Friday, September 11, 2009

Outer Borough Eating Club - Friends, old and new at Sripraphai (and one enemy)

Back when we really lived in New York and had our beloved Saturn Willie (God bless the original Willie Randolph) for taking wild rambling journeys in search of the best that the outer boroughs had to offer in the way food, there were many, many trips to the great Thai palace, Sripraphai (or as Daniel and I lovingly call it, Sri.)

A brief pause to remember Willie Jr and his Mets plates



Given the sheer number of times we visited Sri, it is a bit odd that it's never turned up on this blog. But perhaps it became so fixed in our restaurant routine that I took it for granted. Well no longer. While there are certainly good Thai restaurants in the Bay Area, none has yet lived up to Sri. This is in part because of the restaurant's extensive menu, in part because they are willing to really make things "Thai spicy" if you assure them that you can handle it, and in part because (imagine me shaking my head here) of something akin to alchemy. Maybe it's fish sauce?

During our recent two week sojourn, before I returned to my beloved city without my dearest eating companion, Daniel and I schlepped out on the 7 train (oh where are you Willie?) and visited our old friend Sri for a late lunch.

As always, the place was crowded, although since it was already three, we didn't have to wait for a table. We decided to go all out and get two appetizers and two entrees, a mix of old and because I was feeling daring, new.

Here's what we ate:

Som Tom (Papaya salad) with the dried shrimp on the side:



The verdict: This is our signature Sri dish. We order it every time we come because it is the best som tom I've ever had. And this day was no exception. The papaya was perfectly shredded without those weird big pieces that sometimes get thrown into the mix. There was plenty of sour, sweet, super spicy sauce without being too overly dressed. It's such a uniquely refreshing dish in spite of the extreme spice. Plus, although he doesn't love sticky rice, Daniel capitulated and allowed me to order some and so I had big hunks of sweet, glutinous rice to pick up with my hands, pair with the spicy slaw, and therein create little bites of heaven.

Special shredded barbecue chicken salad:


The verdict: Again, spicy, sweet, and tangy. But now with chicken! Even better with the sticky rice than the som tom. Thai salad is the best salad.

Panang curry with chicken:


The verdict: This is Daniel's current favorite (it used to be the cashew nut chicken), and it really is a supremely good version of this dish. It's rich and sweet, with a kind of gingery, sort of flowery flavor, which I recently learned is from galangal, a South East Asian cousin of ginger. I love how the Sri version has that pretty drizzle of coconut milk on top.

Thai noodles with ground fish meat, curry sauce & fishball; served w. fresh vegetables


The verdict: For my main course, I decided to try something new, and asked the waiter to help me choose between the fish maw soup and this dish. First he tried to discourage me from the fish maw by telling me that it was made of "the inside of the fish" (it's the bladder folks), but when he saw that was only getting more interested, he quickly informed me that it was a Chinese dish not Thai and that I shouldn't get it.

So, I told him that I wanted the N-14, the dish above. "No," he said. "Only Thai like that. It's too spicy." I was sold.

And, boy, oh, boy, am I glad I fought for what I believed in. This stuff was good. I ended up eating it like soup, dumping in the accompanying hard boiled egg, noodles, cilantro, and veggies. It was spicy, but not overly so. But it was a kind of rich, really complexly flavored tomato broth with bits of glorious ground fish and of course the ubiquitous Thai fish balls that have a texture somewhere between gefilte fish and a hard boiled egg white and a tamale. It was really aromatic and fresh tasting. I loved it.

I loved it because I love Sripraphai. It is my friend.

Here's who is not my friend. The teenage boy who sat down next to us with his father, who was, admiringly, attempting to broaden his son's supremely narrow food horizons.

From the moment this kid sat down, he complained. This place is disgusting. I'm not eating anything that is touching fish. I'm not eating anything that has mushrooms. This looks like cat food. That smells disgusting. Why would you bring me here?

God help him, the father promptly ordered himself (and the kid) a beer.

The boy kept looking over at Daniel and me, eyes wide with pure revulsion at what we were eating. And because he was so unpleasant to be seated near at this our return voyage to our darling Sri, I ate with a gusto generally reserved only for foie gras and South Carolina barbecue. I mmmed and ahhed with every bite. I closed my eyes and slurped the noodles, and I ate every last bite. This boy needed to be schooled. And I was going to show him that what his precious little stomach couldn't handle, that of this 5'4 dirty blond could put away in spades.

After we left though, I started to wonder if maybe this kid had a particularly sensitive palate, and that maybe, with some proper help and years of therapy he could be a really great eater. Maybe below his extreme and vocal distaste for certain foods was actually lurking great passion for food that just needed to be awakened. I mean I hate bananas with a loud and vocal vengeance. And probably that I despise them so much reveals that I have the capacity to love other foods with equal gusto. Maybe this kid is the same as me. Or maybe he's just a big wuss.

Who cares? When we left, Daniel and I stopped at the refrigerator cases and bought beef jerky. And we ate it with bravado.

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