By chance I noticed Rhong-Tiam Garden, easy to miss unless you happen to be aimlessly exploring the Lower East Side like I was. Tucked under a staircase, this Thai restaurant is run by Andy Yang, who started the Rhong-Tiam name in 2008. The original space in Greenwich Village has since closed, but Yang has expanded his reach to three locations after Rhong-Tiam received a Michelin star. Yang, who grew up in Bangkok and comes from a family of chefs, sought to bring bold, authentic flavors to New York with the help of his executive chef, Erik Cheah. I was drawn to the Orchard Street location, primarily because of the 50% off Scoutmob deal, as well as the indoor “secret garden” in the back. To promote the illusion of exclusivity, reservations are highly recommended (although not necessary). Still, I called and made plans for dinner with a few friends.
One of the quirks of Rhong-Tiam is how the restaurant is presented; at first glance it may appear to only have a take-out business. Past the stools is a payphone, which unlocks a door after a 6-digit code is entered. As I walked past the graffiti-laden walls, I couldn’t help but feel like I was entering a speakeasy-like or nightclub-esque dining room. The room quickly filled with young, trendy locals, who surprisingly did not disturb the peaceful charm of the room. There was a semi-romantic ambiance to the garden, which perfectly balanced with a casual vibe. I started with a Thai Iced Tea ($4) while waiting for everyone to arrive. There was nothing exceptional or unusual about the drink (aside from the large glass). It tasted slightly sweeter than I was used to, but not in a terrible way.
Rhong-Tiam grinds its own curry pastes with basil and chilies from Yang’s garden, and takes the time to extract its own coconut milk. The menu itself was exciting to pore over, since Rhong-Tiam infuses the selections with a few interesting Pan-Asian dishes. I was intrigued by the Grilled Duck Bun ($5), so I started with that. Between a beautifully charred hamburger bun was a thick slice of duck draped in tamarind glaze and sesame seeds. There was an even mix of fat and meat with each savory bite and the slices of crisp cucumbers added a nice textural contrast. There was a slight spice from the sriracha aioli, but overall the bun was mostly sweet. There were a few random shreds of limp lettuce decorating the plate, but I left them alone.
The signature dish at Rhong-Tiam is the Pork on Fire ($14), which I would have gotten anyway simply because of how enticing the name sounds. The dish is served with white rice on the side and consists of tender chunks of Kurobuta pork shoulder marinated in white wine, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. The dish also makes use of lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, and basil leaves, resulting in an incredibly aromatic plate. The final touch is the even addition of seared green chilies and bird’s-eye chilies that allow the dish to live up to its name. Although the meat was certainly spicy, even by my standards, it wasn’t a painful session of convulsing throughout dinner. It should be no surprise that there were citrusy and herbal notes to accompany the dominating spiciness. Cheah successfully balances enough heat to enliven the dish without overpowering the subtle elements that make the Pork on Fire enjoyable.
My biggest gripe with the meal was that our service was unusually bad. The rice that came with the meal was cool to the touch, a clear sign that it was left in the bowl for much too long. The rice was hard and grainy, and my friend (who also had the same issue) ended up eating her meal without it. Despite the restaurant being only moderately busy, our server was inattentive and showed up with the appetizers (which were supposed to be warm) for someone in my group as the rest of us began our entree. Even with the Scoutmob discount, I was unhappy with the dinner. Although I had a poor experience, I may come back for the restaurant’s unique atmosphere. The food easily could have been better had the service been up to par. Remember to have cash on hand; no plastic.
Rhong-Tiam Garden (site) ★★★★☆
154 Orchard St (between Rivington St & Stanton St)
New York, NY 10002
Neighborhood: Lower East Side