Why Aren’t There Any Good Thai Restaurants in New York?

Reader Andrew said,

Gary, would you tell us about your favorite Thai restaurants in NYC? Are any of them the same caliber as Elephant Jumps?

Bonus points for being run-down, hole-in-the-wall places.

If you want to eat Elephant Jumps’ food you’re going to have to go to Elephant Jumps. There’s unlikely to be a New York substitute.

For all of you New Yorkers that have your back up at that statement, I’ll happily concede that the Washington DC area can compete or outcompete New York in probably only one or two other areas — Vietnamese for sure, and I’m tempted to say Ethiopian although that cuisine has been in long-term decline in the District.

You’re going to get more hole in the wall places in Flushing than in Manhattan, and in Manhattan on the streets rather than the avenues, but while there are plenty of Asian options in New York there aren’t a whole lot of good Thai places.

I grew up in New York, and New Yorkers generally aren’t big on spice. When the well-known Vegas Thai place Lotus of Siam opened in New York they completely redid their cooking for a New York palate, of course they didn’t last.

New York is great in almost everything because of the concentration of people. There’s intense competition, and enough people with enough varied tastes that one can be an entrepreneur and successful by specializing.

I’m not sure if there aren’t enough consumers with a developed taste in authentic Thai (perhaps related to spice aversion) or if there aren’t enough Thai people to demand good food from their home country. But New York is simply not a mecca for Thai food.

That said, there are probably good Thai places although I’ve never eaten in any there. I haven’t been to Pure Thai, which many seem to love. So I can’t categorically say that none reach the heights of quality that I’m looking for — I haven’t tried them all. And I’ll certainly try more in the future.

In general though I’ve stopped exploring for Thai restaurants in New York because they’ve historically disappointed. Which leaves me potentially blind, of course, to changes in the culinary landscape.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Uncle Boon’s on Spring Street is one of the better Thai restaurants I’ve been to in NYC. It’s better than a lot of the restaurants in Thailand itself.

  2. Indeed you’ll find a lot of good, authentic (ie spicy) places in Queens, but there’s not much that is good in Manhattan. I would recommend Som Tum Derjung, however, for good, fairly authentic Northern Thai.

  3. Seriously? Ayuda? Zarb Elee? Sri Phai Phai? Khao Kang?

    I’ll grant you there’s a lot of third rate Thai food in NYC as well, but that’s true most everywhere. Including, alas, Bangkok.

  4. This is a joke, right? Elmhurst and Woodside have a profusion of incredible Thai food. And if you like restaurants for white people, as this post implies, Pok Pok?!

  5. I second what LarryInNYC said. Take the 7 train to Woodside next time and try any of those he mentioned (my fave is Sri Pra Phai). None of the Thai restos in Manhattan compares to it, in my opinion.

  6. In Manhattan, Larb Ubol on 9th Ave is hands down the best authentic northern Thai food. It’s on the same strip as 50 crappy Thai places but this one is a jewel.

  7. Gary,

    What’s your criteria for declaring a Thai resto being authentic? Certain dishes on menu? I’m guessing a certain amount of spice? When I go to a new resto for a particular ethnic food, I always order specific dishes that I know how they should taste. Would like see your “have to haves”?

  8. Drunken Noodle at Topaz Thai by the Parker LeMeridien! Best Thai dish I’ve had in America and I kove Thai.

  9. Cara and John nailed it. Any Thai loving New Yorker knows to take the 7 train to Woodside and eat at SriPraPhai. Cash only. BYO is (IIRC) $10.

    We max out at $60 for 2 people, but you can eat for $40.

  10. Sukhumvit 51, on 51st between 2nd and 3rd. Tiny, cheap but not a hole in the wall. I live in DC and have been to Thailand, this is the best Thai I’ve had here. Ask for it Thai spicy!

  11. Pure Thai Cookhouse in H Kitchen is a different style than Elephant Jumps (the focus is on noodles) but it’s a fun place with a great ambiance and good food.

