(Travel + Leisure) – If you’ve eaten at a neighborhood Thai restaurant, you’re likely familiar with pick-your-protein Technicolor curries. Odds are you’ve tried papaya salad, spring rolls, and pad thai improbably made with ketchup and maybe even peanut butter.
While many ethnic cuisines are domesticated to Western palates, Thai food may be the most bastardized in America. “We have the same basic Thai dishes over and over again, many of which have nothing to do with Thailand,” says Andy Ricker, the James Beard Award–winning chef behind the bicoastal restaurant empire Pok Pok, known for authentic dishes like charcoal-roasted hen with lemongrass and tamarind.
But for as many sugarcoated Thai restaurants operating in the U.S., there’s an appreciable number of spots doing it right—especially in immigrant-heavy cities like Houston, where Asia Market encourages diners to personally adjust their dishes with condiments like pickled peppers, fish sauce, and chili sauce (nam prik). L.A., meanwhile, supports both NIGHT + MARKET, which puts a hipster spin on Thai street food, and Thai Town’s Jitlada, where chef Tui Sungkamee makes traditional fiery southern dishes.
“Thai is not a monolithic culture and, as such, not a monolithic cuisine,” explains Ricker. “It varies vastly from region to region and even from house to house.”
If a restaurant’s focus is northern, expect vegetables, bitterness, and earthy, oily flavors like coconut curry (khao soi), along with heaps of sticky rice. Northeastern (or Isan) tends to be tarter and spicier; order the larb (a spicy minced meat salad) and fermented sausages. Southern Thai is all about pungent, bold curries spiked with turmeric, while central prioritizes balance, best exemplified by traditional pad thai, made with tamarind, lime juice, dried shrimp, and salted turnip or radish—never ketchup or peanut butter, swaps made to satisfy America’s penchant for sugar.
“Thai food is one of the most balanced cuisines,” adds chef Haidar Karoum, who spends hours making curry paste from scratch at Doi Moi in Washington, D.C. “It’s never just sweet or just spicy, rather a balance of acidity, sweetness, aromatics, and heat.”
Read on for more restaurants striking that perfect Thai balance.
Lers Ros: San Francisco, California
Thai-born chef-owner Tom Silargorn is taking over San Francisco one neighborhood at a time. His encyclopedic menu—featuring more than 120 dishes, nearly all under $10—has three homes throughout the city, in the Tenderloin, Hayes Valley, and the Mission, all of which offer diners a taste of Thailand that’s normally camouflaged from greenhorns in Thai-only menus. Expect modern, contemporary interiors and rambunctious diners whose chatter is nearly as loud as the flavors in duck larb, whole crispy whitefish with blazing chiles, and pad kra prow moo krob (stir-fried pork belly with potent basil and sweet pepper). We’re jealous that locals can get Silargorn’s authentic, ketchup-free pad thai for delivery too.
Khong River House: Miami, Florida
Named for the culturally binding Mekong River, James Beard Foundation semifinalistKhong River House pays homage to several Southeast Asian countries. But we’re partial to its northern Thai plates like peppery green papaya salad and crispy duck with green peppercorn and jalapeño garlic chives—served, naturally, with sticky rice. Credit goes to chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, a native of Chiang Rai. Meals unfold in an inspired setting of reclaimed wood, Thai motorcycle license plates, birdcages, fish traps, and chairs made from fishing boats. Even the bar, which stocks 70 varieties of gin, embraces fiery chiles, steeping them in cocktails.
Ayada: Queens, New York
Considering Ayada’s location in the heart of the Queens Thai community, near a Thai Buddhist temple, it’s not surprising the restaurant is known for its take-no-prisoners spice level. Phichit-born chef-owner Duangjai Thammasat (nicknamed Kitty) never sugarcoats her food; rather, her menu showcases Thailand in all its sinus-clearing glory, with an emphasis on southern curries spiked with sour tamarind and hot chiles. Don’t leave without trying the soupy kaeng som curry soured with tamarind paste or the beef tendon soup—you’ll want to order it dark, meaning laced with pig’s blood, a prized ingredient in southern Thailand. Temper the heat with cooling young-coconut water and ice cream infused with iced tea syrup. 77-08 Woodside Ave.
Lotus of Siam: Las Vegas, Nevada
The late culinary bible Gourmet magazine put this off-strip treasure on the map more than a decade ago when it named Lotus of Siam the best Thai restaurant in America. Since then, chef-owner Saipin Chutima, who runs the restaurant with her husband and daughters, became the first Asian-born chef to win a James Beard Award for cooking the cuisine from her roots: Chiang Mai–style family recipes passed down from multiple generations. Diners wait hours for a table, vying for a taste of Chutima’s nam kao tod(a salad of crispy rice, fried peanuts, and sour sausage), nam prik nuhm (roasted green-chile dip), and catfish larb. Riesling pairs brilliantly with spicy food, which here is rated by degrees of hotness, and there’s an extensive list of German white wines to complement the 150-plus dishes—not to mention the steal-of-the-century $9.99 buffet lunch.
Doi Moi: Washington, D.C.
