I fell in love with the fiery curries and stews of southern Thailand during my first trip to the country in 2001, waking up each morning in Hat Yai craving a spicy breakfast. An otherwise unnoteworthy and dirty city void of tourist attractions, Hat Yai kept me in its grasp for well over a week simply because I wanted to eat more of these curries and all the Muslim foods not found farther north. On its dusty streets were many restaurants cooking large vats of several curries, which they would serve until they ran out. "Khao kang" translates to "curry over rice" but is more of an expression of this style of restaurant, specifically in the south. Elmhurst's Khao Kang is now a go-to place for the Thai community, and lovers of Thai food here in New York.
I have been eating here since it opened but unfortunately have not given it a proper write up because being a point and choose sort of set up, no menus are available and names are unwritten. Choices change day to day, so what you see here may be unavailable, but Khao Kang is doing very good things, and I have never been disappointed with a meal here with over half a dozen attempts.
Pick two ($7.50) or three ($7.95) entrees with steamed rice. Value here is excellent. The kitchen knows exactly what it is doing, the place is always full of Thai people, and you won't find more deliciousness for this amount of money anywhere.
On my most recent visit, we picked three southern-style curries (below). The kang tai pla (top left) gets its deep color from fermented fish organs and is full of fish meat, eggplant, bamboo, and kaffir lime leaves. The kang teh po (top right) is a red curry with pork belly and morning glory. Kang som pla (bottom) gets its sour taste from preserved bamboo shoot and has meaty chunks of fish.
Fair warning: All three of these curries and most southern food in general is melt-your-face-off spicy, so make sure you are up for the task. Toning it down is not an option since they make it in big batches.
There are an array of items that will not hurt as much, including the pad woon sen goong (below), a glass noodle dish with shrimp. It is common in southern eating to have options to eat in between all the heat, like noodles or fried fish.
Another calmer is the moo tod (below, left), fried pork that is possibly best eaten before the curries if you want to experience the full array of much more subtle ingredients. Pad naam (below, right) is fermented pork but covered in chilies and not so much of a break from the heat. Both are delicious.
Other options worth trying are outside of the steam table are hor mok ($7, below), a fish curry that is steamed in a banana leaf. The puffy texture comes from blending all the ingredients before it is cooked.
If you still have room for something sweet, try the kanom beang (below), small dosa-like wrappers containing coconut cream and sweet shredded egg.
In a city that keeps getting better and better with its Thai offering, Khao Kang is solidly in the top five and offers some curries and dining experience not found elsewhere.