Seattle’s Best Examples of a Thai Cliché

We’re not lacking for options.

I was in Thailand on a short stop en route to Hanoi a few years ago, and none of the ATMs accepted my debit card. So to pay for my hotel, I had to make a late-night run to Lonely Planet central, Khao San Road, to find a currency exchange office that would accept traveler's checks. Khao San Road was terrifying—overtanned Europeans leaned out the hostel windows overhead, and the streets were hip to hip with tchotchke sellers and sweating, staggering drunks in drawstring pants. After arguing for 10 minutes with the exchange-window teller who thought my two signatures didn't look enough alike, I spied a pad thai stall across the street. At last, compensation for my troubles: pad thai off the street! But my styrofoam plate came mounded with oily, dark brown, slightly garlicky, broken noodles. It was as wretched as my surroundings. Many of us—including me, for the first few decades of my life—think of pad thai as the country's national dish, when it's really an import. "I don't really know how pad thai became the most famous of Thai foods in America," writes cooking teacher Kasma Loha-unchit on her Web site, "I always find it amusing when restaurant reviewers judge the quality of a Thai restaurant by the quality of its pad thai, as noodles can hardly take claim as lying at the heart of my country's cuisine." In fact, she credits the ethnic Chinese with bringing rice noodles to Thailand in the 20th century, and the national government for popularizing them in the poverty-stricken 1940s and 1950s. Loha-unchit argues that the name, which means "Thai-style noodles," is proof that the dish is as traditional as "American chop suey" is authentically Chinese. I first encountered the dish in junior high. My family and I drove from small-town Indiana to Chicago to pick up the son of a family friend. At 8, Christian was the most urbane kid I knew—he listened to classical music, he lived part-time in a Hyde Park condo with two dads, and his favorite cuisine was Thai. So with Christian directing us, we ate at this tiny restaurant near the U. of Chicago campus, where the red and green curries we ordered came in two-cup pots. The thrill that hit me when their lids were removed—the fragrance of the lemongrass and kaffir-lime leaf, the shock of the piece of galangal I bit into, the chiles hot enough to make me weep sweatily—still hasn't dissipated, 20-some years on. The third dish we were served was pad thai. Sweet noodles with peanuts? Hated it. By the early 1990s, when every other meal out with friends involved peanut sauce and prik king, I grew fond of pad thai—for the quiet sweetness it offered between bites of chile and garlic, the comfort of the scrambled eggs, the clean crunch of the bean sprouts. Not that I told anyone whose opinions I valued, of course. Pad thai was something to pick up on my way home from the office, or drunk food that I'd publicly spike with lots of toasted chile flakes, as though using yeah-brahs and fist pumps to create an ironic detachment from my love for the dish's sweet simplicity. Love fades, of course, doomed by too many encounters with oversugared, sticky rice noodles. I've probably eaten pad thai only a few times over the past five years, passing it over in favor of larbs and spicy tom sums, jungle curries and even pad see iew. Love fades, but pad thai endures. The dish remains extremely popular—and a perennial subject of argument among urban diners around the country over whose is the best. A few weeks ago—on a whim, actually—I thought I'd see about getting a good plate of pad thai. I looked over the blogs and discussion forums and Googled "best pad thai" (as well as its alternate spellings, phad thai and pud thai). The search confirmed my suspicion: There appeared to be 80 best pad thais in Seattle. So there I was, at Chaiyo in Pinehurst (11749 15th Ave. N.E., 361-8888), a neighborhood restaurant decorated, like most others, in a style I'd call suburban serene, sitting with a plate of pale-orange noodles covered in scallions and ground peanuts, served to me by a woman I'd trust with my most fragile keepsakes. I'd chosen Chaiyo because a Yelper said the noodles were "authentically" presented in an omelet—a good omen, perhaps? There was no omelet, in fact, only the standard rivulets of scrambled egg, but the aroma of fish sauce was strong and the noodles lightly tinged with dark wok breath. I stirred in the toppings and bean sprouts and took a bite. The funk faded away, replaced by the flavor of caramel. I took three more, and the butterscotch intensified. My Diet Coke was suddenly the most savory thing on the table. I boxed up the remaining five-sixths of the plate and