  12. I second Pok Pok (outpost of the one in PDX) though it’s in Brooklyn so a bit of a trek. I’ve heard great things about Larb Ubol and plan to go myself soon.

  13. A third for NGAM. Duck in red curry is delicious. She (chef hong) used to cook for the Thai royal family. Superb food.

  14. Sripraphai in Woodside is easily the best Thai restaurant in the hemisphere, its only real competition being Pok Pok in Brooklyn (and Portland). The fact that the jive version of Lotus of Siam couldn’t cut it in Manhattan is a testament to New Yorkers’ sophisticated palettes. There are now plenty of places in Manhattan that are as good or better than Lotus of Siam (in LV) or Elephant Jumps, but Woodside/Elmhurst/Jackson Heights is clearly the center of Thai food in NYC (and Indian/Pakistani/Bengali/Himalayan and Mexican too).

  15. I’ve been to Thailand over a dozen times and I spend a month in NYC every year, always hunting down authentic little spots off the #7 line. I agree that Sripraphai is very good–just because they’re insanely popular is no reason to ‘dis them. I once ate at the aforementioned Larb Ubol in Manhattan and the people across from me told the waiter “We don’t want anything spicy”…it was all I could do to keep my mouth shut and not ask them WTF they were doing in an Isaan joint. I’ve also had good meals at Zarb Elee in Queens, but have heard less than complimentary comments about the Manhattan location. The key in NYC is look the waiter in the eye, tell him you want food like you’d get in Thailand and not the food they make for the average US local. Generally works like a charm, though the wait staff will sometimes protest, “Too spicy” and then I simply repeat what I said the first time and tell ’em I spend a lot of time in the Land of Smiles. This certainly also applies for Sichuan and Indian joints in the city.

  16. I used to live around the corner from Sri Pri Phai and it is one the better ones in the city. It’s catered a little too much to a larger audience but still a great meal. There is a place on the same avenue about two blocks away that has probably the best Tom Yum Goong. It’s called Center Point. Hole In the wall market/restaurant. I would also say any of the Thai joints on Woodside Ave from Woodside towards Elmhurst and then onto Broadway are all light years ahead of the majority of the Manhattan Thai restaurants. There are a lot of Thai people living in this part of NYC.

  17. Thai food started getting good in NYC probably just after you gave up looking. Sripraphai was about the only good place for years, but now the true Thai–for-Thai-people places have really taken off, and we now have more great Thai restos than I can visit, and most notably, the kind of places that specialize the way restos in Thailand do, such as Khao Khang, Pye Boat Noodle, and Plant Love House. I think Som Tum Der is a branch of a Thai chain, even? (Sripraphai, which has 800 menu items, seems less special to me now that I’ve been to Thailand a lot; I prefer Thai Ceter Point down the street, just because it’s so much cozier and reminds me more of Thailand.)

    Ironically, I think white-dude-run Pok Pok (which is excellent, even if the veg are sometimes cut in too-perfect chef-y cubes) coming to NYC might have helped these Thai-run restaurants a lot, in that Andy Ricker has really educated people who haven’t been to Thailand. He’s like Rick Baless for Thai food.

  18. Gary certainly knows how to make a controversial post- dissing NYC with the statement “NYC doesn’t have any good [insert literally anything here]” is an easy recipe for more comments that you last week of posts combined. 🙂

    There is good Thai here- even Manhattan- Som Tum Der that others have mentioned is literally the foreign outpost of a Bangkok restaurant, and their new sister restaurant Kiin on E 8th near NYU is awesome as well. Maybe 3 dishes on the whole menu that aren’t spicy.

  19. @Mike

    per our recommendation we went to Larb Ubol on Saturday and the food was indeed very good, reminded me very much of food in BKK. i had to ask for mild(er) version of their dishes… i like Thai food but I don’t want to burn my mouth all that much.

    I will definitely go again. thanks.

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