From "What Jim Had For Dinner" in November, 2001 (and republished in "Best Food Writing, 2002")
A group of friends took Pat Hammond to have her first Western Hemisphere perceves (read the ongoing saga of Pat and her perceves) at Ilo (40 W40th Street, Manhattan; 212-642-2255). We tried their "tidal pool" an appetizer that's essentially mirin soup with perceves, sea urchin, oyster, and seaweed. It tasted...well...like good miso soup with a scant handful of pretty good shellfish mixed in. We split orders of tidal pools (the waiters kindly divided them for us) and ordered one drink each, and this ran us over $25 per person.
Perhaps if we'd sat at a table and taken our time, we'd have been placed in the proper frame of mind to read into this dish a lot more deliciousness than really existed (the luxe restaurant experience is, after all, intrinsically designed to hypnotize diners into finding their bites exquisite). But we ate in the noisy bar, chatting convivially, and it felt like we were eating some pretty good soup in a bar, nothing more. Aside from terrific service (and very skillful mixed drinks plus nicely selected wine list), there was nothing special about the experience.
What would it be like to visit all the NY Times' three and four star restaurants, sit at their bars with a big gang of friends, and eat the way we NORMALLY eat (offhandedly, if not unmindfully)? Which of these places could stand up to such treatment, without the psy-ops of cushy seats, starchy tablecloths, hushed sacramental presentations, slow, stately pacing, etc? Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern come immediately to mind as places which would pass this test. It's hard to think of many others. This doesn't exactly PROVE anything, of course. Some styles of cooking absolutely do require and deserve undivided, contemplative attention (and there's nothing wrong, per se with cushy seats and starchy tablecloths). But the tidal pool wasn't refined. It was just some pretty good soup.
So we left in search of antidote, an unpretentious and warm place to actually eat dinner. After a detour through Koreatown to buy weirdly delicious canned grape drink and I.V. bags of green apple juice, we headed toward a would-be meal at Waterfront Ale House (540 2nd Ave @30 St, Manhattan; 212-696-4104). But we were stopped dead in our tracks by a fast food joint whose sign announced the grand opening of Blimpie Subs & Salads, AKA Joey Thai: Thai Fast Food Restaurant (17 E31 Street, Manhattan; 212-213-3773).
It was the sort of non sequitur which makes the mind race to find order in chaos. Were ALL Blimpies also Thai restaurants on the side? Why hadn't I heard anything about that? I knew that Kennedy Fried Chicken places are usually Afghan-owned, and very rarely one might find under-the-counter aushak and such, but I hadn't remembered Blimpies being a particularly Thaicentric operation. Of course, I don't eat at Blimpies much.
We went in, as we of course HAD to, and found the standard plastic, bleakly corporate, disgusting interior. But the mom-'n-pop staff were sweet and seemed just as anachronistic in the setting as we were. Thai folks trapped in corporate amber. And they were glad indeed that, finally, someone wanted Thai food rather than tuna subs or "Bluffins" (egg, ham, and cheese on an english muffin).
The menu was dullsville...ten of the most standard gringo-friendly Thai dishes (pad thai, tom kha gai, sate, fried rice, masaman curry, etc). But we didn't flinch for a second; determined to take the plunge, come what may, we used the smart aleck approach, challenging them to prepare off-menu stuff (crispy pork with Chinese broccoli, larb, and banana sticky rice). I begged for spicy. As we negotiated and enthused, the chef/owner's eyes flashed with the manic edge of a resourceful fellow desperately determined to overcome unknowable adversities. You could seem him mentally planning his attack as he agreed to bring us everything we'd asked for.
The place was deserted, and the steam tables were empty. There is every reason to suspect that in the three weeks they've been in business, we were the first human beings ever to order Thai food. They not only didn't want to let us down, but were eager to stretch beyond Giant Value Choice Cheese Trio Subs.
Results were uneven but promising. The guy was obviously working under rigorous impediments, making a bunch of things from scratch which he didn't really have provisions to do right. Nonetheless, everything had the unmistakable flavor of real Thai food in spite of five gazillion shortcuts, compromises, and substitutions. It was the sort of meal you'd expect to eat if you'd met a Thai chef cooking spaghetti and steaks in a Peruvian railroad dining car, and got him stoked to extemporize some back-home dishes. It was wrong right Thai food rather than the standard right wrong Thai food.
