Critics’ choice: Out-of-the-ordinary Thai

Somtum Der; Sen Yai; Sala Bua

Somtum Der New York City

“Isan cuisine is on the march” in our corner of the world, and Somtum Der is leading the charge, said Pete Wells in The New York Times. A spinoff of a Bangkok restaurant that specializes in interpreting street foods, this Lower East Side storefront takes its name from the fiery papaya salads that spread across Thailand from Isan, the nation’s northeastern plateau. Yes, you can get a “more than credible” pad Thai here, but “above all, you want papaya salad”—or som tum—“and you want it as spicy as you can stand.” Each som tum is prepped up front by a man in a straw hat who pounds green papaya, herbs, and chiles with a pestle so big it would “come in handy if he were caught in a riot.” The “most complexly rewarding” of these salads, som tum poo-plara, mixes in rock-hard miniature crabs and an “intensely funky” fermented fish sauce. Another has brined, boiled eggs “that are fluffy and creamy and soothe the burn of the chiles.” Beware the hottest version of any som tum, though, unless you’re into “psychotropic levels of spice.” You’ll be sweating and squirming for about five minutes between each bite. 85 Ave. A, (212) 260-8570

Sen Yai Portland, Ore.

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Andy Ricker has come up with a new “Portland food high,” said Karen Brooks in Portland Monthly. Eight years after returning from a Thailand sojourn and opening Pok Pok—now the flagship of a bicoastal empire—he’s opened a standout noodle house that proves most revelatory each day before the clock strikes 11 a.m. Sen Yai at those early hours “looks like a burger drive-in reborn as a Bangkok cafeteria,” with servers zipping around the parking lot “armed with Thai coffee and coddled eggs.” Yes, Thai breakfast has arrived in America, attracting a small but understandably devoted group of regulars. A few get by on just the unsweetened doughnuts, dipped in a “luscious” coconut custard. But most come for the steaming bowls of jok, “which is like Thai cream of rice but deep with ginger, scallions, and umami juju beneath a cloud of fried noodles.” Zapped with white pepper or crushed chiles in vinegar, jok is heaven in a bowl. 3384 SE Division St., (503) 236-3573

Sala Bua Chicago

Leave it to a Thai restaurant in Chinatown to break down old barriers, said Mike Sula in the Chicago Reader. Located in a far corner of the Chinatown mall, this humble newcomer openly peddles a lot of dishes that non-Thais used to have to “ferret out” by begging for access to the secret house menu. Isan sausage, spicy papaya salads, and spicy raw shrimp with fish sauce all share menu space with such Ameri-Thai standards as crab Rangoon. I was hoping to find a great moo palo (a stew of spiced pork belly and boiled egg) or khao man gai (the Thai version of Hainanese chicken rice), but those disappointed. “There was one nice surprise, though,” in a starter labeled tao-jaew. Ground pork is first cooked in coconut cream, creating a meaty slurry that’s like a “rich, creamy, sweet, coconut Bolognese sauce.” That’s then spread atop slightly concave cucumber slices and topped with a sliver of “blazing hot” red chile. Though it’s no bucket-list dinner, “it’s a nice little munch.” 2002 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 808-1770

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