Ammata Thai Kitchen might not seem like the setting for a Thai food revelation. It operates out of a strip mall at a remove from downtown River Vale. In fact, I only happened to find it because it was next to the convenience store where my friend was buying her (non-electronic) cigarettes while I mulled my chances in the week’s Jersey Cash Five. Hungry, and thinking better of how to part with my money, we wandered into Ammata for lunch instead.
Boy, am I glad we did—and not only because Ammata is refreshingly pretty inside, not ornate or stuffy but serene, with dark wood, bamboo, and a line of bare bulb and pale gold light fixtures dangling overhead. Yes, it was nice to feel like ladies lunching, but the food is the real draw here (on a slow Tuesday afternoon, the place was humming with activity).
If you’ve never been to its sister restaurant Gao Thai Kitchen in Ramsey, the food at two year-old Ammata will seem slightly unexpected, especially if a) you’re not Thai or familiar with regional Thai cuisine (I’m not) and b) most of the Thai food you’ve eaten can be summed up with a few repeat menu items—green papaya salad, massaman curry, ubiquitous and tragically two-dimensional pad Thai, etc. Not that Ammata doesn’t have standard fare; they just do it all fresher, with more vigor, less hesitance (see: chilies), and more flavor overall.
And yes, all of this is available on the lunch menu, complete with Lunch Special entrée plus salad, spring roll or Tom Yum soup with chicken. We started with the “Noshes & Nibbles” section (because every meal should actually just be an orgy of appetizers). The choices are more and less familiar (chicken satay vs. Isaan khao tod, a sausage dish). They’re also very affordable (the most expensive is $12), so you can easily explore uncharted territory. I was quietly coveting both the honey ribs (spicy pineapple glazed St. Louis pork ribs) and steamed mussels (with lemongrass, coconut milk and galangal), but this time we went with the crispy pork belly and the crispy betel leaves, as the latter are not always available and the former is almost always a good idea.
The pork belly was tender and rich, with sweet-tartness from the pineapple and a little welcome funk from the dried shrimp. The betel leaves were completely new territory, served like a fried lettuce wrap dish, except here it was a fan of delicately tempura-fried dark green betel leaves surrounding a mound of chopped grilled shrimp, peanuts, chili, scallion, and roasted coconut. Pile as much of that onto a leaf as you like and crunch down on the juicy, richly savory, lime-and-chili-flecked bite.
For our entrees, my friend got the pad see ew and I got the classic pad gra pow. The pad see ew was familiar to both of us, but again, here it was as if the dish was being given fresh attention: wide, chewy rice noodles were mixed with dark green Asian broccoli and studded with bits of egg and chili, all of it robed in a deeply flavorful dark soy sauce. My pad gra pow was new (for me), with more dark soy enriching a pile of tender minced chicken with near candy-sweet sautéed red bell peppers, the whole dish laced with a fragrant, savory, holy Thai basil oil with (very bearable) pin-pricks of chili.
FYI: Just as Ammata takes itself seriously, they take their chilies seriously; my dish was a “2 out of 5” in terms of heat, which—to me—meant the faintest tinge of heat, very lunch-friendly, nothing to sweat over, literally or figuratively. When in doubt, ask your server; at Ammata the service was very solicitous and savvy, so you’re in good hands.
The place is BYO, but for lunch I was happy to opt for the requisite Thai iced tea, made orange by the coloring of the tea mix (and not, as I asked, some special ingredient I could break a big story on). The tea, if you’ve never had it, is like melted ice cream—sweet, almost chewy sweetened condensed milk with tawny, roasted tea flavors and a nice backbone of tannin doing their best to say “tea” amidst all the creaminess.
There’s more to try, and chances are that’s always going to be the case at Ammata with chef Koson Sillpsitte at the helm. Sillpsitte and YP Ammata are co-owners and partners in both Ammata and Gao Thai Kitchen in Ramsey (where Sillpsitte is also chef). Gao has been open for nine years now, but with Ammata specifically the goal is to represent a more diverse array of regional Thai flavors with the chef’s unique touches, so I’d expect the menu to continue to grow/evolve with the (relatively) young restaurant.
The dinner menu, FYI, has all the flavor of the lunch menu and then some. There are more “Noshes & Nibbles,” like crispy duck and lychee (with ginger, green apple, and cashews), larb Chiang Mai (an incredibly flavorful herb-and-spice-packed minced chicken salad), and som tun Isaan (spicy Northeastern Thailand field crab salad with tomatoes and string beans). I’ll be back for those, but the truth is I’m just as eager to see chef Sillpsitte’s take on desserts. Menu options run from housemade palm sugar coconut ice cream to the Ammata fried banana to the seasonal (and, noted, gluten-free) sweet coconut rice and fresh mango. Like the lunch (ours didn’t exceed the mid-$40s plus tax and tip), prices here are reasonable, so it’s easy to investigate.
Ammata is open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday (with a brief closure between 3-4:30pm to prepare for dinner service). Call ahead with a larger party and be honest about your level of heat tolerance when ordering something spicy. They’ll respect your threshold, you’ll avoid excessive mealtime sweating. Ammata Thai Kitchen, 184 River Vale Road, River Vale; 201-664-2299. BYO