At Pata Cafe, Few Ingredients but a Mélange of Thai Flavors
Hungry City | By LIGAYA MISHAN
At Pata Cafe in Elmhurst, Queens, a tree climbs from the floor through the ceiling. It’s as if you’d popped through a trap door into a secret clubhouse. A stuffed monkey lounges on a branch, a homage to Bua Noi (Little Lotus), a gorilla who has spent her life in the rooftop zoo of the Pata department store in Bangkok.
Sunisa Nitmai and her daughter Suchasinee wash dishes by hand behind the counter. When school is out, kids commandeer the few tables for banana-Nutella sandwiches and bubble tea, scribbling messages on Post-its: “Waffles waz here.” “#Soupboys 4 Lyfe.” “Pata is our home.”
But steal in after sunset, just before the cafe closes, and you may have it to yourself, along with its very brief menu of plain-spoken Thai dishes, none over $10, handwritten on kraft paper on the back wall.
Sunisa, known as Susan, is the chef. In the late ’90s, she traded the hot, dry Khorat Plateau in Isan, Thailand, for rainy Seattle, before settling in New York. She has run the kitchen at other Thai restaurants, but this may be the first time she can cook as she would at home, for neighbors who share her culture or simply long to know it.
Her food tastes of gestures timeworn but never taken for granted, and of honest pleasure in what a handful of ingredients can do. Like the smallest dab of nam prik pao, chiles roasted and simmered into jam, and the scent of torn kaffir lime leaves in tom yum, a clear soup with tomatoes collapsing in its depths and a warmth that settles under the ribs like an expanding cloud.
Or raw grains of rice turned gold in a hot pan, then crushed to powder, giving almost every dish a riddle of crunch. Or dried shrimp and roasted peanuts sweating their salts under a thatch of shredded green papaya, a salad that cleanses and burns at once.
Or Chinese celery with its bitter pang; drippings from steamed chicken; and pickled garlic with its brine, all tossed in yum woon sen, a cool, summery heap of mung-bean noodles.
For gai yang, Isan-style barbecue chicken, thigh meat is bathed in milk muddled with lemongrass and galangal. On the streets of Thailand, this would be skewered over charcoal; here, Ms. Nitmai must make do with a pan atop an induction burner. Still, the flesh turns dark and sweet in all the right spots, and I’d eaten nearly half of it before I noticed the dipping sauce of tamarind and lime, lovely and unneeded.
No one flavor takes precedence, not sweet, sour, brine or tang. (Only pad Thai capitulates to sweetness, as it does almost everywhere in the city.)
Not even heat dominates: Ask for “spicy,” and you shall receive, but, judiciously, the chiles joining forces with other ingredients rather than simply muscling in. The exception is larb, one of Isan’s great gifts to the world, a salad (inadequate word!) of minced meat crackling slightly from roasted rice powder, braced by lime and, in heat, approaching quiet annihilation.
Opened last December, Pata Cafe is an offshoot of Pata Paplean, a bar about a mile away, serving tom yum cocktails to a young Thai crowd on a strip that includes some of the city’s best Thai restaurants. (The bar has something of a cult following for its weekends-only pork blood noodle soup, made by Satika Kanchanamusik, known as Cherry.)
The cafe has a lonelier address, at the end of a residential block, and the look of a rustic art installation. One wall is a mosaic of scrap wood, the other an array of found objects — a boomerang, improvised buckets of plastic cups and string, books donated by neighbors (“Basic Italian Conversation,” “The Octave of Redemption”) — around a fogged mirror. A statue of the Buddha gleams beside a happy cat.
One night, a customer reached for the handle of what he thought was the door to the restroom. It was the refrigerator, camouflaged by Post-its.
For dessert, there are crepes folded like kerchiefs and diner-style waffles. What the kids want is Pink Milky, a froth of condensed milk, half-and-half, sugar and teeth-jitteringly sweet Hale’s Blue Boy sala (palm fruit) syrup. I drank it and thought of liquefied chalk.
The comforts of Pata Cafe may be ephemeral. Ms. Nitmai was considering returning home to Khorat when her daughter asked her to cook, and there’s still a chance that she’ll go back one day.
Please help me persuade her to stay.