Thai cuisine in New York City doesn't generally get the type of praise it deserves. People order it as a hangover cure from the confines of their couch, or lazily pick up take-out on their way back from the gym. But take a little time to understand the intricacies of Thai food, and you'll quickly realize that your cold pad thai just isn't cutting it when so many other options abound.
Take Zabb Elee in Jackson Heights, for example. They earned a well-deserved Michelin star in 2015, making it the first Thai joint to receive the prestigious honor. Or what about Uncle Boons? A fun take on Thai fare, located in a trendy eatery in downtown Manhattan, they're shelling out cocktails that will make your head spin and grilled meats that will make you sweat just looking at them.
These two spots are just the tip of the iceberg, and below you'll find 10 worthy restaurants that will surely shift your Thai-brain from Thursday take-out to Saturday's main event. For every budget, and nearly every corner of the city, our list breaks down the spots you can't miss.
Ready to dive right in? Pack up your chopsticks and join us on a whirlwind tour of the best Thai in New York City.
Pok Pok Ny
Helmed by chef wonder Andy Ricker, Pok Pok NY is Thai food for hungry hipsters and the people who love them. Ricker's made a name for himself with his interesting menu and gaggle of celebrity endorsements (including a visit from Bourdain), but his food is the real star of the show. House specialties include papaya pok pok, a Thai-style spicy green papaya salad, and Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings, coated in sugar and fish sauce, deep fried and served spicy. Is Pok Pok NY overexposed? Probably. Is it delicious? You bet. Go prepared to fight off the overzealous hipsters for a table, and leave happy with a full belly of yum. (718-923-9322)
If your grandma decided to open a Thai restaurant in one of the hottest neighborhoods in town, she'd end up with something that looks like Lovely Day. An unassuming Thai fusion joint plopped down in Nolita, the diner booths and quaint patterned wallpaper set the stage for dishes like hobo noodles with oyster sauce and spicy chili. Interestingly, the (dinner) fusion here is vaguely half Japanese, and small plates include edamame, seaweed salad and kimono fried shrimp. As if that isn't kooky enough for you, Lovely Day mixes up breakfast by harkening the luck of the Irish. While a Thai-Japanese-Irish combo isn't anywhere close to the most obvious of pairings, somehow this restaurant makes them all work. (212-925-3310)
When Zabb Elee opened their East Village outpost after years of serving exclusively out of their Queens digs, Thai purists went wild. Fast forward a few years later and foodies are still flocking in droves to 2nd Avenue for an authentic Isan Thai experience. The East Village haunt is still leaps and bounds better than anything around, but if you want a true taste of the heat that started it all, you have to get to Jackson Heights. Along with turning out incredibly flavorful food, this hole-in-the-wall hotspot recently snagged a Michelin star for 2015, making it the first time a Thai restaurant has received the honors. (718-426-7992)
Another stellar Thai joint, and another peek at Isan influence. This Hell's Kitchen standby says that it takes its culinary notes from street vendors all the way up to high-end restaurants. One taste off their menu and you won't care where they get their kitchen hints. While Thai purists aren't quite as quick to praise Larb Ubol as an authentic thing, plenty of loyal regulars would be willing to step up to bat for this 9th Avenue joint. The prices probably don't hurt their devotion either - on most items, you can get away with an entree for $10 or under. (212-564-1822)
A relative newcomer on the block, Uncle Boons is high-end Thai food served up in a basement space in Nolita. Its cool vibe seemingly oozes out of the walls, but what's more impressive is what's coming out of the kitchen. Along with a collection of tasty share plates, the charcoal grill at Uncle Boons leans heavily on Isan influence, turning out delicacies like pork and rice sour sausages, grilled blowfish tails and head-on prawns. The Thai rotisserie half chicken with fiery dipping sauces and green mayo salad has also quickly won the hearts of regulars. (646-370-6650)
Come here for more Isan Thai, and brace yourself for the heat. The restaurant's key dish - appropriately named som tum - is a spicy papaya salad that Somtum Der makes in eight different variations with varying degrees of heat. Luckily for non-Thai speakers, the rest of the expansive menu consists mostly of graphics, so pointing and smiling is encouraged if it looks good on the page. What looks good to most visitors - including media outlets from CNN to Travel & Leisure - is the fried chicken. Also available on a sliding scale of reasonable to burn your face off, you might want to start with something mild and work your way up over a few visits. (212-260-8570)
At Thai Market on Amsterdam Ave, you'll again have to fight the crowds for a taste of the good stuff, but it's worth it. The lunch special is a particularly good deal, and delivery is also available, but if you opt to eat-in, expect star service and a relaxed vibe. As one of the only Thai restaurants we'd recommend on the Upper West Side, it certainly does its job to scratch the Thai craving itch with dishes from curry puffs, steamed Thai dumplings and gai rad preeg - fried sliced chicken served with crushed hot chilies, garlic, tamarind sauce and bok choy. (212-280-4575)
Authentic Thai reigns supreme at this casual Woodside kitchen, where walk-ins are welcomed with a friendly smile and the fare runs from Panang beef to catfish fried to a golden crisp. The vegetarian menu is nearly as long as the regular one, so order freely if you're off the meat. The interior is understated and lacks the flash and flair of the high-profile chains, but if you're looking for something to spice up your trip to Queens, this is the place. A word of advice: lately SriPraPhai regulars have complained about a lack of heat and flavor in their favorite dishes. If you like your dishes spicy, don't forget to ask your server for Thai hot. (718-899-9599)
Pure Thai Cookhouse
Pure Thai Cookhouse calls Hell's Kitchen home, and has a steady stream of regulars every day of the week. Boasting an open kitchen, affordable dishes and a laid back vibe, the 35-seat space reminds us a little of a country cottage, complete with distressed tables, wood beam walls and pastel bar stools. Don't let the hole-in-the-wall atmosphere dissuade you from plopping down on a stool and ordering the spare ribs. Pure Thai's regulars swear by them, in addition to the Thai milk tea. Prepare to wait, or arrive before the dinner rush to snag a sacred spot. (212-581-0999)
One of the best bang-for-your-buck restaurants in NYC, Ayada's where to go if you don't shy away from the heat. In a NY Times review a few years back, the writer admits that his meal here (and the birds-eye chilies, in particular) brought him to tears...in a good way. Regulars say that Ayada is the best Thai food they've had in Queens, which says something considering the other stand-outs sprinkled throughout the borough. Though the space is small (20 tables, max), the kitchen more than makes up for the tight squeeze by churning out a wide-spread menu of favorites including (som tom) green papaya salad, drunken noodles and a range of traditional curries. ((718) 424-0844)
About Andrea Wien
Andrea Wien was bitten by the travel bug from an early age, and has lived in New York, Seattle, Cleveland and Sydney, Australia since 2007.
When she's not traveling or planning a trip, you'll likely find her eating tacos while throwing darts and watching the Cleveland Browns.
Read more about Andrea Wien here.
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