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Sripraphai: am I missing something?

hatless Apr 20, 2007 05:42 AM

We went there for the first time and I was underwhelmed. It was certainly good, certainly "authentic", but...

I thought the crispy catfish papaya salad was sort of one-dimensional. The fried catfish just tasted like fried taro, not a trace of fish flavor or texture. Is it supposed to be that way? The rest of the salad was very fresh, fishy and tangy, but that's about it. We've had a better version of this sort of thing at Chao Thai in Elmhurst and a far better, more complex, downright transporting version at Zabb in Jackson Heights.

Similar story with the crispy pork with chili and basil: unquestionably fresh ingredients, some bright flavors, but Zabb's version had more to it: more heat, more sweet, more sour punch, and meat so textured and rich I initially thought it was duck.

A noodle dish from the list of specials, with cubes of stewed pork in a northern curry gravy and chopped vegetables, was just dull. It would have been disappointing even at a neighborhood takeout.

An appetizer of mussels with basil was very good. Big, tender, flavorful mussels in a broth full of lemongrass and basil flavor, and they came to life with the green minced-pepper condiment. Still, it was steamed mussels. I got the feeling I'd get the same results at home with little effort.

Spicing was a problem too, across the board. The four of us are all keen on heat, made it very clear that we wanted the spicy dishes done Thai-hot, and what we got was mild-to-medium at best. The other couple we were with sent another chili-basil dish back to the kitchen and it came back both hotter and more flavorful, which surprised me because I thought that sort of doctoring after the fact wouldn't go well, but the result still was well short of the riot of colliding flavors Zabb mustered on our two visits.

Did we order wrong? I've seen at least the catfish salad listed among the highly recommended dishes before, but did we otherwise go astray?

  1. t
    TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis Apr 27, 2007 04:28 PM

    The fried watercress and green papaya salads are notable.

    If you want play with fire, the Southern curry is a clear choice.
    Although recent renditions lack the uncaged ferocity of the pre-facelift/expansion era, el hefe's advisory is worth heeding.
    Lacking the incendiary tongue tongs of a habanero salsa as well as a full-on horseradish nose hook, the flavors shine.
    Not unlike the deceptive, perverse beauty of a cruise missile in flight, the true nature of the beast is revealed once its found purchase;
    in this instance, in the pit of your stomach. Radiating from within, the mounting heat envelopes your body; the blast spike hits mid-spine and
    travels in both directions: your scalp will bead into rivulets that collect and sheet from your brows while in an arrhythmia-inducing panic you sense
    the vinyl seat covering you're parked on melting ... enjoy!

    1. jason carey Apr 23, 2007 09:56 AM

      Southern Curry, Moo Ma Nao, Chinese brocolli with cripsy pork, MAssaman curry, curry with sour bamboo shoots, whole fish ( get bass if they have it) with ginger, Watercress salad, papaya salad,fish cakes, and green curry with duck.. Tell them hot hot hot in no uncertain terms. There is a slight suspicion that with all the expansion the spicing is decreasing.. but stand your ground. go up to the counter and tell the owner that you want your food thai spicy.

      3 Replies
      1. re: jason carey
        el jefe Apr 23, 2007 04:45 PM

        I agree you need to tell them you want it "Thai spicy", but just a word of warning -- the Southern Curry is the spiciest dish on their menu (if not in all of NY, imho) so that's the only dish I wouldn't demand that they make as spicy as possible.
        Friends of mine were there on Sunday night at 7:00pm and said "the line out the door was insane, but the food was as awesome as usual".

        1. re: el jefe
          jen kalb Apr 23, 2007 05:35 PM

          is that southern curry the yellow one with the raw fermented fish? If so its the only dish Ive ever had that I didnt much care for (Sri have me a taste ahead of time and I didnt want to admit it was a bit too much so finished off a whole order (at home) without ever really developing a taste for it. Zabb has some dishes with similar ingredients that are just a bit too funky for my current tastes.

          1. re: jen kalb
            el jefe Apr 25, 2007 02:19 PM

            Definitely not. I think the dish you're refering to is the Fish Flavor Curry (C-32 on my 8 month old menu), which I really dislike too. The southern curry is C-36 on that menu. I haven't had it in over a year and can't picture the color, but it's definitely not made with fermented fish.

