It's hard to find a lover of ethnic food who is not a fan of Thai. Thai food is everything you can love about any exotic cuisine. The ingredients are always fresh, diverse, heavily spiced, and completely unique. Aromatic Thai basil is remarkable to smell and taste in both lightly steamed dishes and heavy garlic and chili dishes. Kafir lime leaves add a je ne sais quoi to soupy rich curry dishes that cannot be duplicated. Lemongrass is very subtlely herbal, not acidic and bright like lemon or zest. Together, these three flavors and smells give you a cuisine unlike any other, so unique that the first taste will spark your fascination.
Like most great Asian cuisines, Thai food divides between the ala carte savory dishes that you order family-style with your guests each having a bit of everything with their bowls of sticky rice, and the fried rice and noodle dishes that people enjoy on their own (though no one said you couldn't share them). Thai food in America is markedly less spicy than truly authentic Thai cuisine, which will kill the average American in a matter of seconds. (Thai chilis are up there with habaneros in terms of hotness). Also like other great Asian cuisines in America, it is almost impossible to do Thai well in areas without a significant enough population of immigrants to sustain a restaurant. In such environments, restaurants can order the abundance of fresh herbs, vegetables, noodles, and meats to make the great dishes without a concern of spoilage.
I have recently been to two Thai restaurants, one in the Hudson Valley, not known for its Thai diaspora, and one in Queens, known for its many diasporas. Night and Day.
Lemongrass Thai Cuisine in New Paltz has been voted the best Thai Restaurant in the Hudson Valley for a few years now. I think it must be the only Thai restaurant in the Hudson Valley. It is decent, completely average, good enough to go to when you can't make the two hour journey to Queens. The herbs are at least correctly used and the dishes are fresh. However, they skimp on the meat, overloading your dish with par cooked vegetables that barely deserve to be in a Thai dish. The presentation is nice and neat, and the seasoning good. All in all, it is good enough to be called decent Thai for the suburbanite interested enough to experiment but frightened of anything too far from four-door sedans, apple pie, and picket fences. Lemongrass is the place to go to because you miss eating Thai and can’t make it to the nearest Thai community. But compared to what is possible....Lemongrass pales.
Then there is Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens. Absolutely remarkable in terms of authenticity of herbs, spices, curries, right down to the thickness and width of the fat rice noodles and the mixed chili concoction they place on top of their fried red snapper. But even on top of that, with the exception of the fish, which was slightly overcooked, the curry dishes, meat dishes, and the steamed mussels were PERFECTLY cooked in terms of temperature, texture, and tenderness. Steamed mussels with Thai basil and beef satay were our appetizers. The mussels were large, tender, not rubbery, and the flavor of wilted basil made them absolutely delightful. The satay was tender, not chewy, glistening with sizzle, and served with a peanut sauce to die for.
From there it was green curry chicken, duck with bamboo shoots (they even got the bamboo texture right, not too raw, not too mushy, just perfect!), and drunken noodles (And the aforementioned red snapper). My only criticisms is that the drunken noodles deserved much better quality beef, (not ground beef you cheapskates, try sirloin or rib eye or even tenderloin!), and the fish was fried a tad too long, making the surface a little too crunchy and the meat less than perfectly tender. Portions were huge, they weren't stingy with the meat whatsoever, and didn't water down their dishes with a questionable choice of vegetables like Lemongrass Thai. All in all, it was one of the most authentic and delightful Thai experiences I have ever had. We all hail Sripraphai, and hope that suburbanites become adventurous enough to allow owners of suburban Thai restaurants to follow suit.