Chef Haidar Karoum and restaurateur Mark Kuller (the duo behind Proof and Estadio) always planned to open an Asian restaurant together. After heading east to eat their way through Bangkok and Chiang Mai in 2012, they returned to D.C., where Doi Moi(meaning “new change”) was born. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant overlooks bustling 14th Street and features a large open kitchen paying tribute to the culinary traditions found throughout Southeast Asia—and its Thai dishes are among D.C.’s finest. You’ll agree if you order the khao soi gai, a spicy chicken and crispy noodle coconut curry with pickled mustard greens that takes three hours to make.
Asia Market: Houston, Texas
This ethnic grocery’s teeny kitchen specializes in palate-awakening heat. Choose among five spice levels (from “mild” to “1,000 peppers”), and make any necessary adjustments at the table stocked with fiery condiments. The choices here include bowls of kee mao (rice noodles spiked with basil, cherry tomatoes, and chili sauce); preserved duck egg curry; and shredded papaya salad with crab, made Thai style (sweet and sour with peanuts, dried shrimp, and cherry tomatoes) or Laos style (meaning with galvanic bursts of southern Thai fish sauce). Most dishes ring in under $8, making Asia Market’s homespun setting all the more satisfying.
Ruan Thai: Wheaton, Maryland
Family-owned Ruan Thai has been a local favorite since 1998, and for good reason: its intricate symphonies of sweet, sour, salt, and scorch are unparalleled in Maryland. Chef Krisana Suchotinunt’s yum watercress salad is the talk of the town—deep-fried greens comingle with shrimp, squid, onions, and cashews—though a curry of catfish, green beans, and cauliflower is equally intriguing. With only 12 tables and a purported parking issue, Ruan Thai is not easy to get to. But if you do, be sure to order the deep-fried whole flounder with hot chile garlic sauce.
Pok Pok: Portland, Oregon
People flock to Pok Pok for the legendary chicken wings: they’re deep fried, smothered in sticky fish sauce, and make up more than 30 percent of the restaurant’s sales. But they stay for the coriander-rubbed grilled boar collar—and the whiskey. James Beard Award–winning chef Andy Ricker may be a 6-foot-2 white dude from Oregon, but his ever-expanding empire (seven restaurants in Portland and New York at last count) and fluency in Thai suggest his food holds its own with the Siamese. The original Pok Pok started as a bare-bones shack with a single-digit menu. Today, the expanded restaurant emphasizes northern and northeastern Thai street food, complete with an arsenal of Chiang Mai sausage, fiery buffalo larb, spicy green papaya salad, and coconut curry grilled corn.
Jitlada: Los Angeles, California
Follow Ryan Gosling’s footsteps to Jitlada, where the actor is a regular. Indeed, this family-run southern Thai temple has won over much of L.A., luring diners to a mini-mall in the Thai Town neighborhood, an unassuming location offset by the nuclear dishes you’d be hard-pressed to find outside Hat Yai. Expect a wait—with only three stoves and 50 seats, there’s almost always a line, though that doesn’t stop chef Tui Sungkamee’s menu from spanning some 300 dishes, including coconut mango salad, a curative tom yum soup (a lemongrass-laced broth with chiles and Kaffir lime), fiery Phangga jungle curry, and eel with stinky beans. He spends hours at local farmers’ markets personally selecting the night’s ingredients, while his sister Jazz—Jitlada’s infectious co-owner and host—grows herbs like galangal and turmeric in her home garden. If you’re lucky, Jazz will be persuaded to make her off-menu Thai burger.
NIGHT + MARKET: Los Angeles, California
Don’t be thrown off by the psychedelic setting or the Cindy Crawford poster, which is reminiscent of roadside shacks in the Thai countryside. The indigenous Thai street food Kris Yenbamroong is cooking up at both the new Silver Lake outpost and the original West Hollywood NIGHT + MARKET is everything we’ve come to love about north and northeastern Thai food—pungent, bold flavors and gobs of heat smacking you in the face. The best approach: bring friends and share lots of small plates. Start with luu suk, a “dipping soup” of pork blood and MSG topped with fresh herbs and pork cracklings, and spicy catfish larb before digging into the pork toro (75 percent of which is fat) and curries, alongside generous helpings of sticky rice. To tame the fire, order a bottle of pét-nat, a natural sparkling wine. Close your eyes and taste—you could easily be in Chiang Rai.
Get the rest of the list at Travel + Leisure: Best Thai Restaurants in the U.S.
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I've never been to Thailand, don't know anyone from Thailand ... so I guess I am quite uneducated about what is authentic or not. Still, whenever I've had the chance to try whatever a restuarant is presenting as Thai food, I've loved it. It's not widely available where I live, but I hope to experiment more when I see it.
funny how they name ayada on this list when thai people dont even think that this restaurant is that good. I have been here a bunch because of the hype and it is average at best, there are at least 5 restaurants that are better that are in walking distance of Ayada. no thanks
Would love to try a few of these restaurants, someday. I include the reader-suggested restaurants on my list, too. Thanks.
I would highly recommend Sen Yai Sen Lek in Minneapolis. Never a disappointment in true Thai food and the chef/owner Joe Hatch-Surisook will cook-to-order any request you may have. Love it!
