Just because I’ve written a book that touches on Singaporean food, people tend to assume I am an expert on all cuisines Southeast Asian.
In New York, this means I sometimes get asked: Have you been to Sri Pra Phai?
There’s always a look of disbelief when I say, Well, no.
Understandably so, perhaps. Not only have New Yorkers been raving about the cheap Thai place all over Chowhound and Yelp for years — but New Yorker magazine has also weighed in with a review sprinkled with words like “revelatory” and “superb.”
Recently, I decided enough was enough. Time to fix this once and for all. And so when my trusty food guide, Chef Simpson suggested heading to Queens for a Sri Pra Phai fix one evening, I was only too happy to oblige …
We arrived on a Sunday evening to find a large crowd outside — par for the course, I was told.
There is a meat counter-like system — you take a number inside and wait outside, watching the board for your number to come up.
The place to be — if weather permits — is outside, which has the laidback feel of many outdoor eateries in Southeast Asia.
The menu — packed with dozens upon dozens of entries spread over several pages — can be difficult to navigate. But several items piqued our interest.
We started with the fried whole red snapper ($22), which was deliciously crispy and terrific paired with zesty forkfuls of red onions, cashews, julienned cucumbers and more.
The crispy Chinese watercress salad ($10.50) sounded intriguing — the chunks of breaded and deep-fried watercress on its own was tasty (and a lovely pairing for beer or an ice-cold beverage on a hot day). But pouring the bowl of shrimp, squid and chicken in a sweet chili gravy over the greens and tossing them all together elevated the dish to a knockout.
The larb ($8.50; pictured high up above) was superb — the dish of ground pork packed with an intense combination of mint, dry chili and lime juice and served over lettuce, was so good I made sure to keep the plate right by me for the rest of the meal.
Now, meatballs on a stick are a common street food in Southeast Asia so we thought the grilled beef balls ($5) might be worth a shot.
They weren’t. Well, unless you like dense, generally flavorless meatballs coated in sweet chili sauce.
I’d also advise skipping the fried chive vegetable dumplings ($5) — the memorable thing about these bland dumplings was the greasy mouthfeel they left behind.
Ditto the fried chicken ($9), which were fine, if unremarkable, flavorwise but were rather dry. (A pity, as Southeast Asian-style fried chicken is just about my favorite food in the world.)
Just when we were about to call it a night, a dish we’d ordered and promptly forgotten about showed up — pork leg with mustard greens over rice ($8.50).
Now this was a hit — the pork chunks were falling apart tender, the gravy was earthy, inflected with a wonderful sourness from the preserved mustard greens and delicious over rice and the hard-boiled egg and mound of cilantro kicked the overall experience up a notch.
Despite some rough spots, it was a good meal overall. Even better, the next time anyone asks if I’ve been to Sri Pra Phai, I can now say I have.
Sri Pra Phai Restaurant, 64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside, N.Y.; 718.899.9599; http://sripraphairestaurant.com/