It was perhaps my greatest moment of humility as food blogger when I admitted to my friends Dan Dan Noodle and Imperial Stout that I had never been to Sripraphai. They didn’t say it, but I could tell by their faces that they were questioning my foodie cred. “It just seems like you would have been there,” Dan Dan said. Oh, the shame! I immediately put the legendary (as I soon found out) Thai restaurant at the top of my must-eat list. I was further shamed a couple weeks ago when New York Magazine came out with its top 20 cheap eats in Queens, and I had only been to two of them (#3 Little Pepper and #20 Imperial Palace). Sripraphai was #12 on the list, so I figured it was as good a place as any to start the admittedly delicious process of repairing my reputation.
The restaurant is in Woodside, a very diverse neighborhood, almost exactly equal parts Asian, Latino and white. It is easily reachable on the 7 express train from Midtown, but not as easily reachable from Brooklyn, one reason why I don’t get out to Queens enough. (Not that I’m making excuses or anything.) I was coming from work, and Empanada Boy met me near my office to catch the 7 at Times Square. It was a record-breaking 104 degrees outside, so there was no way I was cooking dinner at home that night. Sripraphai is spacious, with a full restaurant’s worth of tables on both sides of the entrance. There were a number of empty tables when we arrived at 7 pm, but they were all full by the time we left at 8 pm. I opened the menu and was immediately confronted with a vast array of choices. Spiral bound, this menu is the thickness of a book and is probably 20 pages long. Between the two of us, we could only realistically eat three dishes. How would I know what to order?
We started with the roasted duck salad, something Frank Bruni had ordered and liked when he reviewed the restaurant in 2004. It was an old recommendation, but it ended up being the best dish of the night. The duck was tender, coming apart in soft, ragged pieces, still attached to crispy bits of skin. The salad itself was bright with wands of ginger, fish sauce, dried chili pepper, cucumber, scallions and fresh cilantro. The brightly colored dish was as much a symphony of flavor as the papaya salad at Zabb Elee had been. To select the next dish, I used my tried and true method of seeing something good-looking on the table of the people sitting next to me and asking what it was. In this case, the dish was sauteed crispy pork belly with chili, garlic and basil leaves. It sounded like we could not go wrong, and the two Thai women sitting next to us gave it their endorsement. As it turned out, it was a good, but not great, dish. The meat was a little too crispy in some places. One piece proved so tough I couldn’t even stab it with my fork. The dish was also less spicy than I had envisioned. Still, the better pieces of pork belly were pleasantly crispy and the dish had a good balance of seasoning. The last dish was selected from among the fish options because EB decided he wanted fish. Something did not compute, though, because we ended up ordering fish filets in chili, garlic, basil sauce, nearly identical to the seasoning on the pork belly. It turned out that the fish was also fried, so it was pretty much the same dish in fish version. The fish version actually tasted different, but it did not taste better. The fried exterior should have been crispier, and it was underseasoned. The fish itself was fairly flavorless and bit mealy.
At this point, I was experiencing some pretty serious orderer’s remorse. I envisioned Dan Dan Noodle and Imperial Stout tsk-tsking at my novice attempt. I realized then that I should have waited until they or someone else who knew how to navigate the lengthy menu could come to the restaurant and act as a guide. Anytime you have a 20-page menu, you are going to have some duds, and I needed a quick way of figuring out what those were. I had clearly not done enough research. The other option would be to come back with a large group and order double or triple the number of dishes, so that the duds got lost in the mix. Determined not to leave feeling disappointed, EB decided to take a chance on dessert. He ordered black sticky rice and taro root topped with coconut milk and ice cubes. This was a surprisingly tasty dish. The rice was steaming when it arrived, but the ice quickly brought it and the coconut milk to room temperature. As I scooped spoonfuls of the black rice and taro cubes up from their sweet milky bath, I hoped my next visit to Sripraphai would be more successful.
64-13 39th Ave.
Queens, NY 11377