings, and multicolored lanterns that are a clue to the bemusing fact that Pat Pong is named for the red-light district of Bangkok. Also startling is the appearance on the menu of a kielbasa-and-vegetable spring roll ($5). This Polish-Thai gastronomic centaur signals either overinventiveness or a commendable resistance to good cooking’s greatest foe, perfunctoriness. Thankfully, it’s the latter: As Pat Pong uses only fresh local produce in its dishes, why not (the chef figured) make use of the sausages that are as East Village as Jim Carroll?
The freshness of the ingredients is evident in the loosely packed vegetable summer roll ($5), which comes with the tamarind dipping sauce that is the consort to quite a few dishes at Pat Pong. A breakfast cereal gone mad, the crispy rice noodles with vegetables (red peppers, scallions, carrots) and sweet plum sauce ($6) are crunchy and amusing. The curry-potato-and-vegetable puff ($5) is akin to the samosa, and its puréed contents work well with a cucumber-and-red-onion salad. The most interesting starter is the medley of toasted coconut, peanuts, ginger, onions, and dried shrimp with a lemongrass dipping sauce: Wrapped up in a lettuce leaf and swallowed whole, this hard-to-find dish is a rare treat ($7).
There are some terrific entrées here (in huge portions, to boot). Beef medallions in tamarind curry sauce – eat this with aromatic black sticky rice ($1.50) – are hot, light, and subtle ($10). Stir-fried julienne ginger chicken with shiitake mushrooms ($9) is smoky, fresh, and crisp, and the aforementioned pad Thai ($9) is superb: The stir-fried noodles’ partners – shrimp, egg, tofu, bean sprouts, and peanuts – are not overchopped or overused, and consequently there is none of the mushiness or excessive peanuttiness that can mar this dish.
Other items may give some pause. Chicken salad with Pat Pong spicy vinaigrette ($7) is served with a powerful fish sauce that, with its blue-cheesy, bad-breath flavor, makes specialist demands on the palate; rice-noodle pancakes – chow fun, basically – are served in a gelatinous pool stocked with marinated pork, Asian broccoli, and shiitake mushrooms ($9): okay, but outclassed by their menu-mates. Grilled jumbo shrimp ($13), a monstrous trio of tiger prawns marooned on a lush island of basil leaves, spinach, red peppers, bok choy, and mushrooms, are not as tasty as they should be – the prawns lack that hint of smokiness and the green curry sauce is undone by too much coconut milk.
Homemade ice cream ($6) is Pat Pong’s specialty (owner Anong Leetrakul used to run Pravinie Gourmet Ice Cream on St. Marks Place), and you can take your pick of flavors ranging from green tea to red bean to durian to taro root with black sesame seeds. Tea ($3 a pot) is also available in stupefying variety.
Pat Pong is open Sunday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to midnight. Cash only.