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Dec 1, 2010 05:27 PM

Amazing tom zap from Chao Thai

The chest cold that struck me like a wrecking ball earlier this week has been served - by a bowl of incendiary fragrant tom zap from Chao, brimming with chili, fish balls and all manner of herb-y things.

I often get tom zap with seafood from Sripraphai, but tonight is Wednesday, and well, sometimes the groove of yore is just not there these days.

Knowing there is nothing for a cold like a good Thai soup, my husband surprised me - he went to Chao and asked the cheerful younger guy for "tom zap talay, spicy" - there was a brief discussion with the kitchen in Thai, and they agreed to do something not on the menu, so I am not completely certain what I have.

But what it is, is brilliant. The fragrance was a knock-out, buzzing with lemongrass and basil and fresh seafood. The first spoonful actually caught in the back of my throat and made me choke for a second: oh yes, say goodbye to coach, you've been upgraded.

It's like the tom zap I used to get at Sri, except far better, spicier, more vital. Beautifully balanced hot, sour and fragrant broth that obliterated everything tired and dreary in its path.

I'd heard reports on these boards that Chao was not making things hot sometimes, and it's happened to me once (the older lady) - but the kind spirits of pet pet were on watch tonight, and the soup boasted no less than four types of chilies: toasted dried red long chillies, red and green short chillies, and - the deadliest, I think? many mashed up bits of orange chili.

The soup is full of mixed seafood and veg: squid, shrimp, mussels, toothsome fish dumplings, plenty of basil, onion slices - the surprise was how nicely the plump quartered button mushrooms - usually a sign, in my opinion, of Bad Thai Takeout - fit in.

I can only describe the aftermath as a peaceful glowing feeling, not unrelated to the realisation that the bottom of the take-out soup container was - completely - covered by chili seeds.

The one thing my husband didn't get? The name of this soup. But I fully intend to go back to Chao soon and get to the bottom of it. Ask for "tom zap talay, spicy" and accept no substitutes. Whoever is at the helm of Chao tonight knows how to use enough gun.

Chao Thai
85-03 Whitney Ave, Queens, NY 11373

64-13 39th Ave, Queens, NY 11377

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  1. This sounds like the way soups used to always come at Chao Thai. Their tom yum was amazing and its still pretty much the best I know of, but it's different now. The first time I ever ordered it I only said spicy. I didn't have to use Thai, I didn't have to be forceful, etc. I just ordered it and when asked how spicy I said spicy. The entire surface of the soup was chillies. Amazing stuff flavor wise though.

    Chao Thai
    85-03 Whitney Ave, Queens, NY 11373

    11 Replies
    1. re: JFores

      Any other amazing, not-to-be-missed dishes at Chao Thai? Heading there for dinner tonight...

      Veggie-friendly recs esp. appreciated (since most of the post about the meaty fare)!

      1. re: CitySpoonful

        Wish I saw this sooner. I've eaten a good portion of the menu there. What did you end up with?

        1. re: Peter Cuce

          We had a pretty fantastic meal -- with good meat and veggie dishes.

          Highlights: the extremely fresh and spicy Som Tum (papaya salad); the Jungle Curry (though we struggled to get the spice level we wanted, as our waiter wasn't sure we looked like we could take extreme heat of the dish); and two flat noodles dishes: Gai Kua Noodle (w/squid & chiken) and Pad Kee Mao (veggie with basil, garlic.

          The flat noodles were extremely delicate and (for lack of a better word) perky. The farthest thing from the usual gloppy, oily, congealed mess that is flat noodles in NYC Thai restaurants.

          And the Jungle Curry had a great lineup of vegetabes/seasonings: tiny green Thai eggplants, green beans, firm tofu, fresh bamboo shoots, strands of lemongrass and fragrant green peppercorns still on the stem.

          The Crispy Pork Prik King Curry (pork belly with spices, kefir lime leaves and green beans) and Pad Frog Garlic (fried frog legs w/basil, garlic chilies) also drew raves from our meat lovers -- though as a vegetarian, I can't personally attest to the awesomeness of those dishes.

          Not surprisingly, the Spicy Sweet Chili Paste Fried Rice and the Pad Sweet & Sour Tofu were pretty blah -- low on flavor and way too sweet, respectively. The Chicken Pad Thai was also pretty lackluster.

          Did we miss out on any particularly awesome dishes? I know the soups and larb dishes are supposed to be awesome there.

          (Full review to come asap; for now, photos of our dinne are at:


          Chao Thai
          85-03 Whitney Ave, Queens, NY 11373

          1. re: CitySpoonful

            It's been a while since I've been, but I remember the 3 buddies salad and the sai oua (the large, slight crumbly sausage with kaffir lime leaf in it) as being v good. Also, I haven't seen either of these dishes on the menus of other thai places I frequent, so that alone makes chao thai worth a visit.

