No one likes a food snob even if it's over a six-buck plate of pad thai, but honestly, some Thai restaurants are created more equal than others. And most of the standout Thai joints in NYC happen to be in Queens where you're much less likely to find diners demanding brown rice, chopsticks or fish-sauceless food (all bad signs). You also might want to think twice about eateries with a DJ booth, but that's just me.
SripraphaiAt this point you'd have to be deaf and blind to not know about Sripraphai (64-13 39th Ave., Woodside, NY) but some things are popular for a reason. Don't believe the rumors about their food suffering post-expansion; they are unfounded. The only difference is that weekend waits are slightly less painful and BYOB is a thing of the past.
Branch out from the typical red, green, panang curry canon and try intensely spiced varieties using catfish, roast duck, sator beans, and pea-sized eggplants you rarely see in NYC. Crispy watercress salad will convert anyone with battered fried greens, chicken, shrimp, cilantro, onions, and cashews dressed in perfectly balanced lime, fish sauce, sugar and chiles.
Refrigerated cases and metal shelves near the door hold gems you won't find elsewhere like Thai marzipan, colorful fruit and vegetable facsimiles crafted from bean paste rather than ground almonds.
Chao ThaiChao Thai (85-03 Whitney Ave., Elmhurst, NY), in a pocket of Elmhurst better known for Indonesian fare, is a tiny, humble antidote to monolithic Sripraphai. There are only a few tables and little decorative distraction, but you will find well-prepared food (in walking distance of the main Thai temple in NYC).
Their list of daily specials can be intriguing: I once had a refreshing salad endearingly named Three Buddies that contained fish maw and pork (I'm still not sure what the third amigo was).
Standouts include crispy pork in pad prik khing curry, teeming with plump green beans, and a selection of noodle soups containing fish and beef balls (not in the same dish, however) that you don't often see at Thai restaurants.
Zabb QueensIgnore the wine and cheese motif on their website, Zabb Queens (71-28 Roosevelt Ave, Jackson Heights, NY) specializes in Issan style food so it's best to know that curries aren't their forte. Coconut milk is scarce in northeastern Thailand where herby, sour, sharp salads a.k.a. yums and labbs (their spellings, you'll also see yam and larb elsewhere) are de rigueur. Ground meat, duck, or seafood all get this treatment and should be eaten with sticky rice -- traditionally with your hands, though most New Yorkers resort to forks. Grilled beef and pork served with chile dipping sauce and tangy sausage are also hallmarks of the cuisine.
I can't vouch for the hot pots, but do-it-yourself fondue cooking is available. If you don't see it on the menu, just ask. Zabb stays open later than most Queens Thai restaurants with an advertised 2 a.m. closing time, though I've never hit them up in the wee hours.
Pam Real ThaiSome might say Pam Real Thai (404 W 49th St, New York, NY) is "good for Manhattan," but it's also all around good.
The chef, Pam Panyasiri, hails from Bangkok but the food is broader in scope. Just about anything made with crispy duck is irresistible; in fact there's a section of the menu entirely devoted to the rich poultry. Whole snapper in choo chee sauce and topped with shredded lime leaves is a bit of a splurge but wonderfully textured. Deceptively simple oxtail soup is unique and a ordering a large bowl to share is a great way to start a meal.
AruneeArunee (37-68 79th St, Jackson Heights, NY) has its apologists and detractors. It's a notch above your typical Americanized Thai but can be hit or miss, so don't hold me personally responsible if you get blah instead of brilliance.
But if you find yourself in Jackson Heights and aren't in the mood for Indian or Latin American, try po pia taud (Thai spring rolls) instead of an arepa or samosa.
Arunee works for dining companions with diverse tastes because they have the greatest hits like pad thai and tom kha gai as well as more adventurous options -- frog legs with chile sauce or stomach and intestine soup, anyone?