In search of sticky rice


Monday evening on Roosevelt Avenue was a whole new universe. I'd been to Queens before, Elmhurst twice, Flushing many times, I'd even biked in Queens, but this street was, is, nothing like any I have walked since I moved to New York in 2011. Saying it's diverse is putting it lightly.

But let me go back a little.

Usually Monday's you'll find me chained to my desk (and thus my computer). It's where I've been the last two months, and it's where I will be for the next two months–working on my thesis. But this last Monday I threw up my hands and left my desk to meet friends at that iconic of New York locations, Grand Central Station. Once we found each other in the massive blue-ceilinged room, we escalatored down into the depths of the nearby subway station. Despite it's slowness, the 7-train is worth the time it takes for the view of the Manhattan skyline at night.

As we walked along Roosevelt Avenue I noted the gay clubs, the gentleman's bars, the taquerias, the gymnasium, more gay clubs, a yogurt shop, lingerie shops, and more, I wondered where exactly I was. Is this actually a neighborhood people live in? Or just men?

We passed this all up and eventually found Arunee Thai, a restaurant recommended by Jeff, a foodie friend who runs culinary tours in Jackson Heights. The first thing I asked the waitress was: do you have sticky rice. Yes, she said with a smile. Thank god. I quickly put in an order for som tum (papaya salad), which is what I use to grade all Thai restaurants. We also ordered their fisherman's curry, kang keow whan puck (green curry with eggplant) and pad kra praow (chicken and basil).

Todd and I talked about our trips to Thailand. His to Bangkok and mine to visit a good friend who was in the Peace Corps, several hours north of Bangkok. Both trips many, many years ago. The som tum arrived looking much like I hoped, but not as full of green beans and tomatoes and tiny shrimp. The shredded papaya tasted good, but I was also really hungry. I balled up some sticky rice and submerged it in the sauce and popped it in my mouth. The umami of fish sauce, sugar, chilis and lime was good, very tasty, but not excellent. It had room to improve.

Arunee Thai's best dish was their fisherman's curry which arrived to the table in a foil packet with the corners folded out and giant mussels aimed up each corner. The dish looked small but it was packed with goodies: mussels, crab, squid, shrimp and vegetables. I kept unearthing more. The flavor was layered with curry spice (turmeric, lemongrass, chilis) and creamy coconut milk. The lumps of real crab, an unexpected surprise, and the heaps of basil elevated the dish. In fact, I'm still thinking about it.

The green curry was also good, with less heat then the fish curry and a strong taste of galangal which felt more complimentary to the eggplant, squash, mushrooms, baby corn and carrots. I can't remember the last time I had baby corn. And the carrots, cut on the edges with a zig zag, showed the kitchen cares. The chicken and basil was good, but not a highlight. Loads of chicken and basil and just a few pieces of cucumber and carrot, the caramel brown sauce looked watery but, along with brown sugar and maybe soy sauce, it wound up with a sweet tang.

It was a birthday dinner so we wound down the meal with one order of mango ice cream and three spoons. The ice cream, certainly mango in color, tasted like no mango I had ever had. Todd told us he thought it tasted like Chinatown ice cream. The texture was gritty, less creamy then ice-y and it felt more like eating old dried peanut butter, the natural kind, colored sherbet-y orange.