Thursday, July 16, 2009

The MTA Dining Car: next stop, Queens

Exciting developments are afoot here in my food-obsessed little world. Several weeks ago I was discussing vittles with a fellow food-loving friend, Kiera, when she made what I immediately recognized as a genius proposal: that she and I start an eating club. The word yes was out of my mouth in a heartbeat. I've made various eating club-like attempts over the years, the peak being in high school when my closest friends and I would gather at my house every few months to cook elaborate, ethnically themed (Indian, Middle Eastern, Greek, Thai, etc.) meals. But, as is evident here on this blog, most of my culinary endeavors occur in my kitchen, with me creating and consuming the food. I love eating out, but I rarely have the money to do so (when I do, I try to post my meals here on the blog, but you'll notice that my Cheap Eats section is a bit wanting). So when Kiera promised me organizational help and the attendance of a large group of people, effectively driving down the overall cost of dining out, I was sold. We recruited Kiera's friend Benedict as the final part of our trifecta and agreed on a name: the MTA Dining Car. Our title reflects our focus on outer-borough eating, the kind which tends to be more exotic, more exciting, and more reasonably priced than many Manhattan and some downtown Brooklyn restaurants.

With that focus in mind, I quickly suggested what I thought would be the perfect spot for our inaugural meeting: the Thai restaurant Sripraphai, located off the 7 in Woodside, Queens. I'd been reading about this place for years--it's one of the rare New York restaurants whose greatness seemingly all city-based foodies agree upon--but had yet to make it there myself. Now was the time. Kiera, Benedict and I arranged for a $20 per person (tax and tip included) family-style feast for the group. The menu, with a few slight alterations made for the vegetarians among us, was to include some of Sri's most lauded dishes. Among the appetizers, there would be Crispy Chinese Watercress Salad; BBQ Beef with Chili and Mint; Chicken Satay; and Tom Yum Soup. For the mains, we would be presented with Drunken Noodles with Chicken; Green Curry with Pork; Whole Red Snapper with Chili; and Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce. Are you salivating yet?

Kiera and I made it to the restaurant by 7 PM to await the arrival of our guests, sipping on Thai iced teas with tapioca balls to pass the time. And one by one they came. We had worried that we might not meet our goal of 30 people and that we might get stuck paying the difference in the bill, but, as it turned out, we had fretted needlessly. All in all, we received 31 people, an affable crew composed of mine, Kiera's and Benedict's friends (and friends of friends). And we ate. We ate well. I've read that Sripraphai is the best Thai restaurant outside of Thailand, and while that is surely hyperbole, who am I to argue? The dishes we were brought certainly represented the best--the most complex, layered and delicious--Thai food I have ever eaten. I've never been to Thailand, but I'll definitely be returning to Sripraphai.

And so, without further ado, I'll show you the pictures I managed to snag of the food. The night was a whirlwind of plates and conversations, so, unfortunately, I missed a few. But like I said, I'll be back to photograph (and eat) more, and you should go see (and eat) the food for yourself.

Chicken Satay
The most adventurous choice on a Thai menu? No, but it was everything you'd want in satay: tender, juicy chicken paired with a thick, creamy peanut sauce and a refreshing salad of cucumber, chiles and red onion.

BBQ Beef with Chili, Mint, Onion and Lime Juice
Now things are getting interesting. This dish was fantastic, and, to my palate, unusual. The rich, tender bits of meat were coated in strong, spicy and acidic flavors that perfectly cut the beef's fattiness. The copious amounts of cilantro scattered over the top didn't hurt, either.

Crispy Chinese Watercress Salad with Shrimp, Squid and Chicken
Here it is: one of Sripraphai's most talked-about dishes. The cashews poised so delicately and unassumingly on top signify the riches below: supple, spicy watercress is lightly battered and deep-fried until crispy, somehow also maintaining the fresh, verdant quality of raw greens. As if that weren't over-the-top enough, the watercress is studded with tender bits of sauteed shrimp, squid and chicken. If you make it to the restaurant, this is a must-order appetizer.

And now onto the two main dishes I managed to photograph:

Fried Whole Red Snapper with Chili Sauce
Stunning, right? The only thing better than this dish's presentation was its taste. The fish was perfectly crisp and greaseless, with firm flesh and a mild, buttery flavor. Sweet and spicy chiles were strewn across the top with abandon, and a sweet, light sauce made with sugar or tamarind moistened everything perfectly. Need a must-order main? This is it.

Drunken Noodles with Chicken
OK, OK, I know I just said that the fried red snapper was your must-order main dish. But say you're not really a fish person. Say you're much more of a noodle person. Well, then look no further. Drunken noodles is one of my go-to Thai takeout dishes: I love the wide, flat noodles and the spicy but sweet sauce that drowns (or, perhaps, intoxicates) them. I've had a lot of iterations of drunken noodles. I've probably liked them all. But if I had to pledge my love for one of those versions, it would be this one. I couldn't stop eating it--and that's after a parade of seven courses and an endless amount of rice. Yes, this dish won my heart. And if you give it a chance, it'll win yours too. I guarantee it.

64-13 39th Ave. (between 64th St. and 65th St.)
Woodside, Queens
(718) 899-9599

P.S. Are you in New York? Do you want to dine on delicacies with the rest of us MTA Dining Car members? We welcome strangers. Email us at


Nina said...

Hi, Lauren--this blog entry is amazing! I am salivating looking at the pictures and reading the descriptions! The restaurant should have you as an honorary guest and feed you for free!! I will try to get there (sans your father) to try some of these dishes! YUMMMM! I am sending this on to my foodie friends!

Anonymous said...



ps-I should add that it's totally not my "genius" idea at all. In fact, I ripped off the entire eating club model from our predecessor, the Queens Food Caravan.