By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Panya's main room seats about 50, its mustard-color walls simply embellished with tasteful Asian ornaments and prints. Tables are adorned with silky Thai fabrics topped with glass, and the chairs are occupied by a mostly Asian clientele, which is generally considered a good sign when dining at an Asian restaurant. A smaller, more intimate eating area sits on the opposite side of the entranceway.
Personable servers brought us menus, water, and food in a timely manner (not much of a wine selection); not sure why, but on two occasions they were slow in delivering the check. In any case, we did not have to wait long for our appetizers, which included an especially juicy rendition of grilled chicken satay, crisply fried tofu, fresh spring rolls, and an enticing green papaya salad crisp white shreds of the tart fruit spruced with lime juice, nam pla (fish sauce), garlic, brown sugar, and a not insignificant dose of chopped chilies. Which reminds me: When the waiter at Panya asks if you want your dishes mild, medium, or hot, keep in mind that Thai definitions of these words differ slightly from ours. Mild is the same; it's mild. However, medium equals hot, and hot will make you sweat and see double meaning the official name for Bangkok would be Krungthep Krungthep Mah Mah ... well, never mind.
Regional specialties not commonly encountered in other local Thai joints turned out to be well worth trying. Yen ta fo is one such treat, a bowl of pink-hued soup based on preserved red bean curd (small cakes of tofu pickled in red rice vinegar). Protruding from the pungent broth were wide rice noodles, shrimp, squid, minced pork, white fungus (crunchy/spongy mushrooms), and wafers of fried won tons. A starter of "Thai pork jerk" was distinctly delectable too, so named not because of any Caribbean seasoning the thin strips of meat are dry-marinated in salt, white pepper, and sugar but owing to its chewy, jerky consistency, which comes from a process of marinating, freezing, and frying. Beef is given the jerk treatment as well, and both meats taste even better when dipped into an accompanying sweet/sour tamarind sauce. Diners are encouraged to order a side of sticky rice for much the same purpose: The sweet, glutinous grains, served steamed in a petite basket, are traditionally rolled into small balls for dunking into curries and sauces.
I could not wait to dig into spicy Thai sausage salad, because Bangkok is known for its sai klok Issan, a country banger stuffed with pork, rice, garlic, cilantro, and pepper; wrapped in a banana leaf; and grilled over an open flame (sometimes the grillmaster will toss some squeeze-dried coconut meat onto the fire to sweeten the smoke). Sadly during our visits, Panya was all out. The wurst was not to come.
We passed on crowd-pleasing peanut-studded pad thai in favor of guay tiew kee mao, a plate of fresh, flat rice noodles stir-fried with basil leaves and garlic-hearty chili sauce. Other entrées, besides noodles and noodle soups, are divvied into a dozen listings defined by the dominant flavor ginger, basil leaves, chili paste, hot-and-spicy, sweet-and-sour, and five different curries that Amporn pestles on the premises. Within each category is a choice of main ingredient: chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu, duck, soft-shell crab, frog's legs, fish, and mixed vegetables. Curly snippets of chicken breast in a gingery chili sauce, and similarly slender, tender strips of beef boosted with basil leaves and chili paste were both convincing renditions, but the curries are what captured our hearts.
The curry sauces here are a blend of coconut milk, stocks, and one of five pastes. Red curry is a mild mix of basil, lemongrass, ginger, and chilies. Although, as previously stated, one may request it much hotter, I suggest keeping the red mellow, which makes it particularly well suited for chicken, tofu, and mixed vegetables. Green curry is smooth and herbal, and pairs aptly with anything, while the moderately spicy Panang curry, crafted from kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shrimp paste, chilies, and cilantro, probably goes best with seafood. Beef is most often matched with massaman, a curry made by Muslims living on Thailand's southern border with Malaysia. It is the mildest of all pastes, the heat of chilies replaced by gently perfumed aromatics of cardamom and cloves.
Duck in "secret night" sauce translated into thickly hacked pieces of breast, some on the bone, some off, in a sprightly yellow curry spiked with turmeric, ginger, shallots, lemongrass, shrimp paste, and dried red chilies. "Diamond duck," one of five "chef's choice" entrées, was a gem, the half-bird glazed in tamarind sauce and topped with sautéed scallions, red peppers, and Thai chilies.
Someone at our table ordered crab fried rice despite the waiter's warning (much to his credit) that it contained surimi. It was the one lackluster item sampled here, and not only because of the gnarly nature of the cooked fake crab, but also the rice itself was bland and pretty much bereft of vegetables.
Panya was out of pumpkin custard for dessert, but sa ku tourdam and bualoy phuk proved to be more than adequate substitutions. The former brought tapioca pearls and sweet black beans in a bowl of coconut milk, while the latter was based on the same white juice but stocked with lavender dumplings made from taro and rice flour ideal for babies, very old people, and folks, like me, who just seem to be drawn to mushy desserts.
I am also attracted to Thai restaurants with friendly service, authentic food, and affordable prices. The place is called Panya Thai, but in our household the official name is Let's Go.