      2. Bob Martinez Apr 22, 2007 09:23 AM

        We visited Sri yesterday afternoon at around 2:30 on a Saturday. It's a good time to go - the lunchtime rush is over and the noise level, which can be painful due to the tiled floor and other hard surfaces, was almost pleasant. Aside from some favorites we tried 3 new dishes.

        A-31 (Sweet sausage w. cucumber, onion, chili and lime.) This was deceptively hot. There was a generous amount of sliced sausage and they were spicy without being hot and full of flavor. The accompanying salad had tiny green peppers mixed it that would take the top of your head right off if you weren't careful.

        I checked out the "over rice" section of the menu, something I never do, and selected the O-6, ground pork with chili and basil over rice. The menu description is simple but the dish itself was excellent, the spicing level strong and complex. The rice helped keep the heat level tolerable. Sometimes the spice level of some dishes at Sri can be overwhelming - you enjoy the flavor but each bite takes a toll. With this dish the balance was perfect.

        A-25 - chicken satay. The other 4 dishes we ordered were hot so we figured we needed a break. Sri's version of this classic features thin slices of chicken rather than cubes. It was perfectly cooked and quite juicy. The accompanying peanut sauce was pleasantly spiced and did it's job of jazzing up the chicken. Certainly this dish is no revelation but it was well made and served it's purpose as a change of pace from the heat of our other choices.

        Sri hasn't lost a step.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Bob Martinez
          famdoc Apr 22, 2007 04:13 PM

          Needed to pick my wife up at LGA today, so I made my first Sri pilgrimage (yes, that's right..a long time Hound is a Sri virgin!). Firstly, I want to comment on something rarely, if ever, mentioned about the restaurant: clearly, alot of thought went into the physical design of the place: the finishes (paint color choices, wall coverings), the lighting, the landscaping of the garden...it's really a warm, inviting place. We had the steamed mussels, a crispy fish appetizer, the pad thai and a sour curry with shrimp and vegetables. To me, the pad thai was the weakest of the dishes.
          The mussels appeared to me to be the green New Zealand mussels and were perfectly steamed, tender and tasting of the sea. The basil and lemongrass were infused so as not to overpower the mussels. A dipping sauce seemed to contain green chilis, ginger and some other, unidentified herbs. The mussels, however, stood on their own and I only dipped twice (sort of like Passover). The crispy fish appetizer was delightful, delivering a delayed punch.
          Water refills helped this go down.
          The pad thai was ordinary.
          The curry (we specified 'not too spicy') was enjoyable...chunks of cabbage, whole shrimp.
          I also recommend the coconut juice.

        2. janie Apr 20, 2007 05:13 PM

          we are longtime customers, yet, we don't eat pork or dark meat chicken...and this is what we enjoy there consistently....shrimp with garlic and pepper (it was never really on the menu, they used to make it for us years ago special, and now it always appears as a nightly special..funny...(people always used to ask us what we were eating and then they'd order it, too)....shrimp with green curry and coconut milk--although I tell them to leave out the thai eggplants, and just put peppers, and bamboo shoots only..you have to specific though or you'll end up with pineapples in there, which is just yukky in my opinion....coconut rice, chicken satay(it's great there), drunken noodles with beef, or shrimp, or chicken, all good..and it's always spicy...watercress salad--(we also ask that they leave the chicken out, and just put shrimp and squid), squid with chili peppers (not really on the menu exactly, but it's very good), we've tried several of the catfish dishes, and frankly, it just wasn't our thing...---the thai iced tea is also a must...we've also had very fresh sauteed vegetable specials---agree on the shrimp cakes, didn't like them...and the curry spaghetti is awful...papaya salad is very good also---we also never go on the weekends, except perhaps on a sunday afternoon off hour...we prefer tues or thurs, and I really think it's consistently best on thursdays, and have no idea why this is so...have had several sub par meals on Mondays....so, we stay away that day..hope this helps a bit...

          1 Reply
          1. re: janie
            Ike Apr 20, 2007 09:31 PM

            Hmmm, I visited on a Monday several weeks ago and it was excellent, and I'd been worried it might be sub-par, probably because A. Bourdain warns against visiting restaurants on Mondays in the book "Kitchen Confidential" (or is it just that he warns against ordering seafood on Mondays? I can't remember). The squid and shrimp seemed just as fresh and delicious as ever.