moved on. To Thai Tom (4543 University Way N.E., 548-9548), in fact, a U District cult favorite since the early '90s. With the counter packed, as usual, with students lit by the wok flames, I sat on a rickety stool outside until the waitress handed me a takeout box. I opened it in the car, took a bite. A complete recreation of my Khao San Road noodles, to a whiff. As my lunch outing morphed into a five-day, crosstown pad thai odyssey, the question presented itself: What exactly makes for a distinctive pad thai? It's such a simple, quickly made street food—rice noodles coated in a quickly stir-fried sauce of tamarind water, fish sauce, garlic or shallots, and palm sugar. Along with the requisite scrambled egg, scallions or chives, and peanuts, pad thai can be topped with anything from fried tofu and dried shrimp to banana blossom, fresh prawns, and dried radish. To me, the appeal is in its balance, each element delicately propped up against the others, a house of cards appreciated for its fragility instead of its strength. Chasing the ideal down, I next went to some of Seattle's other favorite Thai restaurants. The downtown Thai 65 (93 Marion St., 262-9965) countered an intense sugar rush with an equal force of tamarind paste, so it was only after their battle on the palate ended that I noticed the heat that had crept up behind—just like at Chaiyo, too much for me. At Jamjuree on Capitol Hill (509 15th Ave. E., 323-4255) and at Bai Tong (16876 Southcenter Pkwy., 431-0893)—the Southcenter restaurant started by and for employees of Thai Airways, and one of my stalwarts—the pad thai tasted like office art, respectable and pleasant. Oh, I ate my share. But it began to bother me that none of Seattle's Thai restaurants served little condiment trays along with their noodles so I could doctor mine up with fish sauce, pickled bird chiles, salt, and sugar. I considered secreting tiny bags of dried shrimp and toasted chile flakes in my jacket, but gave up for fear of spilling. No one wants to sit on the bus next to the guy who reeks of dried shrimp. Then there was Racha's pad thai (23 Mercer St., 281-8883). Back in the days before every city had at least one Southeast Asian market, Thai cooks replaced the tamarind paste and palm sugar with ketchup. The substitution makes sense—the condiment was already sweet-tart in just the proportion Americans like, and the tomatoes gave the sauce a little body as well as an attractive hue. In 2009, though, it was shocking to find this Lower Queen Anne restaurant—which I'd always thought of as making an effort—serving noodles so coated in ketchup that it tasted as if the cooks had outsourced their work to Dick's. The restaurant with the most distinctive pad thai proved to be May Thai (1612 N. 45th St., 675-0037), the Thai house in Wallingford where I've had some of the best Thai food in the city (well, my take on the best Thai food). May treats its pad thai like Galatoire's does bananas Foster, a performance of authenticity. When the waiter sets down the square wooden plate covered in a mass of cola-colored rice noodles, he first picks a few astringent purple petals off a banana blossom wedge and scatters them on top, then tears up a small bunch of garlic chives. Then, taking an oversized spoon and fork, he mixes small piles of roasted peanuts, white sugar, and chile flakes into the mound, and leaves you to squeeze a lime wedge over the top. May's noodles are notable for their chewy texture, the dim flash of the sugar, and the deep, molasses-y taste of the tamarind, whose rich tang vibrates at a low frequency across the palate. It also costs five bucks more than any other version in town. Who knows if the version I ended up liking the most is indeed Seattle's best, or simply the one that best evoked 25 years of American pad thai? At Tup Tim Thai (118 W. Mercer St., 281-8833), a pale peach-colored chicken pad thai, just oily enough to leave the plate glossy, greeted me like an old friend. The noodles were nutty from roasted peanuts and peanut oil, and beneath the scrambled egg and scallions the sauce tripped lightly from palm sugar to the tang of tamarind, segueing softly into the glow of chile heat. I still wanted to doctor it up, but then that's my prerogative. Pad thai has entered the realm of things like burgers, MVPs, and Stephen Spielberg movies, where our individual preferences are so finely tuned that every one of us can vouch for our favorite with the authority of a hundred meals. If the answer to the perennial question "What's the best Thai restaurant in Seattle?" is the one near your house, the response to "What's the best pad thai?" is a no-brainer: It's the one you prefer.

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