Manhattan Project: The Rebranding Of Thai Cuisine

Thai cuisine is not very good. That is, if you live in the United States and you’ve never been to Thailand and the only opportunities you’ve had to eat it are at one of the many mediocre restaurants that exist here.

The first time I ate Thai – embarrassingly in my mid 20s when I was living in Los Angeles for a few months – it was something of a revelation. The combination of sweet, sour, spicy and salty flavors all conspired to taste like nothing I’d ever eaten before. But the more I ate Thai and the more that I learned about it and talked about it with food-loving friends, the more I realized how average most of the Thai restaurants are in the United States – particularly in Manhattan where I’ve been living most of the last decade.

In New York City, we’ve had to travel to Queens to get decent Thai food. Which is fine but somehow the borough of Manhattan (not to mention the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn) have escaped good Thai – at least until recently.
In the last few years, a handful of Thai restaurants (albeit more expensive and, often, serving elevated takes on the cuisine) have fired up their burners and are serving, for the first time, inspired fare.

Kittichai was one of the first. Then came Rhong Tiam, which earned a Michelin star and thus an acknowledgment that things were changing on the Thai dining landscape in Manhattan. And now there’s Lotus of Siam, the import from Las Vegas (which many foodies had dubbed the best Thai restaurant in the country), Ngam, Zabb Elee, Betel and Kin Shop, to name a few.

Manning the stoves at Ngam is Hong Thaimee, a native of Chiang Mai and a former model. Chef Thaimee prepares traditional Thai as well as Siam-inspired takes on American comfort food. She infuses lemongrass in a burger and tops it with shredded papaya, for example. Or she puts massaman curry in a pot pie and covers it, not with a pie crust, but with a piece of roti bread.

Thaimee said one reason why quality Thai never took off in Manhattan is because of its association with cheapness. “Thai needs to be rebranded,” she said. “People think Thai is spicy and cheap. It’s like the new Chinese food and I hope to help elevate it out of this stereotype.”

Another new Thai restaurant to open in Manhattan recently is Kin Shop, Top Chef winner Harold Dieterle’s homage to Thai cuisine. “I started working in the city around 2002 and the Thai food scene was quite weak. I’m not trying to be rude about it, but the only real spots to get decent Thai food were in Queens. Manhattan was just full of mediocre takeout spots.”

And what does chef Dieterle attribute to this trend in better quality Thai cuisine in Manhattan?

“As people raise their expectations and learn more about the food and culture they’ve probably wanted to get dishes that are more representative of what Thai food really is.”

Jay Cheshes, food writer and restaurant critic for Time Out New York, has a slightly different take on it: “Even the top Thai cooks in New York have long kept the best stuff to themselves, afraid the most fiery funky dishes were just too much for western palates. At places like Zabb Elee in the East Village, though, that’s started to change. And with all the New York chefs exploring potent Thai flavors all of a sudden there’s no excuse for making do any more with generic pad Thai.”