Cheap Eats

Where the lemon grass is always greener.

Stick 'em up: Beef panang at Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens.
Too often, Thai chainlets give us what they think we want: too-sweet satays, tame tom yum, pallid pad Thai. The critical balance of hot, sour, salty, and sweet is lost in translation. There are exceptions -- namely, and most spectacularly, Sripraphai, a superb Thai kitchen housed inside a nondescript Woodside, Queens, storefront that looks about as cheerful as an H&R Block office. With all due respect to Mets fans -- if there are any left this season -- we can't think of a better reason to board the No. 7 train than feeding on crispy dried catfish in a piquant mango, red-onion, cilantro, and chili-pepper salad ($10.50); fiery beef panang redolent of basil and lemon leaf ($7); mouthwateringly good minced pork with chilies, peanuts, and lemon juice ($6). You'll trivialize the experience to some ineffable degree if you eat indoors, cramped among the Formica tables, under the fluorescent lighting, so instead repair to the semi-secret bare-bones backyard with its picture-book border of overgrown pink and red rose blossoms. But don't forget to make a pit stop at the dessert counter on your way out to stock up on sticky coconut-rice confections or some milky puddings for the road.

Somewhere between standard Americanized Thai and Sripraphai are Thai Cafe and Amarin Cafe, two brightly flavored spots in Greenpoint's pierogi-laden landscape. In the East Village, Kai Kai Thai Eatery deliciously breaks the menu monotony with fifteen appetizers that read like Thai dim sum, priced from $1 to $5 apiece. (We're addicted to the ma-ta-ba, a flaky, buttery chicken pastry.)

Good grub turns up in the unlikeliest of places, perhaps none less likely than Lady Bakery, a generic fluorescent-lit pastry-and-birthday-cake depot near the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel. Strategically located a couple doors down from Cupcake Cafe, ostensibly to undercut the competition, this nondescript storefront dabbles in takeout Thai home cooking, almost as if it were a hobby. "People would come for coffee and ask for food," the cashier told us. She and her mother obliged, with handwritten signs announcing a daily choice of two soups and a main dish, like the rich and pungent chicken curry served with soft jasmine rice ($6.50). If the Hell's Kitchen cake racket proves too cutthroat, these ladies clearly have something to fall back on.

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· SRIPRAPHAI, 64-13 39th Ave., Queens, 718-899-9599
· THAI CAFE, 923-925 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn, 718-383-3562
· AMARIN CAFE, 617 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn, 718-349-2788
· KAI KAI THAI EATERY, 78 E. 1st St., 212-777-2552
· LADY BAKERY, 510 Ninth Ave., near 38th St., 212-268-2616