Owners Terry Cuskelly and her husband have operated a tiny Thai restaurant in a Manhattan Boulevard strip mall since 2012. The couple traveled to Thailand for inspiration earlier this year, and their new concept at the renamed Lotus Thai Cafe features bold flavors influenced by the nation's street food.
The couple's first restaurant, My Thai Cuisine, was a slightly more upscale affair, but the new incarnation takes a more casual approach, though the dip in cost doesn't compromise quality. There's dedication to fresh ingredients and cooking techniques honed over the years.
Tender thick-cut pork spareribs come four to an order, each one the color of burnt caramel with crunchy, sweet edges and soft, fatty insides. They're served with honey-tinged sweet chili and garlic-soy glaze, and the combination of the sauce and the ribs' powerful porky flavor makes them a candylike indulgence.
Larb, made with ground beef or chicken, is tossed with carrot sticks, cool cucumber slivers, red onions and lettuce. It's a dish brimming with the tangy flavors of fish sauce, ginger and sugar — the perfect marriage of sweet and salty with a touch of funk and a brush of heat.
Ubiquitous Thai noodle dishes are all here, including slippery thin rice noodles in pad thai, chewy, flat ribbons in lad nha and bright saffron-colored egg noodles in the curry dish khao soi.
The hottest of the noodle dishes is the drunken noodles, in which wide and flat oily strips carry the searing heat of red chilies. Wisps of fried basil, red peppers and crunchy flash-fried green beans add texture and dimension; there's also a spicy basil stir-fry, a mirror image of the dish minus the noodles.
Drunken noodles was the only dish with a satisfing level of spicy heat, and it seemed as if the chefs were holding back, perhaps catering to palates with lower tolerances for Thai spice levels.
A dish of stir-fried cashews and beef felt similarly restrained: It had all the right elements — tender strips of beef, a crunchy medley of water chestnuts, cashews and bell peppers — but a heavy dose of tomato paste rendered the sauce sweet, which muted other flavors.
Khao soi, the creamy coconut curry soup common in Thailand's northern highlands, is perfect for cold weather. The velvety bisque tastes of the sweet coconut milk used to thicken it, and yellow curry powder renders the chicken stew a golden mustard color. The dish bursts with flavor and textures: pickled mustard greens add a bright and funky element, caramelized shallots carry a deeply earthy and sweet undertone, and shredded cabbage and bouncy, golden egg noodles provide heft.
The hallmark of Thai desserts — glutinous coconut rice with mango — is dense, sticky and delightfully sweet. Even the mango slices were bright and fresh, a pleasant surprise this time of year.
On a strip dotted by restaurants of all kinds, Lotus Thai presents a simple and affordable alternative — and a primer to some of the lesser-known dishes of the nation.