The simple name did not prepare me for what I was going to experience.
Sort of hidden in a strip mall on East State Boulevard, Pad Thai offered much more than just pad Thai. As a matter of fact, I did not even try its namesake dish, which is to Thai cuisine what the California roll is to sushi – very American.
What Pad Thai did offer was a variety of authentic Thai dishes with a little Burmese flair from its owners, a mother-and-son team who left their home along the Thailand-Myanmar border 14 years ago and who are new to the restaurant business.
The best example was the Pad Kee Mao. There were two versions of this dish on Pad Thai’s menu. One was the more common drunken noodles version with stir-fried noodles with fresh basil and a distinctive sticky, spicy sauce. The other, which is what I had, came with rice and cucumbers on the side instead of noodles mixed in.
This gorgeous dish included tender, juicy chicken pieces stir fried in a delicious roasted chili paste with onions, basil leaves and stems, and baby black pepper. The little green pepper pods were fantastic. They were attached to sprigs and really popped with a bright, intense flavor. They were like little peppery berries and were something I had never had before but truly loved.
I can’t wait to try them again in the noodle version.
The one noodle dish I did try – Pad Si Eww – was also a winner. Tender, wide ribbon rice noodles were fried with cabbage, carrots, onions, broccoli, fresh basil, crushed peanuts and egg in a spicy-sweet, sticky sauce dotted with black pepper. I chose chicken again and, again, I was hooked. The scrambled eggs coated the other ingredients so you got a little in about every bite, and the flavor was just addictively tasty. I cleaned my plate and wanted more.
Speaking of wanting more, one of the biggest faults at Pad Thai was the lack of availability of many items.
Only one of the six appetizers was available during each of my two visits. And one of them, the Gyoza Dumplings, which the menu said could be filled with shrimp or pork, were available only with chicken. But they were quite nice – perfectly browned on the underside and doughy on the top.
The Pork Satay appetizer also deserved praise. Wide strips of pork were skewered and grilled until just a little brown. The meat was fatty and moist, and I just needed a touch of the creamy peanut sauce. It was also a generous appetizer portion with four large skewers.
The serving size was a negative when it came to the Thai Garlic and Black Peppercorn Pork entrée, however. This was the least exciting dish with chunks of pork sautéed with green onions and flavored with a rather boring pepper sauce. It reminded me of the black pepper dishes you find on almost any Chinese buffet, but there was only about a cup of it, which is far from all-you-can-eat.
I also did not care too much for the Thai Grilled Pork with Tamarind Sauce. It, too, was boring. Plain grilled pork, which was dry and a bit overcooked, came with a side of sour tamarind sauce and rice. That is about all there is to say about it.
But there is plenty good to say about the Tom Yum Soup and Papaya Salad.
The bubbling soup had plenty of chicken and shrimp – the shrimp being added if you choose the seafood option – in a creamy coconut-curry base with thick lemongrass stalks and Chinese mushrooms. The lemongrass perfumed the entire dish and, although they were a little tough to chew through, the payoff outweighed the trouble because they were delicious. Add in the earthy meatiness of the mushrooms and get it very hot and you have a great belly warmer for the approaching winter.
My Papaya Salad also had plenty of heat in its salty fish sauce vinaigrette, which wilted the julienned green papaya, onion and carrot just enough to still have a little bite. Juicy chunks of tomato were added for sweetness, fresh cabbage gave it a little more crunch and it was just a great salad. The grilled chicken pieces on the side were best when mixed in to soak up all of the dressing, but I don’t think I would have missed them if they weren’t there.
You would be missing something if you drove past Pad Thai, however.
If you don’t believe me, take the word of one of its regulars, who sat alone having lunch during one of my visits and who was eager to talk Thai food. He tutored for several years in Thailand and claimed Pad Thai offers the most authentic Thai food he has found since he left the country.
And, no, he hadn’t tried the pad Thai, either.
Restaurant: Pad Thai
Address: 3307 E. State Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu
Menu: Dumplings ($4.99), satay ($4.95), papaya salad ($8.95), Tom Yum soup ($8.95; $9.95 with shrimp), Pad Kee Mao ($7.95; $8.95 with shrimp), Pad Si Eww ($6.95), garlic and peppercorn pork ($7.95), grilled pork with tamarind ($6.95)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).