The BLUE ELEPHANT just outside St. Louis in Clayton. I'd fly 6,000 miles in a plane full of screaming children with ear infections to eat dinner there. I cannot believe it did not make this list! I've been to several of these Thai resturaunts and I'm afraid they simply do not measure up. Not even close.
Reblogged this on Mr. Feliz's Blog (Teacher Arturo).
Are efin kidding me??????????? Vegas Siam for Thai food???? I lived there and there is no Thai food that is remotely close to authentic. My lord, get a grip. People in Vegas eat chicken wings and pizza backed up with buckets of beer.
My wife is Thai and a lot of Thai restaurants around here are really Lao, but then who has heard of a Laotian restaurant. She was surprised when we went to Lincoln, Nebraska and she said the Thai restaurant we were going to was probably not really Thai, but then the owner talked to her in Thai. Of the 2 Thai restaurants in our town, neither owner is really from Thailand, just a neighboring country. We've found 5 real Thai restaurants within 50 miles of our area.
Dude, you're in Nebraska. The only authentic anything you're gonna find there is cows and panda express.
....says random troll guy who probably only knows about Nebraska from South Park jokes and never actually been there
I guess you and your wife were looking for a Thai chef to prepare you guys some Lao food (som tum, larb, sticky rice, tom yum etc.)?
Don't be surprise if most of the "Thai" restaurants you eat at in the West are Lao-owned. A lot of Lao food and restaurants are serve/open under the guise of being Thai. This is because most people don't know what Lao/Laotian food are but they eat and love it every time they go to their favourite Thai restaurants. I' m Thai but I have a Lao friend who owned a very popular Thai restaurant in my area. I don't know why they don't just come out and introduce Lao/Laotian food to the world. Anyway, I guess it's all about business.
Silk Thai, Tacoma WA
Hard to find good authentic Som Tum around here though. I found a place in San Francisco once that made it right, but that's about an 800 mile drive :) So I buy the ingredients fresh at local markets and make my own in my Pok Pok to satisfy my cravings. With a huge bowl of sticky rice steamed in a bamboo basket of course.
I like Thai food. I think of it as the Asian equivalent of BBQ. In many cases in some cities I've visited, Thai seems like Chinese food taken up a notch or two. but when you find a good one; my oh my oh my.
Portland has been one of my homes away from home; a great play ground. If you go out just one night out for dinner in Portland, go to Pokpok. To me, its the best Thai restaurant I've ever experienced. There is a Pokpok in New York City that is that has all the tire stars but the other choices still overwhelm me.
Portland's Pok pok is the first, it started as a food truck and morphed in to a hodgepodge restaurant. When I'm there, I'm a kid in a candy store, I want it all. Bring many friends so you can order more dishes!
Curse you Kate Parham for mentioning Thia food.
Pok Pok is amazing and edgy Thai...Portland is the mecca of culinary amazing.
Reblogged this on Brie and Basil and commented:
One of my favorite cuisines with which to experiment . Like most foods of the world I hate seeing it commercialized and Americanized.
Reblogged this on Hostess Goddess and commented:
Love Thai food, and looking at this list I need to go to one soon locally.
And yet you choose some of the most Americanized Thai restaurants to feature....
Americanized. Please define.
Perhaps you are willing to share where your most favorite Thai food experiences in the US are/were. Just name one. If you can't, you are obviously a troll, sitting on a cold rock, under a broken bridge. If not that, you live in your mother's basement, sucking up her bandwidth and air. Troll.
So colorful lol. Jitlada is good..but not GREAT. As is Pok Pok, and Night + Market. There isn't anything *wrong* with those restaurants.. they're just not the most authentic. When family comes in from Thailand (we live in LA), we go to either Ruen Pair, Pa Ord, Pailin, Saap Coffee Shop for some down home cooking. I will definitely go to Jitlada and Night + Market when out and about with friends who want more of the trendier ambiance and some creative dishes!
Oh! And, of course, just like the street food or restaurants in Thailand – each place has different dishes they do best, which is why it IS hard to choose one! One may be better at certain curries, one may be better at certain noodles, etc!
Thank you for your observations and input. I'm sorry to have called you a troll, I take it all back and give you respect. I will write these places down and when I visit LA I will purposefully search these out.
I can agree that that there is a broad range of tastes in the cuisine and yes, many Americans are over whelmed by the vibrant flavors of "exotic" cuisine so much that restaurant owners are forced to compromise their homeland experiences into something they can sell. Case and point – Chinese food.
Thanks for the apology. The restaurants listed are not bad...they're just not where you'd go if you want the most authentic food with some of that down-home Thai feeling. You will find great food at some of those restaurants listed (I haven't tried all so will not speak to all of them), but they're not always dishes you'd find in Thailand. Since this article talked about the Americanization of Thai food, I just don't know if they should all be listed as truly authentic places. I won't argue about if they're delicious, though! Some of those places are quite good. Just not where I, or any of my family, would go if we want some real Thai food. [BTW, if you go to LA, Siam Sunset for Thai breakfast is also where it's at. None of the places I listed are 'trendy' or 'nice', though haha]
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