BY JOE DISTEFANO
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. Really, I’m not royalty though; I’m an ambassador, and a hungry one at that. Today, a trip to Thailand for a survey of regional street food as presented at iCook Thai Cook, the newest restaurant in the Little Bangkok neighborhood of Elmhurst, Queens.
I’m as excited about iCook Thai Cook, the newest entrant on the vibrant Thai dining scene in Elmhurst, Queens, as I was when I first set foot in Woodside’s storied Sripraphai 15 years ago. In case you’re wondering the name comes from, it’s because Boonnum “Nam” Thongngoen’s restaurant resides in a sliver of a space inside iCook, a Chinese style hotpot restaurant.
Miniature tuktuks — the motorized rickshaws common throughout Thailand — affixed to rainbow-colored slinkies dangle from the ceiling of the narrow hallway leading into the dining room. Little swatches of the type of gold foil one sees adorning the reclining Buddha at the nearby Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram temple pepper the walls of the corridor. Inside lies a temple to Thai street food, complete with a brightly colored mural from local artist Nong Sarasin depicting a rotund, Thai-style Buddha against a field of orange and yellow flowers holding a platter. Behind the counter is an altar with a more serious religious icon, the Emerald Buddha.
Wow! Zaab Wing, a bowl of flappers festooned with cilantro and dressed with a chili lime sauce, is a great way to start your devotional to Thai street food. The superb crunch comes from roasted rice powder and double frying. The mussel pancake packed with shrimp and mussels and served with sweet chili sauce is also quite tasty.
There’s no real way to translate yum, the class of Thai dishes that feature various proteins in a zippy marinade, into English, so the menu calls them Spicy Yummy Salad. Among the 11 dishes, you’ll find liver, pork intestines, pressed pork and egg yolk — all served with a shot glass of Millionaire Sauce. Rather than flaunting gold flakes or truffles, the latter features fish sauce, birdseye chili, kaffir lime, and mint. The squidgy rounds of pork loaf and rich bright yellow-orange duck yolks were quite lovely. It was pretty highly spiced already, but that didn’t deter my dining companions and I from enriching it with the Millionaire Sauce. Nam says the dish has its roots in a snack she whipped up for her children after school.
Millionaire Sauce also accompanies a bowl of fish maw and crab meat soup. It’s a Chinese-style medicinal potage with plenty of slippery fish maw, crab meat, shredded chicken, shiitakes, bamboo shoots, quail eggs, cubes of chicken blood and goji berries. You’ll find it on the menu under the heading Mom’s Specials.
Millionaire Sauce, Nam says, is a dig on her husband, Pornthep Jarumpornsakul who lost money in restaurants in Bangkok and New York City due to dishonest business partners. “I am sarcastic,” she said, noting the only thing he has to show for the failed restaurants is the sauce.
Like most Thai spots in the Elmhurst-Woodside area, iCook Thai Cook is not pulling any punches when it comes to chilies. One of the spiciest dishes — clear sour curry with fish, or kaeng chak som in Thai — can also be found on the roster of Mom’s Specialties. Fillets of pla sawai, or sutchi catfish, luxuriate in a bracingly sour broth flavored vibrating with the flavors of lemongrass, shrimp paste, tamarind and fresh chilies. This specialty of Pattaya is served with jasmine rice, which tempers the heat somewhat.
“I wanted to do food from the north, from the south, from the northeast, and the west mixed together,” Nam said. So it makes sense that the logo for the restaurant is a mortar and pestle emblazoned an outline of Thailand.
Representing the northeast is a signature papaya salad, Tom Thai Cook Pla Ra. The heap of raw crab, fermented fish and other seafood, shot through with slivers of green papaya, limes, and long beans is best ordered medium spicy, which means plenty of red birdseye chilies. Order some sticky rice to dredge through the liquor pooled at the bottom of the plate.
One of the best dishes I tried — tom yum noodle crepe —hails from Elmhurst. That’s because it is purely Nam’s creation. Known as pak mor tom yum in Thai, it consists of several delicate rice crepes filled with shrimp buried under a mountain of pork crackling, ground pork and sliced pork belly all united by the flavors of tom yum noodle soup: chili, roast peanut, lime, fish sauce and just a hint of sugar.
Cool your belly down with the traditional dessert bua loi. It’s rainbow of chewy rice flour balls in comforting sweet salty coconut milk topped with a poached egg. The recipe comes not from Nam, but from one of her cooks, dessert chef Daeng, who she met while cooking at the annual Thai New Year’s festival at the temple.
In case you are wondering iCook Thai Cook does serve what it calls “Superbowl Hot Pot.” Rather than a broth used to cook meats, it’s a larger format soup served in a Thai style caldron with a chimney rising out of the middle. The nuer toon hot pot, beef stew and beef tendon in a five spice broth, was perfect for a winter’s night.