There’s an inordinate number of Thai restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen. Even more than Duane Reade pharmacies. Not sure why. There isn’t a large Thai community in the area. I assume the restaurants are there to cater to the non-Asian office workers in Midtown who want something similar to Chinese take-out, but nothing too exotic. Something safe. I say this because most of the Thai restaurants are bad. On one fateful lunch, I went to a very popular Thai restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, and everything tasted like it had been tossed in sugar before it came out. Horrible. Last year, Pure Thai Shophouse opened on 9th Avenue amid all the bad Thai restaurants, and I admit, I had my doubts. However, those doubts were quickly cast aside after my first visit, and now I’ve become a lunchtime regular.
For those who want to play it safe, Pad Thai with Shrimp ($7) is your best bet. Besides the small dried shrimp throughout, which some may find too fishy (not me), it’s pretty straightforward. It’s not cloyingly sweet, but it’s made with a good amount of tamarind sauce for those who like their pad Thai on the sweet side. I prefer my pad Thai a little less sweet, so on my last visit, I countered the sweetness with pickled chili pepper slices and super hot red pepper flakes from the condiment rack on the table. Love the condiment racks at the restaurant, by the way. There’s one at every table, but if you sit at the counter, there’s only one or two, so make sure you sit next to one. Along with the pickled peppers and red pepper, it also holds a container of chili garlic sauce and an adorable bottle of fish sauce. Almost too cute to use, almost.
Pad See Ew with Beef ($7) — vermicelli stir-fried with Chinese broccoli, cauliflower, and yellow bean soy sauce — is another Thai restaurant stand-by, but on the day I tried it, it was way too salty and couldn’t be saved by condiments. In order to finish the noodles, I had to down several glasses of water. It’s a miracle I didn’t drown.
My favorite noodle dish so far is the Krabi Seafood Noodle Soup ($7), a spicy, sour, sweet noodle soup comprised of flat rice noodles, water spinach, shrimp, squid, and fried fermented tofu in a tomato pork broth. Crunchy, deep-fried wonton skins adorn the crimson noodle soup. The menu warns it’s “not recommended for novices” and “no returns,” but for the most part, it’s harmless. Yes, the soup is pretty sour, but not unmanageably so, and the so-called fermented tofu barely registers on my internal stink-o-meter. There is, however, a strong fish flavor in the soup, which I could see some people not caring for, but personally, I feel it works with the intense brightness of the soup. The soup is punchy but not overwhelming.
Pork Cracklings ($2) are recommended to be eaten with the noodles in the Pure Thai Noodle section of the menu (of which the Krabi Seafood Noodle Soup belongs), but I’d say the cracklings taste good with just about anything or nothing else. Dry to the touch, the fried porky bites are airy, crisp, and incredibly snackable. I eat them straight from the dish. No combining necessary.
There isn’t a dessert menu at Pure Thai Shophouse, but written on the specials blackboard in the back, there’s usually a Coconut Sticky Rice with Custard ($6.50). On one occasion, the custard happened to be yam, on another it was pumpkin (pictured above). Whatever it is, order it. It will be delicious. Sweet sticky rice, fragrant with coconut milk, is steamed in a banana leaf with smooth, creamy custard. Each luscious spoonful will have you craving another.
Pure Thai Shophouse still doesn’t compare to SriPraPhai, my absolute favorite Thai restaurant in New York, but during lunchtime in Hell’s Kitchen, it feels close enough.