Tonight, I had a Friday night date with myself. Michael Pollan was speaking at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens.
Last time I was in Queens, it was because my parents were in town, and we had to go have Chinese dinner with some cousins. In the Bay Area, a good Chinese restaurant for a eating-obsessed family as my own, is a constantly moving target. Picking the right restaurant means having similar minded friends who are helping you track all of the key factors that go into a good meal outside of home and ask the correct questions: what restaurant has just fired their star chef, which restaurant poached that chef, is there some other restaurant that has recently brought someone over from Hong Kong or the mainland (maybe that's better than a reject chef), which dishes should you order (just because a place can cook some things well, does not and will not mean it can cook all dishes well), and most importantly, has the information source actually eaten there and vetted it personally? The family-obligatory meal in Flushing, suffice it to say, was not with people who live to eat. They did not properly choose the restaurant. It was not exemplary, which meant it was not worth leaving Manhattan.
Today, however, Michael Pollan seemed like a good enough excuse to venture beyond the usual boundaries. To help make the trip more worthwhile, I decided to check out Chao Thai in Elmhurst. I suspect my desire to go to P.S.1 and then go to Chao Thai is not unlike a New Englander finally heading to L.A., and then thinks she might as well swing by San Francisco since she'll be in the neighborhood anyways.
Thank goodness for multi-tasking because when I showed up 20 minutes before doors opened, the line wrapped around for the equivalent of three blocks.
Three people in front of me, was this man with his bicycle seat shoved into his backpack and some green political pin that instructed me to vote for Nader. Oh boy, it was going to be one of those sorts of gatherings. But wait, wait, the three women in front of me included one who kindly complimented my skirt (Club Monaco), one had a Prada bag slung over her shoulder, and I overheard them empathizing with how the other was on vacation in Hawaii when she found out that Bear Stearns went bankrupt, and she consequently was out of a job. (Don't worry, I think she's okay, before I stopped being such a nosy turd, I heard her assure them that she'd be happy to take a year off and just do whatever she wanted, so I think she won't be in the food bank line anytime soon.)
Of course, the venue quickly reached capacity. They moved it indoors because the organizers were afraid of rain. (Speaking of which, watching the organizers and the people behind the casher try to deal with an unforeseen circumstance that they must have known about for at least 30 minutes made me feel both discouraged and smug. Discouraged that these people were so incompetent at taking a leadership position and quickly and decisively dealing with the situation. Smug because I knew and was thankful that I wasn't so incompetent in my own life.)
People packed into every available space in the room, sitting on the floor, up against the wall, and spilled out into the hallways surrounding the lecture space, which was where I camped out. Looking around, it looked like a scene from the past, to see all of these people who had taken time out of their busy schedules, to go to Queens, sitting on the floor with their heads bowed, with thoughtful quiet looks on their faces as they listened to what Mr. Pollan had to say. The modern version of Roosevelt's fireside chats.
As soon as Michael Pollan stopped speaking I rushed out, not waiting to hear the audience questions. I want to arrive at Chao Thai with plenty of time to order and chow down.
Chao Thai is very small. Thai karaoke was playing on the tiny television set installed in a corner of the restaurant. Along the wall, on little ledges, were a profusion of cheap Easter decorations that might have come from the Walgreen's around the corner and would have been perfectly at place in a northern Florida suburban elementary school display.
I ordered the Som Tum (green papaya salad). It's my Thai test dish. Dim sum test dish: har gow (shrimp dumplings. French bistro test dish: steak frites, steak tartare, or tarte tatin. Sushi test dish: don't have one. I know I'm supposed to order tomago nigiri, but I've never willing eaten it and have no idea what it's even supposed to taste like when well made.
Back to the Som Tum. How spicy should I have it? After reading the New York Times review, I asked her to make the Som Tum medium by her standards, but spicy by anyone else's around here. Besides, the spiciest Som Tum I'd ever had was in Phuket, when we had our driver take us to his favorite restaurants on our last day. It was so spicy my ears felt as if they were rining a little. According to our guide, it was "medium."
Mistake to think the nice lady at Chao Thai understood this. The flavors in the Som Tum were well-balanced, but it was not very spicy. It also bothered me that there were no peanuts or dried shrimp, like there normally are when I order the dish in Thailand. I should have just begged her to make it spicy, and trusted that she'd never give a non-Thai something that was spicy by Thai standards.
For an entree, I also stuck to basics and got the green curry with squid. There was a huge amount of curry, maybe twice what you would normally get in a restaurant order. I tried valiantly to get the maximum curry to rice ratio with each bite, but even so, I managed to finish maybe half of the dish. I took to just sipping spoonfuls of curry directly, as I wasn't ready to let go.
When I headed home, I was feeling rather svelte, perhaps riding on the strength of that skirt compliment from earlier in the day and because I was so proud that I hadn't ordered the mango and sticky rice dish for dessert. Then I walked into my bedroom, looked in the mirror, and realized that my stomach stuck out as far as my breasts. My torso looked like a tree trunk. Thank goodness tonight was a solo date.