Thai food is more popular than ever thanks to complex flavors that balance sour, sweet, spicy, and salty. It’s full of an irresistible combination of bright fresh herbs, sour tamarind and citrus, pungent fish sauce, and hot chiles. Thai restaurants have been operating in the U.S. for decades, but it’s only recently that Americans are moving beyond overly-sweetened pad Thai and seeking out traditional Thai preparations and regional dishes. Here are some of the most influential and unique Thai restaurants that are helping customers understand the country’s cuisine.
The food at Street to Kitchen has been called “the real deal” by critics, and the restaurant’s own website states it’s “unapologetically, authentically Thai.” That’s probably because owners Benchawan Painter and her husband moved to Houston from Thailand and they make everything in the small space from scratch. The menu is small but full of Thai staples like a must-have larb, pad Thai with shrimp and peanuts, and pad see ew.
For a long time, it was a well-known secret that the best Thai food in Vegas was found way off-Strip in an unassuming strip mall restaurant called Lotus of Siam. It received so much attention that eventually its owner and chef, Saipin Chutima, won a James Beard Award in 2011. She cooks northern Thai recipes passed on from her grandmothers, and her signature dishes include khao soi, crispy shell-on garlic prawns, and nam prik ong, a fiery red chili dip.
Teton Village, Wyoming
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, might not be the first place you look for quality Thai food, but you’d be remiss if you passed up Teton Thai. The family-run restaurant has been fueling skiers for over a decade. Sit on the porch and soak in the majestic mountain views while you warm up with wild-caught salmon panang curry or tom yum goong with lemongrass, lime leaves, and galanga.
In the time before the pandemic, Little Serow was one of the hottest spots in D.C., and there was always a line outside for its daily opening at 5:30 p.m. since the restaurant didn’t take reservations. Now you can order takeout, but it’s still on a first-come, first-serve basis, including the famed tasting menu that was the only thing on offer for dine-in previously. Now you can pick and choose from dishes like catfish larb and herbaceous mushroom “waterfall” salad.
When chef and owner Narupon Silargorn opened Lers Ros in 2008, he didn’t care what non-Thai people thought of the food, because he was catering to the sizable Asian population in the area. But tastes have evolved, and everyone loves the down-to-earth, affordable, and exciting food so much that there are three locations. The menus are huge and span everything from duck larb to clams with sweet chili paste and basil.
There’s nothing about SriPraPhai that’s flashy or fancy — it’s just a reliable, consistent favorite of New Yorkers since the 1990s. It was a trailblazer back then since it served traditional foods with knock-your-socks-off levels of spice. Now there are a lot more Thai restaurants, but this one is always reliably delicious. The pork leg with mustard greens over rice and the jungle curry are particularly good here.
There is nothing Hollywood about Jitlada, one of LA’s most popular Thai restaurants located in the heart of the only officially recognized Thai Town in the United States. It’s located in a nondescript strip mall, but it’s still a favorite of plenty of Hollywood stars thanks to its fiery southern Thai cuisine. The famous late critic Jonathan Gold commended the restaurant for opening people’s eyes to real Thai regional cuisine and encouraged diners to try items like curried fish kidneys. The menu is large, and you’ll find lots of seafood, like fried garlic soft shell crab and tiger prawns with green curry.
Kalaya opened in 2019 and had to face all the problems that the pandemic brought with it in 2020. But the southern Thai restaurant immediately demonstrated that it had staying power, and Esquire even named it the best new restaurant in America in 2020, saying it’s worth a thousand mile drive to get there. Try the goat curry that’s stewed for five hours or the yum nua, a grilled beef and eggplant salad full of fresh herbs.
Brown Deer, Wisconsin
AppeThai owner and chef Bang Tongkumbunjong tries to make everything for his customers like he would at his own home, so you won’t find Americanized versions of Thai food here. Though it’s in an unassuming strip mall in a Milwaukee suburb, it’s one of the best Thai restaurants in the state. Don’t miss the lunch time special of stir-fried, finely-chopped chicken with green beans and holy basil topped with a fried egg, or the duck curry.
After a period of experimentation to get through the pandemic, Langbaan is back to what it does best: prix fixe menus. The tiny 24-seat restaurant is intimate and feels like someone’s kitchen — appropriate given the restaurant name is the Thai word for “back of the house.” The menu focuses on Isan cuisine, though the theme of the menu changes. Right now you can get Thai food inspired by Bangkok’s Chinatown, including khao tom plaa, a rice soup with swordfish and Chinese donut.
What do you get when you cross the sleek, vintage-contemporary vibes of Miami Beach with Thai food? NaiYaRa, a restaurant where the food is just as pretty as the people eating it. It’s owned by a James Beard Award-nominated chef, Piyarat Arreeratn, and his mother, where they serve a selection of chic northern Thai dishes along with sushi — this is Miami, after all. Don’t miss out on the smoky, coriander-scented beef jerky or the seabass green curry.
Sticky Rice is a nondescript but cheery storefront restaurant that serves northern Thai dishes that are big on flavor and quantity. There is typical pad Thai and other favorites, but the restaurant really shines in the more unique dishes. Look for specials that include a tamarind goat curry, banana blossom salad, and the northern Thai pork sausage made with pork skin, red curry paste, and herbs.
Before the pandemic when people still waited in lines, there was often one outside Titaya’s Thai Cuisine in Austin. It’s a neighborhood gem and the people know it’s worth the wait for the shareable-sized portions of Thai classics. The pad kee mao and northern Thai sausage with green chile dip are especially beloved, as is the khao soi 360, a fusion take on the noodle dish with ramen, turmeric chicken, and pickled mustard greens.
When chef Kris Yenbamroong took over his family’s restaurant, he decided to liven the place up by turning it into a party spot serving modern Thai street food. The Sunset Strip location of Night + Market — there are three locations now — was cramped and boisterous before the pandemic, but offers takeout and a more low-key dine-in experience now. Try the filet mignon satay or the papaya salad sipping on a cocktail or wine from an exceptional wine list.
Pestle Rock stands out in a sea of Thai restaurants in Seattle, so it must be exceptional. The quaint restaurant specializes in Isan cuisine, so you won’t find any pad Thai here. Instead you’ll get food that’s spicy and filled with fresh herbs, or unusual specials like boar collar or frog’s legs. The salad section of the menu is large and full of complex, balanced flavors like trout tod yum, a fried trout filet topped with mango salad, while lamb massaman curry is rich and hearty.
Even though it’s 14-years-old, Ayada “remains one of the best and most ambitious Thai restaurants in New York City.” It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite dish from chef Duangjai “Kitty” Thammasat’s menu, especially if you embrace the takes-no-prisoners level of heat that some dishes emanate. The crispy catfish salad, raw shrimp salad, and drunken noodles are all particularly delicious, so start with those.
Though it started out as an unassuming eatery decades ago, Arun’s has become a fine dining Chicago stalwart. Chef and owner Arun Sampanthavivat, who has no formal culinary training and grew up on a rubber plantation in Thailand, won a James Beard Award in 2000 and the New York Times declared that “great chefs go to him to be dazzled.” Though there is takeout now, the menu for dine-in is a tasting menu of nine courses that change often, including beef tenderloin massaman curry and garlic lobster.