Follow the eater

Four of the city's trendiest gastronomes lead us on tours of their favorite wallet-friendly food spots.

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Ong favors egg noodles at Cafe Asean

Ong favors egg noodles at Cafe Asean Photograph: Dave Sanders

Thai food with Pichet Ong Chef, P*ong and Batch

A heap of conventional takeout pad thai isn't enough to please Pichet Ong. "You always see a pool of red-colored sauce with white noodles—I can't stand that," says the chef-owner of P*ong (150 W 10th St between Greenwich Ave and Waverly Pl, 212-929-0898) and next-door bakery Batch (150B W 10th St between Greenwich Ave and Waverly Pl, 212-929-0250). The James Beard--nominated chef has earned the right to complain: He lived in Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore before working in the kitchens of Chez Panisse, Jean Georges and Spice Market. Who better to take us on a tour of Southeast Asian food?

"In Thailand, they stir-fry it for hours, so the noodles start to caramelize," Ong muses while at Wondee Siam (792 Ninth Ave between 52nd and 53rd Sts, 212-459-9057), a "very hole-in-the-wall" joint that, according to the culinarian, serves NYC's best pad thai ($9.50). He orders the dish "extra dry," and the result is golden brown and satisfyingly chewy—not gloopy. Ong also praises the yum ped yang ($9.95), a salad of iceberg lettuce, julienned green apples, cashews, pineapple chunks and what he calls "french fries, but with duck": slow-fried, crispy bits of poultry.

He also scores us two unfamiliar Thai-Chinese dishes: crispy pork neck with basil, and grilled pork neck with rice ($9.50 each), both of which Ong orders in Thai off a hot-pink menu written in Thai (the rest of us can order in English). "The meat is the same kind they use to make char siu, Chinese roasted pork. It's more marbled," he elaborates as we devour both entres.

A spanking-new Grand Sichuan branch (15 Seventh Ave South between Carmine and Leroy Sts, 212-645-0222) earns Ong's respect too. The chef likes the orange beef ($7.75) because "there's no food coloring," and the candylike entre "is fried to death, so the sauce is absorbed all the way into the meat."

Ong is a weekly regular at the quaint Cafe Asean (117 W 10th St between Greenwich and Sixth Aves, 212-633-0348), where today he dines on egg noodles, fried tofu and jicama in a peanut-lime sauce ($9.75), and green curry with cauliflower, wedges of brussels sprouts and shrimp ($13). "The peanut noodles are summery: It's very hearty but still light, and the abundant use of herbs and the kafir lime leaves is what I love about the curry. A lot of places don't put enough in."

On our way to Rhong-Tiam (541 La Guardia Pl between Bleecker and W 3rd Sts, 212-477-0600), the chef's eyes gleam as we pass Five Guys Burgers and Fries (296 Bleecker St at Seventh Ave South, 212-367-9200). Unfortunately, we don't have time for a burger, since Rhong-Tiam doesn't keep standard hours. But the kitchen shines in appetizers like the ka ree puff ($5): "There should be many layers to the pastry," notes Ong, examining the flaky dough. Cutting into it, he continues: "When the filling is loose, it means there was more knife work. You can see the onions and the carrots. Lovely!" Ong also recommends a to-go order of the eggplant supreme salad ($10): "The eggplant is steamed and then grilled over charcoal, so it acquires this lovely smoky flavor."

Despite all that eating, Ong seems immune to a food coma. In fact, he informs us that after heading up dinner service that evening at P*ong, he'll probably cap off the night with 1am ramen at Rockmeisha Izakaya (11 Barrow St between Bleecker and W 4th Sts, 212-675-7775).—Helen Yun

Julie Reiner of Clover Club | Sohui Kim of the Good Fork | David Waltuck of Chanterelle

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