            That said, I admit I've only been on a Monday once or twice.

            Also, out of necessity, we've visited on very busy Friday and Saturday nights when they were slammed and had a line out the door, but it's generally still excellent, or at least very good. However, I recommend against that unless absolutely necessary, just because, well, it's a madhouse and the atmosphere is more pleasant when it's not cram-packed.

            I agree with those who say noodle dishes are inconsistent at Sri. I've never had much luck with noodle dishes there, and I haven't liked any of the Isaan/northern-style things I've ordered there.

            Hatless, try the curries. But you might just have more of a taste for Chao and Zabb, and that's OK since Sri has plenty of customers, while I'm sure Chao and Zabb can use all the business they can get, right? Or are they doing well these days?

          2. Brian S Apr 20, 2007 09:27 AM

            I've always found the food, to use your words, complex and downright transporting. My suggestion: give it another try. Go around 4 PM, no later than 4:30. That way, you get the good dinner chefs before they are slammed with huge crowds. When the resto is packed, many posters have reported lackluster meals.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Brian S
              hatless Apr 20, 2007 09:59 AM

              Thiswas a Thursday around 8. The restaurant was less than half full. If they're slammed when the place is half empty, well, jeez.

              I'm sure we'll give it another try or two, but I think our next couple of outings for Thai or Issaan will be back to Zabb and Chao Thai. Sri was good, just not great at least this time around.

            2. m
              mary shaposhnik Apr 20, 2007 08:33 AM

              If I am right in identifying the noodle dish you ordered (khanom jeen nam ngiaw, on the specials menu as something like "Chiang Mai noodles"), then I agree wholeheartedly that it is very disappointing. It is fairly new to the menu, and I was excited to see it. I'm no expert, but it wasn't anywhere CLOSE to what I think this dish (which I learned about here on chowhound, and ate a lot in northern Thailand) should be. The Zabb version isn't great either, but is much closer to the point. I don't know why Sripraphai is serving this.

              Not entirely sure what you mean by catfish papaya salad--I think you just mean fluffy catfish salad, not papaya?--but by its nature, I don't think the catfish flavor often comes through much. It's more of a textural thing, like eating insulation (and I mean that in the good way). But done correctly, this can be a really good salad. One friend of mine really liked Sri's broiled catfish salad much better - might want to try that. I am not as huge a fan of the watercress salad as most here.

              I think curries and salads based on grilled/bbqed items (bbq beef salad; moo manao, which I think translates on the menu as pork with chilies and lime; pla goong or shrimp salad--though Zabb's is better) are Sri's formidable strength; I've had more inconsistent results with stir-fries and noodles.

              1. welle Apr 20, 2007 07:57 AM

                The strongest dishes at Sri are curries, IMO. I live a block from the place and eat there at least once a month even on busiest weekend nights, and they never disappoint. Flavors could vary a notch or two, but the food is still very good. My favorites are penang curry and green curry with duck. I also love their softshell crab appetizer that comes with green mango salad and stewed tendon soup. I also like their whole fish.

                I've been to Zabb 3 times maybe and everytime was underwhelmed so I stopped going there (It's just a matter of convenience and preference, not to diss Zabb).

                5 Replies
                1. re: welle
                  jen kalb Apr 20, 2007 08:30 AM

                  wow, I think that the best dishes at both places are on the salad menu - that may be because what excites me in thai cuisine comes into fullest play there. tho I really like some of Sri's curries, as well as their khao soi. zabb seems better at noodles. One day I took home the watercress salad and the softshell salad from Sri - it was really amazing how different they were as well as how good. great stuff.

                  Now, who does a good thai whole fish dish? Its been a number of years since Ive had a good one.

                  1. re: jen kalb
                    d
                    Dave Feldman Apr 20, 2007 02:40 PM

                    Actually, Zabb does a terrific whole fish, but it isn't always available -- most nights there are whole fish specials available.

