Authenticity is the name of the game at Somtum Der, an East Village restaurant with one other location - Bangkok. Apparently, New York City and Bangkok both share a similar problem when it comes to Thai cuisine, in that the majority of it is either toned down or sweetened up for consumer palates. Somtum Der is trying to bring the strong and spicy Isan flavors of Northeastern Thailand to both cities, complete with lots of fermented fish sauce, and Bird's Eye chilies, but probably minus the grilled field rats. Though if they had any balls, they'd have a New York City version of that dish on the menu too. Your move, letter grade department.
Som Tum is actually the word for green papaya salad, and a good portion of this menu is focused on examples of what a real authentic version of that dish tastes like. There are eight different papaya salads on the menu at Somtum Der, and almost all are a bit different than the ones that you'll find at your average Thai restaurant in New York. For example, the most authentic version, Tum Poo-Plara, has crab and lots of the aforementioned fermented fish sauce in it. It most definitely does not lack flavor, but that funky fish sauce is a taste that not everyone will find appealing.
I suppose that's the story with this place. We have really enjoyed our meals at Somtum Der, and the best things we've had are the dishes that remain truest to Isan cuisine. But you'll find a lot of other stuff on this menu that's there to appeal to a wider audience, and that stuff is way less interesting. The end result is a menu so big that it's easy to miss the really good food and end up with a mediocre dinner on your table. If it were up to us, we'd cut the menu down to the only the best and most authentic dishes, and if that means that some guy looking for Pad Thai has to eat somewhere else, then so be it. You don't want that guy anyway. You want the guy who comes here because he wants to drink a few beers and eat some larb that will burn his face off. And by the way, that guy would totally try some grilled rat. Just sayin'.
To that end, this Food Rundown is essentially what we think is a fail proof order at Somtum Der. We tried plenty of other things that we won't bother listing below because we liked them a whole lot less. Eat accordingly and you'll be happy.
Spicy, funky, and absolutely delicious. The fermented fish sauce is definitely strong, so just know that going in. If that sounds too adventurous but you still want something with good flavor, get the version with salted egg instead. Both are great.
Yes, they actually do eat fried chicken in Northeastern Thai land, and they also apparently know how to cook it better than pretty much anyone. This was legitimately some of the best fried chicken we've had in a long time, especially with the sauce that comes served on the side for dipping purposes.
You want everything from this section of the menu. The grilled coconut milk marinated pork skewers, the regular grilled marinated pork skewers, and the grilled beef skewers. Order them all and marvel at how f*cking good they are.
This is the catfish larb, which we liked better than the pork. The pork had a little too much fat in it for our taste. The catfish version has all that spicy, zesty goodness that you want from a good larb, and the ground fish is nice and firm and tasty.
In keeping with authenticity, you'll want at least one side of sticky rice on your table. If you're not familiar with proper sticky rice technique, you simply ball up some of it in your hand and use it to soak up all the flavorful sauces that will be on each plate. To be honest, that might be my favorite part of eating this kind of food. Forget the entrees, just give me rice and sauce.