Four countries border Thailand: Cambodia to the east, Malaysia to the south, Myanmar (Burma) to the west and Laos to the north. While Thai food seems to be everywhere in New York City, Manhattan also has Burmese, Cambodian (Khmer), Laotian and Malaysian restaurants.
West New Malaysia
Angkor Cambodian Bistro
Cambodia: Angkor Cambodian Bistro (Upper East Side)
When you enter Angkor Cambodian Bistro, you’ll be greeted by a long-lobed Buddha head. The inside is elegantly decorated with low lights. The exposed brick walls are adorned with paintings of the former Khmer empire like Angkor Thom. If low light (that’s a Pearl Jam song) is not your thing, there is also outside seating. After dining, you may want to go shopping for elephant and Buddha head pillows.
After fleeing Phnom Penh in 1975, chef Minh Truong lived in Vietnam and then Thailand before moving to the United States in the early 1980s. Some of the items on the menu are from neighboring countries, but the majority are Khmer. Cambodian staples like amok and beef salad will be recognizable to anyone who has visited the motherland or even South Philadelphia. Khmer cuisine is generally less spicy than that of neighboring Thailand or Laos.
Laos: Khe-Yo (Tribecca)
Khe-Yo is New York’s first Laotian eatery. Most dishes are spicy, but the spice can be tamed with the traditional sticky rice in a bag. The menu is fairly simple, but executive chef Soulayphet Schwader has certainly added his own touch to each dish on the menu. He urges diners to eat with their hands, but utensils are provided.
Neither the inside nor the outside make it apparent that you are in New York’s only Laotian restaurant. Besides the elephant mural on the exposed brick wall, what kind of food is served there is anyone’s guess until you sit down and look at the menu. Dishes are meant for sharing and lean more towards meat than fish. Laos is, after all, a landlocked country.
Malaysia: West New Malaysia (Chinatown)
Hidden in an alleyway between Bowery and Elizabeth Street, West New Malaysia has nearly 250 items on its menu. Although there are some Chinese and Thai dishes, most are Malay. Around half of the items have the “spicy” logo next to them, but the chef is more than happy to dial back the spice to accommodate non-Asians.
If you’ve never had Malaysian food before, roti canai is a very common appetizer. Mee goring and chow kueh teow are common noodle dishes. There are more than a dozen soups on the menu. Skip the wonton soup, which you can get at nearly any Chinese restaurant and try the crispy fish head soup. If you need some exercise after eating at West New Malaysia, the pedestrian entrance to the Manhattan Bridge is just one block away.
Myanmar (Burma): Café Mingala (Upper East Side)
Like Angkor for Cambodian food and Khe-Yo for Laotian, Café Mingala is the only restaurant option for Burmese food in New York. Although Café Mingala may look inconspicuous from the outside, the art on the inside walls, combined with the food will make many visitors want to check flights to Yangon. The walls are covered with murals of historic Burmese sites like Inle Lake, Mandalay and Pagan. Although they’ve been open since the early 1990s, when you step inside you can feel like you’re stepping more than a couple decades back in time.
Myanmar’s geographic location is reflected in its food, although their dishes are not as spicy as those of neighboring India or Thailand. The thousand-layer bread reflects roti canai, but the Malaysians don’t serve it as a dessert with sweet coconut milk. Satay is available at nearly every Thai restaurant, but there are plenty of items that are uniquely Burmese. For noodle lovers, there’s mohingha which is a common breakfast soup in Myanmar. Street foodies will love the night market noodles. Avoid the papaya salad, which can be found in most Thai restaurants and go for the pickled green tea leaf salad for something more authentically Burmese. Subway service will be available along 2nd Ave on the Upper East Side by the end of 2016.