Westchester’s Ayara Thai Cuisine is a culinary gem on a road less-traveled

By Richard Foss (Richard(at)RichardFoss.com)

A spread of Ayara’s deep-fried salmon, roasted duck in red curry and Ka-pow pork belly

A spread of Ayara’s deep-fried salmon, roasted duck in red curry and Ka-pow pork belly

 

 

Westchester is generally known for its boulevards — long, straight roadways on which at least 90% of the commerce in this area occurs. As in many communities, the most interesting establishments tend to be located among the remaining 10%. Despite the massive growth in this area, there are still a few places where eccentric little shops thrive in low-rise buildings.

A single-block stretch of 87th Street is one of the last vestiges of an older, folksier neighborhood. This is where a needlepoint shop, old-fashioned bakery, thrift store and other small businesses sit alongside one of the best Thai restaurants outside of Hollywood’s Thai town — Ayara Thai Cuisine.

Ayara is the Thai word for elephant, an animal much beloved in that country’s myths and folklore, and elephant figurines are artfully displayed around the restaurant. Elephants also figure in a whimsical appetizer of toast cut in the shape of elephants and topped with a mixture of ground shrimp, pork and spices. It wasn’t the most authentic starter, but we had to order it just to see what it looked like. We were not disappointed; it was cute as anything outside of a Japanese comic book, and the cucumber sweet-and-sour sauce served with it added just the right taste note. If you are dining with a child and want to introduce them to Thai food, you couldn’t do better, and it brought out the child in some of us at the table.

We continued with larb, a mix of ground chicken, toasted rice, purple onion, chili, mint, lime juice and spices. This was as assertive as the elephant toasts were mild — a gigantic flavor blended of hot spices, earthy fish sauce and tart lime juice. We had asked for it medium, but it was still a spicy, zingy dish.

To cool off we tried cocktails, all made with soju because Ayara doesn’t have a hard liquor license. The Cosmopolitan was surprisingly good, the punch less interesting; a sprig of lemongrass was served in the glass but provided little flavor to the light, sweet drink. It was refreshing but didn’t have the Southeast Asian character I was hoping for.

For main courses, we selected roasted duck in red curry, pad Thai and two specialties of the house; Ayara salmon and an entrée of pork belly with green beans. The first two were benchmarks, items we knew well, while the second two were out of the ordinary. The salmon had been deep-fried, then served over a mix of chopped green apples and cashew nuts, with raw carrots, cucumber and red onions. It was served with a chili lime sauce that was so good that we immediately bought a bottle. I had been dubious about the idea of deep-fried salmon, since it is an oily fish that is usually better grilled, but the flavor and texture were first-class.

The Ka-pow pork belly is usually served with green beans, mushrooms, chili, basil and bell pepper, but we had someone at the table who didn’t like bell pepper and so had asked for that to be left out. We liked the fine without that assertive flavor, as it allowed us to focus on the tender meat that had a slight crust from cooking in a delicately sweet and spicy sauce. The more standard dishes were artfully done as well: the curry duck creamy and spicy, the pad Thai unusually well-made. Pad Thai is a go-to dish for gringos in Thai restaurants, and we had ordered it because we had one spice wimp at the table and wanted to make sure there would be something she could eat. The sauce on the large mound of the noodles toss-fried with pork, shrimp and peanut was subtly different from the usual, with lingering flavors reminiscent of Indian spices. Nothing in our main courses was as hot as the larb that was our starter, but everything had the deep mélange of spices that is the signature of real Thai cooking.

To finish we had coconut ice cream with small chunks of fresh coconut in it, a cooling and refreshing coda to the symphony of flavors that had been our meal. Our dinner for four ran about $120, including three glasses of wine, one beer and two cocktails. Had we stuck with soft drinks or tea it would’ve run a bit more than half that. We found it quite reasonable at the price, and we weren’t alone; when we had arrived at about 7:30 p.m. there was a line outside the restaurant, and when I drove by about two hours later there was still a line. Don’t let the prospect of a short wait scare you away, because this remarkable little backstreet gem is one of the hidden delights of the West Side.

Ayara Thai Cuisine is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and from 11 a.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Park on the street or an adjacent lot. Wheelchair access is good and the menu is online.

Ayara Thai Cuisine, 6245 W. 87th St., Westchester  (310) 410-8848  ayarathaicuisine.com

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