The larb was amazingly good in some ways. It sported a nice balance of lime and red onion, the pork chunklets appropriately marinated and properly textured. It was even, by some miracle, adequately hot. Who'd have suspected serious larb on 31st Street (not to mention in a--may I say it once again?--Blimpie)! One problem, though: it was salty enough to make one retain Lake Huron. Tongue-scraping salty. Gargle-with-this-sweetie-you'll-feel-much-better salty.
As he did throughout the meal, the chef/owner apologized profusely for "all the mistakes". He had the nervous smile and flop sweat of Basil Fawlty genteelly handling customers while all hell breaks loose, unseen, in the next room. I felt for the guy. He obviously knows his stuff, but was up against untold challenges (man, he'd be horrified if he knew I was a writer). So he kept trying to compensate by bringing free food; dishes he knew he'd only be forced to screw up a little bit. Truly delicious sour shrimp soup with unfortunate shrimp (more on them in a sec), merely-slightly-rubbery chicken sate, and, for dessert, some very nice grapes which I suspect were from his private stash (we were too full for banana sticky rice, though we were assured those goods could have been delivered).
To regress back to the entrees: pad Thai was very good; the ingredients were on hand, it's on the normal menu, and I'd gladly return for another helping anytime. I did not, however, eat the shrimp, which seem to have gone through several cycles of de- and re-frosting. And shrimp were everywhere, festooning practically every dish. I suspect they came in on the Blimpie truck.
Crispy pork and Chinese broccoli was good but wrong. I couldn't put my finger on the reason, since all remnants of the heroic resourcefulness which had gone into its preparation were deftly erased. It wasn't a real crispy pork and Chinese broccoli, but it was Thai and was satisfying in its way. This is a man who could produce Thai-tasting food armed only with Triskets, Lipton onion soup mix, and Bac-o's.
Iced coffee came without the usual contraption, and without condensed milk, yet it still somehow managed to taste at least somewhat Thai. It was a morph of Thai ice coffee and American ice coffee--sort of an in-the-middle, Bikini Islands take on the drink.
Joey Thai: Thai Fast Food Restaurant (AKA Blimpie) is the diametrical opposite to Thai places which pander to gringos (that is, every NYC Thai restaurant except Sripraphai, 64-13 39 ave, Woodside, Queens; 718-899-9599). Rather than evoke American flavors from Thai ingredients and recipes, they improvise and jury-rig to wrench Thai flavors from....well, from the kitchen of a BLIMPIE, for crying out loud.
I regret if this all reads like a put-down. Nearly all the food was good, and as for the mistakes, I admit, the problems may have largely been the result of my wise guy ordering. I violated one of my own rules, a counter-intuitive unchowhoundish dictum I'd picked up from long experience: unless you have good reason to suspect hidden grandeur, it's always best to let the kitchen simply do what it does. Otherwise, the meal will likely turn into a Djelali. One day I'll explain about Djelalis. [Note: eleven years later, I finally told the tale....here].
These guys are clearly panicking at the failure of their unique and innovative business plan. Since customers are probably not going for the Thai half of the menu, they're not fully prepared to cook those things at this point. But I'm sure of one thing: if there were demand for the Thai stuff, they'd stock up, prep, and generally be ready to cook serious dishes without having to pray for miracles whenever errant chowhounds appeared. So let's all stop by, and help grow this place to its full potential. It's a worthy cause; when was the last time you found a Thai restaurant even INTERESTED in giving you a taste of Thailand, rather than pandering to what they presume to be gringo taste (dumbed down, toned down, and peanut buttered and sugared up)? As the hostess (yes, this is a Blimpie with a hostess) told us--in broken English offset by a wonderful smile--their aim is to serve the real homestyle cooking, which you can't usually find in restaurants. And, amid the surrealism and bleak frontier circumstances, it tastes like it.
Also, these are the nicest people in the world. You may have to leave shrimp on your plate (better: tell them you're allergic), but by meal's end, return visits will be planned. You'll feel sad upon leaving. I have rarely felt as at home and as graciously, sincerely, warmly taken care of as I did tonight at my white plastic table--built into the floor--on my white plastic seat--also built into the floor--under the glaring florescent lights and huge flashy corporate posters at the midtown Blimpie.