Manhattanites can't get enough of these three Thai restaurants
Ask 10 different locals to name the best Thai restaurant in New York City, you’ll likely get 10 different (and passionate!) responses, thanks to the stiff competition and high quality of restaurants in the Big Apple. That said, whether they’re seeking fresh, hot takeout Pad Thai or looking for a stylish spot for dinner, Manhattanites can definitely agree on Up Thai, Sala Thai, and Thai Villa.
These three restaurants, which make up a mini-empire of sorts, are packed most nights and also do a brisk delivery business. They’re co-owned by Joe Young and Andy Kul, formerly of the East Village’s wildly popular Holy Basil, which closed in 2011. “Holy Basil is really where we learned every single detail of the restaurant business,” says Kul.
Although some successful restaurateurs might choose to simply create a carbon copy of a successful spot in a second location, Young and Kul have three distinctive Thai eateries. Each one serves not only the familiar noodle and curry dishes (with pastes made from scratch) but some standout surprises as well.
Up Thai, their first venture, is on the Upper East Side and serves what Kul calls “upscale Thai street food.” One of the most popular dishes, Up Thai Fried Rice, is made in a clay pot and includes scallops, shrimp, chicken, Chinese sausage, onions, and shiitake mushrooms. Kul also recommends the Gai Yang, a popular street-food dish that originated in Laos. It’s a boneless half chicken that’s been marinated and grilled, and comes with vegetables, coconut sticky rice, and a sweet chili sauce.
Following the success of Up Thai, the pair decided to open their second restaurant, Thai Villa, in the Flatiron District. The spot is famous for its lavish interior, and Kul says that every decor element, including floor tiles, fabrics, and light fixtures, was brought over from Thailand. “The idea was to bring our customers back to an old-world setting, one that’s rarely even seen in Thailand right now—I want them to come in feel like they’re on vacation, or at least escaping the craziness of Manhattan,” Kul says.
Thai Villa’s focus is on royal cuisine, which refers to the painstakingly prepared dishes that were eaten by kings and queens at court. These include dishes like Goong Ma Kham (grilled prawns with pungent fried neem, which are leaves from the neem tree) and Royal Pad Thai, a gussied-up version of the popular dish that’s made with grilled prawns and the chef’s secret sauce, and comes wrapped in a frilly egg net for a fabulous presentation. “
“Right now the royal cuisine is so hard to find even in Bangkok, and the younger generations don’t know these dishes,” says Kul, adding, “As far as I know we are the only place doing this in Manhattan right now, or at least one of the only ones.” During the year it took to build and open Thai Villa, the team spent time refining the menu: not only did they do many tastings themselves, Kul, who is originally from Bangkok and also went to culinary school, traveled back to Thailand to research royal cuisine.
Sala Thai, the group’s newest, is on the Upper West Side and has become known for its glam vibe, thanks to its colorful murals and intricate woodwork, as well authentic, unexpected dishes that will give guests a new perspective on Thai food. Kul recommends visitors try the Mieng Pla Pao (grilled branzino wrapped in banana leaf) and the taro samosas, which are filled with minced shrimp, roasted coconut flakes, cilantro, garlic, kaffir lime leaves and white pepper. “(The samosas) are even hard to find in Thailand right now,” says Kul.
When asked how he’s managed to run such successful restaurants in a city where diners have thousands of choices, Kul has a one-word answer: Service. “I can’t say ‘my food is definitely the best,’ because customers may have different taste preferences, but I can tell you that when it comes to service, our staff works so hard on every single detail,” he says.
As for delivery orders, Kul, who says he’s been known to eat day-old microwaved pad thai himself (“It still tastes fantastic!”), says the quality of the food doesn’t change. “Many of our customers work long hours and just want to relax at night, and when we deliver, it really tastes as good as it would at the restaurants,” he says