Some people will do anything for a good meal. Anything. Like…even forego takeout during subzero temperatures. I know, I know — it’s pretty wild. But for some people, food (really, really good food) is just worth it. This is how I found myself somewhere in the belly of Queens, feasting on pork blood soup, dried stink bug, and pork liver salad with 40 other like-minded diners who put the term “foodie” to shame.
I was on a top-secret mission with the Gastronauts, a selective club for New York’s most adventurous eaters. The club kicked off about nine years ago when founders Ben and Curtiss realized they were tired of going to restaurants and being the only ones to order the weird things off the menu. They wanted solidarity, not skepticism. But more importantly, they wanted to bring together all the other freaky foodies in this city on a monthly basis to share bizarre — some would say other worldly — dining experiences throughout all five boroughs.
This month’s mission took culinary travelers out to Thai “restaurant” Pata Paplean in Elmhurst. I say “restaurant” because the space looks more like someone’s shabby 1970s living room. It’s like Welcome to the Johnsons…but less bathroom sewage and more Thai disco. There’s a small bar in the back where two Thai sisters cook their concoctions on hot plates. Oh, and there’s a disco ball in the bathroom. Like you do. But just go with it. Find a spot on a couch, a stool, or the floor, and let them blow your freaking mind. Because your mind is about to be freaking blown.
I showed up to the restaurant, beating the 4-degree chill, and was welcomed inside with what seemed like knowing nods. We were all there for a culinary adventure and were literally salivating in anticipation. Gastronauts-in-training can apply to be fully certified for culinary travel via their website. Tell Ben and Curtiss a little bit about yourself and what you hope to get out of the experience. It should be noted that the waitlist is very, very long…so if you don’t hear back immediately don’t lose faith — apparently there are lots of eager gastronomers out there ready to blast off. There’s a current rotating list of about 2,000 Gastronauts. Of course, not everyone comes to every event; that would kill the intimacy of the affair. When a new event is announced, emails are sent out with RSVP links and you better have your finger at the ready to click YES. Sometimes these events sell out within mere minutes. While this month’s event was at a restaurant, other events have included culinary scavenger hunts in Flushing and rooftop soirees serving different types of fowl while Hitchcock’s The Birds played in the background. My personal favorite was their 100th birthday bash, which took recipes from the oldest preserved Roman cookbook and brought them to life with wine pairings.
But tonight’s event was about Thai food and these two smiling sisters who were swirling around the space doling out massive quantities of Singha beer. First up was pork blood soup — a salty, briny mix of rice noodles, Thai basil, and beef bits all floating around in a bloody broth. The room became hot with happy mouths and piping hot bowls of steamy soup. As the wall of windows fogged up, the Gastronauts became enclosed in their own bubbled, cosmic culinary universe. Blast off.
Next up, the sisters brought us spicy Thai papaya salad with dried stink bugs. I was less thrilled about this endeavor. I’ve eaten crickets in Mexico, but they were sautéed up beautifully with garlic and chili oil so all you tasted was…garlic and chili oil. But stink bugs had a flavor more akin to mothballs, mixed with hints of must and old person. Someone described them as “attic-y.” And their crunch really doesn’t make it any more palatable. However, when you top them on a fiery papaya salad that was so hot my nose was running down my shirt, you almost don’t care, because all you can think about is drinking more beer to make your mouth stop screaming.
Once you pass through that circle of hell, it’s time for the meat course. Plates piled with grilled pork neck, sticky rice, and a salad of cucumber and cabbage started orbiting around the room. It was absolutely delicious, tender and smoky, and a perfect follow-up to the buffet of bugs that we just choked down. The meal ended with a salad of steamed pork liver cooked with cilantro, garlic, and onions. I’ve never been a big fan of the iron-y, metallic taste of liver, but I have to say when it’s cooked up with that Thai touch, it’s kind of…ridiculously good.
And then, just like that, the mission sort of…ends. There’s no ceremony, save for the shot of Thai rum we all did to close out the evening. You came to eat, so you eat. When the food is gone, you leave. As the bowls were cleared away, Gastronauts ponied up to Curtiss. Meals are paid for in cash and are usually in the $60 range, depending on how much alcohol is consumed.
I waddled over the icy sidewalks back toward the subway, a hot medley of pork bits, blood, and bugs making me feel sleepy and surprisingly sated. With my first Gastronaut mission complete, I’m ready for the next one to begin. Ben and Curtiss aren’t changing the culinary world in one fell swoop, but they are opening up new dining adventures to NYC travelers. At the very least, it got me off Seamless and out of sweatpants on a frigid February night.
One small step for man, one giant leap for Meagan.