Restaurant-wise, I’m usually drawn in by the new or new-to-me, the exception being Thai food where branching out only leads to tears—and not of the spice-induced variety. I remain a Sripraphai stalwart with the occasional side-trip to Chao Thai during peak Sripraphai hours, and that’s it.
Because I’m distrustful–I've been burned before!–I’ve ignored rumblings for at least a year now that Ayada is another Queens contender. I finally gave in. And it was completely worth it. Though, it’s not exactly like the Elmhurst restaurant is a secret with the Sripraphai Saturday night crowd-avoiders like myself. I’ve never not gotten a table at Chao Thai, which is about a third of the size of not-that-big-either Ayada, so I figured It would be safe. Not so; we still had to wait for a perfectly bearable 15 minutes, and the bench out front leads me to believe this is not unusual.
The food was not a disappointment. In fact, it was much better than I had expected it to be and the heat level was appropriately "Thai spicy" when asked for, despite the presence of wine-toters (and the spice-ruiners are always wine-toters. Yes, I love that there's a vast selection of Riesling at Lotus of Siam, but there’s something that always rankles me off about byob oenophiles at restaurants like this and particularly New York Noodle Town) who made the point of telling the waitress after testing their food that they should’ve ordered medium. Shush, you are ruining it for the rest of us! At least they didn’t ask for chopsticks or brown rice.
The only thing is that Ayada knows it is good, and the service is upbeat and helpful (unlike the guy we call "The Tool" at Chao Thai who plays gotcha bt getting you to admit you like the spice level and then tells you that it's lower than what you asked for). I prefer coy and aloof. They cite all of the dishes on the menu that were mentioned in The New York Times review and the hits seemed to be priced accordingly. Or maybe I’m just sore because those dishes were the ones I wanted anyway and I hate looking like a follower.
I balked a bit at the $15 price of their answer to Sriprahai’s crispy Chinese watercress salad (and one of my favorite dishes anywhere period). Five dollars more does buy you a larger portion. This rendition could easily be split among four. All the contrasting textures and sweetened lime dressing bursting with heat that I’m used to were there. The main difference between this version and Sri’s is the addition of grape tomatoes, ground chicken and that the watercress, itself, is battered lightly and fried in unwieldy hard-to-separate bunches. You almost need a knife to portion it.
Fatty, crisp-skinned pork belly nuggets need to be on a Thai menu to win my heart (never mind my blood vessels) and this pad kra prow version, heavier on the sliced chiles than basil, was irresistible.
Continuing the rich and crackly-skinned theme, the panang curry with duck was also a good choice, if slightly salty. Served with the dark, tender meat as the focal point and sauce to be doled out as needed, this was, well, a classy curry.
We didn’t hit any duds with our Ayada trial run. The food is comparable to Chao Thai and wins with ambience. This is where you would want to go on a date or bring your parents, and yes, tote your bottle of wine. Chao Thai is where you grab takeout or dine-in without lingering and sip a glass of coconut juice. I would return to either depending on what I needed. I’d still like to try Ayada’s mysterious black egg dish, salted crab with mango and tom zap Cornish hen soup.
Ayada * 78-03 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst, NY