Eatside: Tongue Thai'd at O'Char

A Bellevue stalwart transcends Pad Thai.

Every Thai restaurant, highbrow or hole-in-the-wall, seems to offer pad thai, so it must be universally similar, no? The only real way to answer that would be to train in an authentic Thai kitchen, or be lucky enough to grow up with a Thai best friend whose mom you could watch churn out everyday Thai delights, and steal her recipes. But really, the secret of good pad thai will likely remain a mystery to non-Thai natives. Pad thai's sordid history reads like a soap star's bio. Allegedly, Vietnamese traders brought it into ancient Thailand. Then a Thai prime minister used it as a life preserver to alleviate export demand issues before World War II. And of course that totally pissed off Erica Kane and Adam Chandler, so they stole the recipe. After Erica divorced Adam and gave the recipe to every Thai joint in Pine Valley (and we hear that's not all she gave them), numerous bastardized versions started popping up. Today's common version generally features the same base ingredients, while the "indigenous" version played out in street carts is much more like a dumpster dish, incorporating leftover meats and veggies to stretch the usefulness of ingredients and prevent waste. With so many variations on a classic, there's bound to be one that just does it for you. On the Eastside, O'Char Thai Cuisine in Bellevue has a kitchen that puts out plenty of must-eats, even if their pad thai isn't one of them. Serving the entire Eastside with three locations (including Crossroads and Pickering Place in Issaquah), O'Char meets the challenge of serving a full Thai menu—including the sweet and delicious black rice pudding with coconut milk—with ample portions, solid-quality ingredients, and prices from 1995. Unlike some other places (cough, Chantanee, cough) that inflate prices to cover the overhead of a shiny new space, O'Char maintains a reasonable balance of price to portion. Lunch is a steal with more than 15 combinations, most ranging between $7.95 and $8.95 and producing enough leftovers for the lapdog hiding in your purse. Since the gold standard of American Thai is pad thai, they have it on the menu. It's in six of their lunch combos paired with the likes of red, yellow, or green curry; sweet-and-sour deep-fried chicken; or stir-fried cashew chicken. The pad thai itself is merely decent; it's not worth driving across town for. The pad se iw ($8.95), on the other hand, especially with chicken and extra vegetables, is a different story. There are enough ingredients in it to actually warrant a meal, not just a carb-heavy dish you're going to sleep off in your cubicle at 2 p.m. For dinner, definitely start with the crab Rangoon ($6.95). What's better than real crab meat and cream cheese deep-fried in wonton wrappers? Nothing, that's what. If you're ready to try something new and refreshing, reach for the larb gai ($8.95); similar to the Laotian version, it's healthy and filling, made with ground chicken, lemongrass, mint leaves, red onions, and fresh chiles tossed with lime dressing and served with cabbage. Don't let O'Char's strip-mall exterior fool you; just like Noodle Boat in Issaquah, good things come in small (and sometimes randomly located) packages. What O'Char lacks in stellar pad thai, it more than makes up for in value, service, and pretty much every other dish on the menu.  

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