When you use a term like real in your name, people are going to expect you to deliver the goods. I guess you could say Pams is realer than much of what passes for Thai food in NYC. I'm so not a food snob, but Thai is one of the few cuisines that I actually feel like I "get" and can talk about semi-authoritatively. I'm picky. Ill have a shit fit if anyone dare suggest Lemongrass Grill as a viable option (or requests chopsticks). And unfortunately, I just might live amidst the citys highest concentration of mediocre Thai restaurants (Citysearch lists 18 for the 11231 zip code, but nearby stragglers also show up in the results).
Everyone knows Sripraphai is the go to for Thai food, like the earth is round, its irrefutable. So, its hard to branch out when you know ahead of time the cuisine wont measure up. But Pams has been qualified as Manhattans best Thai (others would argue Wondee Siam), and with that ranking in mind, bolstered by fairly recent New York Times praise, I figured I'd finally give it shot.
The first weird uncharacteristic thing I did was bring a bottle of wine. BYOB is allowed at Sripraphai too, but I've never partaken. I have unfounded issues with people who bring wine into "ethnic" holes in the wall. It's not that I don't enjoy wine with my meals, its just sort of a when in Rome deal. I would say its a Borough vs. Manhattan thing, but its not completely because I also feel NY Noodletown is an inappropriate venue for showcasing ability to pair wine with roast duck on rice. But Pams felt like a bottle of wine was warranted, nothing precious or foodie about it.
I ended up liking Pams food, and if I'm sounding defensive its only because authenticity police love slamming this place. No, its not Sripraphai (and some would argue the new Sripraphai isnt Sripraphai anymore) but if you choose carefully and strongly emphasize your capacity for heat, its not like youre going to have a Lemongrass Grill experience. The LG experience at this restaurant was more evident in atmosphere, by which I mean the clientele.
We arrived very early and beat the notorious crowds, but that didnt keep a peculiar foursome from being seated smack dab next to us. After the older gentleman removed his back brace and crammed it an inch from my feet, I became fixated on figuring these folks out. The best I could tell was that a woman who used to live in Manhattan was enlightening relatives (the spine injury guy and a couple in their early 20s) with her good taste via her former stomping grounds. I was stumped by their slow Midwestern diction and unabashed love of Ruby Tuesday, only to have them go on to talk about living in New Jersey. I shouldnt condescend, despite their not knowing what curry was and gaping over a fish presented whole, they all seemed pleased with their meal at the end.
I wasn't displeased either. We started with a surprisingly spicy seafood som tam, studded with shrimp, mussels and squid. I swear I'd eat som tam all the time if I could just find green enough papaya. Instead of ordering crispy pork with basil and chile so we could compare to our Sripraphai standard, we tried the duck version. I thought it held up, though smaller pork pieces seem better in their flesh to fat contrast. Basil chicken, aka E3 (Bennies got us hooked on that shorthand) has never knocked my socks off in the first place. We make it home all the time because its easy and tasty, but at restaurants I want things that are difficult for dabblers to reproduce. I did miss the all the plastic tubs of goodies since I'm accustomed to taking my sweets to go. I refrained from dessert at Pams though I do have to give them kudos for putting a durian rice pudding on the menu. You definitely wont find that at Ruby Tuesday. (4/1/05)
People get down on Pam because it's not Sripraphai. But jesus, compared to the bland lowest common denominator Thai food that dominates my South Brooklyn environs, it's like a breath of fresh fish saucy air. Since my last visit, they've taken a page from Sri's book, literally, and have started putting color food photos at the back of the menu (as opposed to a big binder). They've also started serving alcohol.
But of note, is that the food is better than I recall from my previous meal. I frequently feel like crying after wasting money and calories on Thai food. I end up full yet totally unsatisfied from the pale renditions of yums and curries. The one dish that remains unique to Sripraphai seems to be the watercress salad. Nothing compares, I don't even know if they eat such a thing in Thailand (I never saw it, but it's not like I scoured the country). Pam hasn't attempted that, but their salads are sufficient.
Where they seem to excel is with the crisp fried, deep and dark preparations that burn the tongue. Or maybe I just love anything that's rich, crunchy and hot as hades. Our two entrees looked nearly identical–only one photo turned out, but no matter because the images were interchangeable.
We ordered crispy duck pad prik king and a catfish something or another that was hard to resist with its double chile rating. The duck had long beans and the fish apple eggplants, both were sprinkled with lime leaves (my only complaint would be the thick matchstick-sized cut leaves instead of a finer chiffonade) I'm not sure if both had basil. You have to emphasize you really like heat (and that you're not freaked out by lots of tiny bones. Oh my god, once I brought a friend to Sriprphai and her boyfriend ordered a similar catfish curry and had a spazz out over all the bones). I guess they believed me because the fish (actually the sauce and eggplants more than the flesh) hit me hard half way through the meal. I think it charred my esophagus. I don't even want to think about the intestines and the rest of that eventual route.
Despite the detractors, I really do think Pam's is the solution if you're Manhattan-bound. If you're stuck in Brooklyn? I guess you're screwed. (1/19/06)
Pam Real Thai Food * 404 W. 49th St., New York, NY