(spicy section only)
Living on the edge of Carroll Gardens in a corner apartment without a front gate, we rarely get the takeout menus that everyone else in the neighborhood tries warding off with menacing signs. I like reading menus, even pedestrian ones. When we recently found one for Em Thai, the glowing pink restaurant on Smith Street, my first inclination was to toss in the recycling bin, but my attention was grabbed by the large text on the first page, “New recommended spicy real Thai hot alert!! If you cannot eat real spicy food, we do not recommend all items on this menu.” Really?
That week James walked by after work and said the place was empty. Maybe they were desperate, trying new approaches. Friday night (and probably every evening) they were offering 20% off, not a tactic of a thriving restaurant. We had to move in quickly before the place went kaput.
With each bite of the Brooklyn-style larb my hopes for the promised hot and spicy experience faded. Why is all the local Thai food two-note lime and sugar? The chicken larb from the regular menu was making me very anxious. They did use ground, roasted rice but I don’t think there was even a dusting of chile powder. My insides were jumping around, concerned that the entrees were going to suck. I really hate wasting a good meal.
Pad Cha Pork Red Hot, the only dish on the special menu with four stars, came out next. I could see shredded krachai, crushed chiles and tiny branches of green peppercorns. Nice! And the first bite? Fiery in that way that almost tastes dirty, like the receptors in your mouth are being shocked and subsequently dulled as they get used to the feeling. Even though the pork was chunkier than what you might find in Thailand (I recall seeing mostly ground meat or fried pork belly) the flavor is the most Thai I’ve encountered in Brooklyn.
The fish looks innocent, but it too was spicy from a coating of pure chopped garlic and chile, with a sweet-tart lime sauce. The steamed filet was flaky and almost too delicate for the garnish. I would’ve loved this with a whole crispy-fried fish, but was trying to balance the pork with a lighter choice.
So, I would stay away from pretty much everything on the menu except for the nine dishes in the special section—that is, unless you like cherries and pineapple with your duck and avocado in your panang curry. I’m definitely going to return for the Spicy Fried Wing Salad—that takes some audacity.
After five years in the neighborhood, I’ve finally found a Thai restaurant that makes me want to return—or at least order takeout—because they’ve done something to differentiate themselves from the slew of Smith Street blahness. Now, I just hope that they stay afloat.
Em Thai * 278 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY