The other day I almost canceled my plans for an outdoor lunch at the Thai Diner in Nolita based on the forecast. That would have been a mistake, not because it wasn’t raining – it was pouring – but because the weather actually improved the experience. I sat with two friends on a neat platform on the sidewalk, warmed by a heat lamp and dry under an enchanting retro awning with tempting words and pictures: “Steak”; “Coffee”; a stack of pancakes with a stick of butter.
We felt hearty and resilient, and best of all, we had the patio to ourselves, which turned out to be especially lucky after we ordered enough food to be moved to another table. Silky red curry made from kabocha squash with a scaly leaf of roti to dip, fought for space with lamb loaf and sticky rice; the broad, sweet-slippery noodles of a fat lake eiw (also known as pad see ew), tangled with Chinese broccoli and delicate short ribs; and a terrine with creamy Khao Soi, the heart of which is made of chicken thighs and topped with a nest of crispy noodles. Droplets pattered heavily on the metal head, calming like a rain stick.
When I mentioned the sound effect to Ann Redding, who is co-cook and co-owner of Thai Diner with her husband Matt Danzer, she laughed. “Like in Southeast Asia,” she said. The terrace along Kenmare Street has always been part of the plan for the corner restaurant, which opened in February 2020. The closed al fresco dining structure they built on Mott Street, designed by Redding’s sister May, was not. Equipped with cabins, thatched bamboo walls, huge, easy-to-open windows, and fans, it’s also excitingly transportable and is not only reminiscent of Thailand, but also of mid-century American train carriage guests who emerged from lunch while traveling.
The mood can whet the appetite especially for the menu’s perfect, compact burger served on a sesame bun with shredded iceberg and pickles – add french fries or not. I didn’t because I ordered the Thai disco fries, a pile smothered with massaman curry, red onions, peanuts, and coconut cream. Fortunately, some of the dishes here have been transplanted from Uncle Boons, the couple’s first strictly Thai restaurant, which they had to close last August after failed negotiations with their landlord, and whose spin-off, Uncle Boon’s sister, is currently delivery-only. I was especially happy to be reunited with the superlative fat Thai (aka Pad Thai) and a coupe of finely chopped peanuts, dried shrimp, raw onions, and ginger wrapped in toasted coconut sauce in peppery betel leaves.
Items like the disco fries epitomize the more experimental theme that Redding and Danzer originally planned, inspired in part by the way Redding’s mother, who emigrated from Thailand, adapted her cuisine to the US. The breakfast menu includes Thai tea-flavored babka French toast and spectacular egg sandwiches with roti folded tightly around a soft scrambled egg, American cheese, Thai basil, and either Sai Oua – a curry-spiced northern Thai-style pork sausage – or avocado and bok choy .
A cynic might argue that Thai diner is actually not a diner, a category usually associated with a castrated kind of universality. However, the restaurant proves that wide accommodation doesn’t have to come at the expense of surprise. There is something for everyone, especially if you don’t underestimate anyone. Just before the pandemic began, Redding was pleased to see that among the opening workers were construction workers, police officers and local seniors dining alone at a counter on a wall of windows that opened onto the street.
Although Thai Diner currently has limited capacity indoor dining, this counter has been remodeled for the time being to allow for an increase in take-out, another art they have been able to master. At the end of my rainy lunch, I settled on a takeaway dessert, assuming that something called a “monster cake” that day – with shark coffee flavor that day – would travel well. And how: The first thing I did when I opened the box at home was laugh. The cartoon-like shaggy frosting was decorated with two fondant googly eyes with cashew nuts as eyebrows. (Dishes $ 8- $ 25.) ♦