A Bangkok Kitchen Hides Inside a Chinese Restaurant in Queens

A Bangkok Kitchen Hides Inside a Chinese Restaurant in Queens


The front door on the left leads to a Chinese hot-pot place called iCook Buffet. The one on the right takes you to Thai Cook, after you walk down a long hall where toy models of tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled taxis of Bangkok, dangle at the end of rainbow-colored Slinkys. Between the restaurants are waist-high partitions and a few tied-back curtains. No wall separates the diners who are dunking enoki mushrooms into boiling chicken broth from the ones spooning out panang curry.

Ms. Thongngoen and two or three other cooks are out in the open, too, lined up behind a counter that might have been a service bar in a former incarnation of the space. On the left are two tall wood mortar-and-pestle sets. This is where Ms. Thongngoen stands, shredding papayas and cucumbers with an imposing knife, then hammering them with a small bat she holds in her left hand, mixing in chiles, peanuts, bean sprouts and lime hulls, scraping down the sides with a metal spoon in her right hand as she goes.

Bangkok papaya salads do not come at you with a fire hose of heat, like the northern Thai som tums you’ll get at nearby restaurants. But you will notice the chiles, as you’ll notice the saltiness and sharpness, the way you will when a tom yum has been smashed with care.

Slide along the counter of this skeletal kitchen to the right end, and you’ll find a couple of induction burners. One of Ms. Thongngoen’s deputies, stationed there, prepares the desserts, like soft taro, or pumpkin cubes in warm coconut milk that has more than a trace of salt. She also makes cool emerald-green pearls of pandan tapioca and coconut-milk shaved ice, infused with enough jasmine to affect your dreams; cantaloupe balls and white sheets of fresh young coconut are dropped on top.

What’s missing from this mise en place? Quite a lot, including the gas burners, woks and deep-fryers that Thai Cook would need to make spring rolls or fried tofu. For appetizers, there are slippery, thickish sheets of steamed tapioca and rice flours — “fresh crepe” on the menu — folded over chopped pressed tofu with chives and splashed with a soy dressing. Or, less interestingly, something called “steamed fish,” which is what it sounds like, with the addition of fried pork skin.

But Ms. Thongngoen uses a behind-the-scenes burner to simmer the base for her excellent noodle soups. She also cooks pork or beef into an excellent panang curry, a little thicker than usual, which may be why she calls it “home style.” Whole chiles are scattered over the top but, unless you eat one, they won’t take over the coconut-milk sauce; the dominant aromatic is lime leaf, sliced into threads. Other curries are worthwhile, but the only one that’s as compelling is the clear, sour one called kaeng chuk som in Thai; it is particularly delicious when she makes it with very fresh grouper.



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