            1. re: missmasala

              3 buddies is indeed very good here, but I've seen it on other menus as well. It doesn't always go by the same name.

              1. re: Polecat

                that's good to know. what are some of its other names?

                1. re: missmasala

                  Argh, can't say offhand for certain without a menu offhand, will have to get back to you for examples of exact wordings and venues. I was just checking out Boon Chu's menu this past weekend, and it's listed as fish maw with pork. At another joint I recall it being listed as something along the lines of "3 friends" or "3 brothers" and so on. Will follow up when I can. It's an excellent dish when done well.

                  Boon Chu
                  83-18 Broadway, Queens, NY 11373

                  1. re: Polecat

                    I think Ploy also has that 3 buddies salad as well. Makes sense, as they are an offshoot of Chao.

                    Ploy Thai
                    81-40 Broadway, Queens, NY 11373

                    1. re: E Eto

                      OK. Never eaten at Boon or Ploy, so maybe that's why I haven't seen it. But forgot that one of the buddies was fish maw, so if I see a fish maw with pork salad on the menu I'll just assume it's something similar.
                      Btw, are Boon and/or Ploy any good? Worth trying? Lately we've been doing mainly Ayada and Centerpoint, but always happy to branch out.

                      Thailand's Center Point
                      63-19 39th Ave, Queens, NY 11377

                      77-08 Woodside Ave, Queens, NY 11373

                      1. re: missmasala

                        I like Ploy, though I think the food was fresher and made with more care at Chao.

            2. re: CitySpoonful

              At long last, here's our full write-up of our recent dinner at Chao Thai. Could this be the city's best Thai? Leaning toward yes... :)

              From the exemplary flat noodles to the wok-fried meat dishes, almost everything we tried at Chao Thai in Elmhurst, Queens, was fresh, spicy and miraculously light.

              Take the som tum (green papaya salad), a tangle of unripe papaya strands, raw long beans, gently crushed cherry tomatoes and lime quarters, and roasted whole peanuts—all tossed with lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chilies.

              It’s a simple salad, but at Chao Thai, the ingredients were unusually fresh. The papaya was crunchy yet juicy, and the sauce perfectly balanced tangy lime and the subtle, salty funk of the fish sauce. The garlic was barely noticeable, but who needs garlic when you have chilies? Although our order was spiced conservatively (“American medium”), the back-of-the-tongue kick was immediate—and very satisfying.

              The two wok-fried meat dishes we tried, pad frog garlic (frog legs) and crispy pork prik king curry (pork belly with green beans), also drew raves. (Full disclosure: Your humble reviewer, a vegetarian, owes the meaty portions of this review to her carnivorous dining companions.)

              The frog legs were fried with a garlic kick and a moderate amount of spiciness. Held and eaten much like chicken wings, the legs yielded meat with a slightly fishy flavor, akin to catfish, but with a texture like chicken.

              The pork and green beans dish combined crispy, bite-size hunks of fried pork belly and fresh green beans. Flavored with a red-hued spice mixture, kefir lime leaves and sweet red bell peppers, the dish had a definite spicy kick.

              In many Thai restaurants in New York, flat noodles are thick and floppy—congealed into an oily, glutinous mound. But in the two flat-noodle dishes we tried, gai kua noodle (sautéed with chicken, squid and egg) and pad kee mao (sautéed with chilies, basil and egg), the noodles were exceptionally delicate and firm—almost springy. Both were also low on grease and totally free of gloppy, sweet sauces.

              Flavored with garlic and the squid itself, which was used sparingly, our gai kua noodles were light, mild and well-balanced. Our only complaint: the chicken was overcooked and tough.

              The pad kee mao was lightly flavored with garlic and basil. The noodles had absorbed a mildly smoky flavor from the wok, which was totally addictive. But we were disappointed to find that our request for spicy had been downgraded by the kitchen to barely “American medium.”

              We encountered the same spicing issues with the jungle curry, which is billed as one of Chao Thai’s spiciest dishes. When we attempted to order it, our waiter’s response was, “No, you don’t want that. It’s spicy.” Only after we described our affinity for the fiery small green chilies sold in Indian grocery stores did he relent and take our order.

              When it arrived at the table, the jungle curry was indeed spicy—by American standards. But student cafeterias in India serve spicier food any day of the week. Once again, the spice level had clearly been adjusted by the kitchen.

              Still, the curry broth was decently spicy, incredibly light (no oily sheen!) and fragrant—flavored with freshly ground spices, fibrous strips of lemongrass and small bunches of fresh green peppercorns still on the stem. Crunchy fresh bamboo shoots, quartered Thai eggplants, hunks of firm tofu and bite-size pieces of fresh green beans bobbed in the broth.

              Doctored spice levels aside, this might just be the city’s best Thai cooking.

              (Photos at:


              Chao Thai
              85-03 Whitney Ave, Queens, NY 11373

      2. +1 for using a Thai soup to combat a cold. Very wise choice.