(summary for news hounds: a new Thai restaurant in the touristy, NYU part of the Village, a frozen yogurt shop in Park Slope, Red Hot is closed.)
"Comfort food" is a very much overused, misused and surprisingly ill-understood term. It refers to simple, unpretentious food that makes you feel good. Very often it's the food of one's childhood, but it depends. If you're an American, think about the food you ate, or wanted to eat, in the days that followed September 11, 2001. I ate meatball heros, barbecued pork sandwiches, Big-Mac-large-fries-diet-Coke, Singapore mai fun, Thai food. I drank beer.
This last Friday evening was miserable and rainy and a good night for comfort food, so after going to a photography show opening that included some of the work of my friend Ray Garcia, I met my friend Chandler and his friend Marty at Rhong-Tiam, a new Thai place near NYU that claims to have the only "authentic" Thai food in New York City.
Now, I could go on and on for far longer than you'd like about the notion of authenticity and food, but suffice it to say that, although there is a lot of bad Thai food in New York, there's plenty of good Thai food, including some that would fit just about anybody's definition of authentic. But I respect a bold claim and figured the place was worth checking out.
Rhong-Tiam, whose name translates to something akin to "inn," is owned by a Thai chap who goes by Andy Yang, although his actual name is Rachapas Yangeksakul, and Erik Cheah, a Malaysian who's an owner of a bunch of the Penang restaurants in New York City. Andy himself comes from a restaurant family. His father owns a couple of Thai restaurants in Bangkok as well as two Taechiew restaurants -- one in Bangkok and one in Hong Kong.
Briefly, the Taechiew, also known as Chao Zhou, Chao Chao etc., come from the area around the city of Shantou, also called Swatow, and are the largest Chinese group in central Thailand. I'm told many Taechiew live in western Hong Kong, too. Their food is regarded as some of the finest of all Chinese cuisines.
I arrived before Chandler and Marty, so I had plenty of time to chat with Andy about the challenges of making great Thai food, in particular the great duck dish pet yang nam pueng (honey roasted duck), which he says requires a Chinese ingredient called yet sae to make properly. Neither of us is sure exactly what yet sae is (I'd never heard of it before), but we agreed that we had yet to enjoy proper pet yang nam pueng in the United States. This is particularly annoying in that you can't swing a dead cat in Bangkok without finding a decent version of the dish.
Andy also shared his philosophy about spiciness when it comes to Thai food: Some Thai dishes are spicy. They have to be. If you don't like spicy food, order something else because he's not going to tone it down for you.
When Chandler and Marty arrived Andy promptly sent out a banquet, which I'll list below.
Some notes on the ambience at Rhong-Tiam: A motorcycle sits in the foyer, the banquettes are upholstered with wide vertical black stripes. A railing is decorated in fake greenery and Christmas lights. The sound system was playing classic jazz vocals. In essence, it was an extremely authentic Bangkok-style setting, like a restaurant set up by a bunch of friends from Thammasat University on Phra-Arthit Road that reflected the personal, whimsical tastes of its owners.
My comfort-food mood continued the next day, and so I sent Clark Mitchell a text-message, wondering if he might want to have lunch at Lobo, a Tex-Mex place on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope that he loves.
"That's a genius idea," he wrote, and so we drank Margaritas and ordered what to us was the essential comfort food in the Tex-Mex repertoire. For Clark that must include queso dip, and he also had a chicken quesadilla. I had a combination platter (this particular one included a couple of different enchiladas and a beef taco, but it doesn't really matter; any combination platter will do).
I tried to continue the comfort food theme into the night by ordering from Red Hot, my go-to Chinese delivery place in Park Slope, from which I would order shredded beef with fresh hot pepper and pork fried rice, but they didn't answer the phone. This left me feeling bereft, so I went for a walk to see what would strike my fancy, and noticed that a new frozen yogurt place, Yogo Monster, had just opened on Seventh Avenue between Union St., and Berkeley Pl. I'd seen the sign earlier, but I'd misread it as Yoga Monster and imagined it would be one among 10,000 other yoga studios in Park Slope. I had visualized zombies doing yoga.
But no, it's a Pinkberry knock-off, with plain and blueberry flavors. I had a plain topped with raspberry, blueberry, blackberry and kiwifruit and decided that would do for dinner.
This evening I walked the 16 blocks to Red Hot to see what was up. It was locked, secure behind its grates. It looked intact, but it was closed and I was crestfallen.
Okay, now for what we ate at Rhong-Tiam (541 LaGuarda Pl., between Bleecker and W. 3rd streets):
Chicken and shrimp khanom jeep (similar to shumai)
kho mu yang (roasted pork neck strips with a spicy sauce flavored with roasted rice)
yam pla duk foo (fluffy catfish salad)
yam makhuea (salad of smoky roasted eggplant with chicken and shrimp)
duck and vegetarian spring rolls
Mu narok ("pork from hell" a sort of roasted pork with kaffir lime)
khua glin gai (a very spicy southern Thai dish -- even other Thais consider the food of their southern cousins too spicy for words -- of minced chicken with curry spices).
khai jiew woon sen (a deep-fried omelet mixed with glass noodles and, in this case, minced chicken, served with Sriracha sauce; this particular one brought me right back to Bangkok)
Tom yam gung (the classic shrimp soup served with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf and galangal, although in this case the inedible aromatics have been removed, replaced by edible vegetables, and all of them topped with chile oil)
Ped chu chee (duck cooked with a southern Thai curry)
and for dessert:
sangkhaya fak tong (sweetened pumpkin with custard and coconut cream)
Mexican mangoes and sticky rice
a roti drizzled with condensed milk