                  2. re: welle
                    charlie_b Apr 20, 2007 03:14 PM

                    i live LESS than a block away, and in my 5+ years here have probably only eaten at Sri about 100 times ... i've been careful not to burn myself out just because it's right here. i haven't enjoyed my meals there as much in the past couple of years, but i'm not sure if that's just because i don't go as much and have lost a taste for it, or what (i cook at home a lot more, and now find it often to be overwhelmingly salty).

                    that said, these are my go to standards there that have rarely, if ever, dissapointed:
                    - green curry duck (or green curry chicken if you prefer, but less so)
                    - panang beef or pork
                    - crispy watercress salad (i always have them leave out the chicken)
                    - moo pad prig khing (pork & long beans)
                    - fish cake appetizer
                    - pan fried mussels
                    - kra tiem (pork with garlic sauce, or order it with shrimp)

                    i am almost always happy with:
                    - soft shell crabs
                    - crispy pork & chinese broccoli (tends to be super-salty though)
                    - tom gha gai (although i usually get it without the chicken and with tofu)

                    i've always been disappointed in:
                    - shrimp cakes (tasteless to me)
                    - noodle dishes

                    there's a few other things i've tried and been somewhat indifferent to.

                    i think it's worth trying again, but you might simply prefer the preparations at other Thai places.

                    alekz

                    1. re: welle
                      j
                      jdf Apr 20, 2007 04:21 PM

                      I used to love the green curry with duck, too. Last time I had it, I ordered it medium and it tasted coconut-sweet, just like all the Thai restaurants that cater to the Amerian palate. Same with the crispy pork with chili and basil. Actually, only the salads retained the spiciness that I grew accustomed to years ago. Is the trend to underspice at Sri now taht they've expanded, or was it just an off-night of underspicing?

                      1. re: jdf
                        p
                        pynchoff Apr 22, 2007 06:38 AM

                        I've been going to Sri for six years, and find they are generally as good(and spicy) as they ever were. They are most likely to be somewhat off on a really crowded night. As for Zabb, I've probably been there fifteen times, and find it to be extremely inconsistant. I've had some really good meals there and some really nothing meals.

                    2. m
                      moymoy Apr 20, 2007 06:57 AM

                      I've been a regular at Sri for over 5 years and never had an underwhelming experience either. I wouldn't say that you ordered wrong, sounds like you simply enjoy Zabb's food more.

                      As for spicing, I find that odd that your party had to send things back to be "thai-hot" because I typically have the reverse problem at Sri, when I order mild it's still very spicy. I have to remind myself that it's Thai-mild, not American mild.

                      Could be they had an off night if you do decide to go back I too recommend you try the Crispy Watercress Salad.

                      1. missmasala Apr 20, 2007 06:34 AM

                        you may just have had a bad day, which they do have, when some dishes, especially noodles and stir-fries, taste dull and muddy.

                        Also, the best salad at sri is the crispy watercress. It would not surprise me that many of the yum or salad type offerings are better at Zabb, because Zabb specializes in that type of thai food.

                        I like Zabb, but find that their non-issan stuff is not as good as sri's. So for a more all-around meal, I go to sri. Anything with the green mango sauce is usually good, as is the pork and string bean curry.

                        But i do feel that they have been more inconsistent as of late. Every meal there used to be great, but now I have a dud meal every once and a while. Come to think of it, I haven't been there in two months and our last meal was decent, but not great and some dishes were dull. Downhill alert? Not sure, I've thought that before and then been blown away by my next meal.

                        Give it another try and then decide. If you still don't like it, stick with Zabb.

                        1. d
                          david sprague Apr 20, 2007 06:31 AM

                          I've never experienced that sort of underwhelming meal at Sri, and I've been going there regularly for ten or eleven years. Not saying i've never had a bad/off/less-than-stellar dish, but never had a full meal of letdowns (oddly, the mussel dish you described is one that i didn't like either time i tasted it here).

                          wouldn't say you ordered "wrong," but would note that the crispy catfish people tend to recommend is the one with a watercress base, not papaya. that wouldn't really address your feelings about the fish itself -- which is, in fact, very loofah-like in texture as served at Sri.

                          An off night? perhaps. Expectations of astral-projection on your part? perhaps -- and understandable, given the general tone among posters here. I'd give it another shot if i were you -- trying some of the curries or other dishes you didn't get around to.

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