There’s so much more to the southeast Asian cuisine than the cartons of pad thai you might order at your go-to delivery restaurants. While getting "authentic" Thai is still one of the best things to do in Queens, neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen and the East Village are home to traditional dishes and inventive new takes on regional fare. Dig into piquant bowls of khao soi from the northeastern Isan region, spicy papaya salads and some of the best dumplings in town at these Thai restaurants in NYC.
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Best Thai restaurants in NYC
Tucked away on a quiet stretch of Smith Street in Carroll Gardens is a Thai restaurant that will keep you coming back for more self-inflicted pain. It may not be scientifically proven, but spicy food is addictive—especially at Ugly Baby. Whether you’re ordering the “stay-away spicy Udon Thani’s duck salad” or the khao soi, the servers will warn you over and over to be careful. You’ll go against their advice and end up begging for more of the cooling cucumbers to ward off the heat.
Uncle Boons is the latest in a riptide of upstarts repackaging homey Asian food. At this dark-wood-paneled rathskeller, you’ll find tap wine and beer slushes and vintage Thai flatware carved from teak and brass. The stereo blares old Thai covers of ’70s American rock and pop songs. And the kitchen has fine-dining muscle: Husband-and-wife team Matt Danzer and Ann Redding met while cooking at Per Se. Danzer and Redding (who is from Thailand) have unburdened themselves with a close reading of tradition. Take their rendition of larb (laab plaa duk), which instead of the usual chicken, duck, beef or pork, highlights a regional favorite: catfish. You’re caught off guard when the trinity of fish, cucumber and mint first hits you.
The menu of this pretty little Thai restaurant attracts foodies citywide: Not only does it span the culinary regions of Thailand, but it includes twists from Japanese food, too, thanks to the owners’ experience working in Bangkok’s Japanese hotels. Even if you skip the sushi-inspired dishes (like the oft-name-checked raw shrimp appetizer), the spicy, incredibly complex curries (around $10) are still a radical departure from most pad thai–pushing joints.
Beware: What Arunee's menu calls "medium spicy" is hellaciously hot. Chili peppers are sprinkled on top of many dishes, including goong sheah num pla, raw shrimp with garlic, chili and a Thai spicy sauce. More delicate tongues can rest easy with the rich, mild mussamun chicken-and-vegetable curry.
If the refreshing flavors of Somtum Der are any indication, Isan cuisine is the antidote to the too-sweet noodles Americans commonly mistake for Thai food. Take a seat in the bright, wood-paneled dining room, and soon you’ll see why the restaurant, which also boasts locations in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, recently earned a Michelin star. Som tum is the namesake dish of the eatery, a papaya salad made in several variations. Choose the Tum Thai Kai Kem: It’s flecked with bits of soft-cooked, salted egg yolks, which provide a soothing counterpoint to the heat of the chilies. It hurts so good, so get it as spicy as you can stand.
Woodside's destination eatery offers distinctive, traditional eats like catfish salad or green curry with beef: a thick, piquant broth filled out with roasted Thai eggplant. The dining rooms, which sprawl out over two levels and a garden, are packed with lip-smacking Manhattanites who can be seen eyeing the plates enjoyed by Thai regulars, mentally filing away what to order the next time.
Although Thai menus in America can seem homogeneous, the country’s cuisine is rather diverse. Which is why there’s a good chance you won’t recognize much of the fare at Zabb Elee. The low-key basement spot focuses on the fiery, funky foods of northern Thailand, and the roster is a challenging one, with categories like tod (fried meats), som tum (papaya salads) and yang (grilled meats) making up more than five dozen choices. You wanted real Thai food, it taunts, let’s see what you’ve got. How about a tiny skewer of blackened gizzards? The snack features chicken parts obliterated over an open flame. Or opt for the fried chicken (kai tod), succulent meat marinated in a tenderizing mix of Thai herbs and lime.
Located in a basement storefront on Forsyth Street, you might just miss Wayla upon first glance. With little signage pointing you in the right direction, down the steps is a secret Thai restaurant and bar oasis not to be missed. The dark and cavernous spot joins the growing number of nightlife restaurants-slash-bar destinations in the area, with tricks up its sleeve and more soul to set it apart from the pack. The new LES spot from Northern Tiger’s Erika Chou offers home-style dishes prepared by Chef Tom Naumsuwan like nam prik and sautéed morning glory, inspired by his growing up in Bangkok and hanging out at the markets there. Drinks include "Sway Wayla" (violet butterfly pea flower, with shiso, Brooklyn Gin, lemon and cucumber) and "Golden Cassia" (rye, chrysanthemum, demerara, ginger and Fever tree club soda) or "The Land of Smiles" (Gran Centenario Plata, thai chili, tamarind, cucumber and lemon sea salt). For dessert try Thai Coconut ice cream with an unexpected bite of jackfruit with a mochi-like gumminess. Wayla means "time" in Thai, and you'll want to spend some of yours at their secret backyard decorated with rugs and outdoor chairs with charming lighting. Soon, Wayla will open to-go upstairs with their Little Wayla concept.
This small Hell’s Kitchen canteen by husband-and-wife team David and Vanida Bank of Land Thai Kitchen is a gem among the dozens of Thai–American restaurants lining Ninth Avenue. Foodies rave about this authentic hole-in-the-wall serving budget-friendly wok dishes and crowd pleasers like the Ratchaburi homemade egg noodles with crab and roasted pork.
Head to this Astoria charmer for traditional Thai street food and noodle soups dished out in a space that channels old-school Bangkok. Tables feature tin water cups straight from Thailand and plastic holders for chili sauce, sugar and other condiments that accompany bowls of beef boat noodles topped with crispy pork rinds.