I came here unsure what to think. Import from Bangkok with good reputation, but smacked down in the middle of the East Village. Promises of true Isaan heat, but all the decor of a flashy new Manhattan modern haunt for the overprivileged. There was only one way to find out, and so we ventured in for a meal in late October. The front had pumpkins with hipster hats, a bad sign of things to come?
The restaurant is actually quite comfortable. The communal tables with long benches are good for groups, the lighting is tasteful, and the music is not on full blast. The staff are attentive and helpful, giving recommendations and always seeming to be there when you need them.
The restaurant opened in 2012 in Bangkok and is about a month old here in New York. They promise to bring the true flavors of Isaan province without dumbing anything down, which is music to the ears of so many people craving a truly authentic experience and unfortunately getting sweet versions of classics. Somtum Der claims that Isaan spices are toned down even for populations in the central regions of Thailand, and they have been successful for doing just the opposite.
Here in New York though, they do offer a pepper rating system, where one pepper is the mildest, and four is the hottest. I asked what the rating would be for true Isaan plates, and was told that would be a three. I somehow doubted that, but my table sort of balked at my suggestion that we go all out, so we ordered six different somtum plates, with a mixture of level two and three peppers.
1. Tum pla too + kao mun ($11)
2. Tum thai ($10)
3. Tum thai kai kem ($11)
4. Tum kor moo yang ($10)
5. Tum poo - plara ($10)
6. Tum suo der ($9)
In the order they were served to us, and in the photos above:
1) Thai mackerel in papaya salad served with coconut rice.
2) Original style Thai spicy papaya salad.
3) Thai spicy papaya salad with salted egg.
4) Spicy papaya salad mixed with grilled pork neck meat.
5) Original Isaan papaya salad in fermented fish sauce and field crabs.
6) Der-style papaya salad with sweet chili sauce.
All in all, the somtum here excels. They bring the heat where they should, and are full of a balance of flavors and textures. I hope that the restaurant can continue to be so bold and is not forced to dumb down their flavors in the future as East Villagers sending their plates back might force them to do.
It is natural to eat grilled meat on skewers with papaya salad, so naturally we ordered all three selections they had:
Moo ping kati sod ($10) Grilled coconut milk marinated pork.
Nue rong hai der + khao ji ($9) House special grilled marinated beef.
Moo rong hai der + khao ji ($8) House special grilled marinated pork.
We were done with our first round of ordering at that point, but our waitress recommended another dish without being pushy and we all decided to go for it. Out came the larb ped ($11), a spicy minced duck salad that really got the taste buds screaming and eventually made my cry. Despite loving all the somtum options (besides maybe the pla-ra), this ended up being my favorite plate of the night and I would probably order an assortment of larb dished the next time I came.
The portion sizes here are not overwhelming, so your bill can creep upwards quickly. That being said, we all thought we could use another bite at the end and ordered the sa poak kai tod der ($8), a der-style deep fried chicken thigh. We made the right decision.
Without beers, this spread would have been slightly under $30 per person, which is not terrible given the variety we were able to sample, and also the quality of everything. Somtum Der, please stick to your guns and keep spicing those dishes the way Isaan would be proud.