64-13 39th Ave Woodside, NY 11377
I first heard of Sripraphai in the upper echelons of basic cable, on a now defunct channel that showed reruns of Korean soaps, Japanese gameshows, and the occasional Pride match, and had, to my recollection, exactly one show worth watching, where the hosts profiled Asian restaurants around New York’s outer boroughs. They played it cool at Sripraphai, noting the tendency of most Thai restaurants in the US to “Westernize” dishes by sweetening and salting them, before describing Sripraphai as the exception. In grainy low-resolution video (it was 2006), the place looked modest.
The next year I moved to Queens, and, learning that Sripraphai (and Woodside, with its many gastronomical treasures) was two subway stops from me, was on it.
In truth it took me several more years of eating around the world to appreciate the essential understatement of the hosts of that ill-fated food show – that most Thai food in the US is not mediocre, but crap – unfit to represent the culinary traditions of that country – and that Sripraphai, far from being an incremental improvement on the trough slop offered at most American Thai eateries, was indeed one of the best Thai restaurants in the country. Well, I get it now.
As with ramen, I’m no expert, but I’ve eaten enough to begin to scratch the surface of the difference: If your restaurant is using salt or sugar as a crutch, there’s your first red flag. To go from average Thai food to Sripraphai is a little like suddenly seeing in color instead of black-and-white. For starters, the sheer variety of flavors should get your attention. Hot oil preparations, citrus and vinegar, carmelized barbecue flavors with anise. Multiple curries that actually taste distinct from one-another. Aged eggs. Tofu soups with the characteristic savory meatiness known as xian wei (鮮味), without fattiness or cloudiness. The other facet is the balance, between sweet, sour, salty, and…well…fishy.
Fish sauce, a staple of Thai and Vietnamese cooking, is pretty putrid-smelling off-the-shelf. (I once managed to break a bottle of it in my cupboard, and don’t recommend it.) But deployed skillfully, it becomes one note in a complex chord of flavor. Okay that was a silly analogy. But it’s true.
Ready to talk about food?
Okay – here are some of my favorites at the Sri – Any pork appetizer, particular the one cooked with salt and citrus, or the crispy one.
The clear tofu soup I described above, with chicken meatballs.
Egg curry noodles.
Glass noddles with mushrooms, chicken, and shrimp.
Photo by John Roleke
Grilled whole fish.
Photo by Melissa Ruttanai
With the menus, you can basically close your eyes and drop your finger on any page and know that you’ll get something delicious, and if you’ve never visited Sripraphai before, I challenge you to order something a little beyond your comfort zone. Skip the pad thai just this once.
Sripraphai had recently expanded before my first visit, and it now boasts a nicely appointed dining room and great outdoor seating if the season is right. The best times to come are mid-afternoon on weekdays or Sunday. Dinner and brunch times can get crowded, particularly on Friday nights.