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Erawan seems good - why so empty?

  • g

Just moved here from New York and last night decided to try Erawan on 23rd and Sansom because it looked tidy and pleasant even though there was n.o. o.n.e. in there.

My better half and I had Tom Kha Gai, the Erawan Noodles (wide noodles with spicy ground pork), the Green Curry, and mango sticky rice with condensed milk, all of which were really quite good.

The noodles were clearly handmade, the white rice - which I usually take for granted as being cold and stalely gummy - was very light and fresh though appropriately sticky. Both main dishes had some real heat and some complex flavors.

I haven't been to Thailand and I can't claim a well-educated palate in this area, but I think I can tell the difference between good cooking and the blandly sweet gunk you often find at run-of-the-mill American Thai places. In New York our favorite Thai place by a mile was the chowhound-famous Sripaphai. This meal at Erawan wasn't at that level, but it was definitely better than many of the meals we had at other places in NYC.

So how come we were the only people there from 7:30 - 9:00 p.m.?

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  1. I don't know but I have friends who live around the corner on Van Pelt so I'm going to suggest we try it.

    1. Haven't tried it, but another review I read said it was very overpriced.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Saturninus

        Hmm. Well, again, I'm new to the city so I don't know if I can speak to that. In general, I've found restaurants in the center city area are quite expensive. Really they're no cheaper than NY restaurants (though it's funny, native Philadelphians keep telling me that PhilPA is much cheaper than NYC - I get the feeling that perception may be lagging a little bit behind changing reality here).

        We had one app (the Tom Ka Gai), two entrees and dessert. The total bill was $38 after tax, $44 with tip. Not SUPER cheap, but definitely cheaper than Italian and Japanese meals we've had of comparable size and quality in the same general neighborhood.

      2. Yeah, it's overpriced. I moved here from Boston and there were places we could get comparable Thai for literally $5 a plate. It's not bad mind you, just nowhere near what I expect to pay.

        Also, I've been to Thailand, where you can get stuff 5 times as good for $2 a plate, man, I gotta go back.

        10 Replies
        1. re: joypirate

          You know, I totally understand the experience of moving to a new place and feeling like certain things are not as good, or not as good a value, in your new home.

          But - putting aside for a moment the fact that there's better Thai for less in Boston and in Thailand - what I'd like to know is, is there better Thai food for less in Philadelphia.

          Again, I don't know the city, so I don't know how many good, relatively authentic/adventurous, affordable Thai places there are. I do know, after exploring for about a month here, that Erawan is pretty cheap relative to other (Italian, Japanese, etc.) restaurants in the neighborhood. I'm not sure that I think it should be super cheap just because it's Thai - I'm guessing that the economics of producing a good meal with fresh ingredients and good service in center city are about the same regardless of the ethnicity of your cuisine.


          - if Erawan is pricey compared to other, better Thai restaurants nearby, I'd really like to know about those other places.

          - if Erawan is more pricey compared to other places nearby that serve standard assembly-line oversweet American Thai, I'd say it's still a pretty good deal.

          In either case I think the comparisons to other cities or countries - while I understand the frustration - doesn't help much. Sripraphai is fabulous and very affordable (I'd definitely recommend it, joypirate, next time you're in NY) but it's in Queens, so I can't really say that Erewan is overpriced by comparison...

          1. re: GDswamp

            Excellent points.

            I guess I was sort of answering the question 'why it's so empty' from a personal point of view.

            1. re: joypirate

              That makes perfect sense, of course. Sorry to get so wordy...

              I guess this (your brief reply) means that you don't have any Philadelphian favorites to share. Darn.

              Well, given that you've been to Thailand (and presumably ate well there), I'd be interested to know about ANYPLACE you've eaten that's within a day's journey that reminds you pleasantly of the real thing.

              1. re: GDswamp

                Yeah, haven't really found any good Thai in Philly yet, though I haven't been to all the places mentioned on this board in the past. I'm particularly eager to try Cafe de Laos which supposedly has a good mix of Cambodian and Thai dishes. I haven't given up yet.

                1. re: joypirate

                  I meant, 'good mix of Thai and (duh) Laotian'. Also might scope out that Cambodian market mentioned a few threads down.

                  1. re: joypirate

                    i second the recommendation for cafe de laos on 11th and washington. they will make things very spicy when asked - the salads (papaya) are good, and go very well with their sticky rice. but i too have not eaten any thai/lao food in philly that is as good (fresh tasting) as making it at home.


                  2. re: GDswamp

                    You want good, authentic Thai, go to Siam Lotus. You want good, cheap authentic Thai, go to the stand at the Reading Terminal market.

                    I've been to Bangkok twice, I know a little about Thai food. Is Siam Lotus as good as the high quality restaurants in Bangkok? Largely, No. And it shouldn't require degrees in astrophysics, anthropology and retaurant management to figure out why.

                    However, The family--who owns and work at the place, including the chefs--is from Thailand. The food is as authentic as you're going to get in the U.S. Certainly better than anything in Boston at any price.

                    The interior is tastefully designed, the young staff provides friendly and casual service with a bit of polish.

                    The main thing that diffferentiates this retaurant to restaurants in Thailand is that some Thai food requires elaborate preparations. The dishes at Siam Lotus retaurant are more straightforward. And still very good. I particularly like all of the seafood dishes, the satays, and the different types of Yum salads.

                    Late in the evening a young and attractive crowd takes over as a nightclub and bar scene developes that includes a DJ.

                    Being in an out of the way location (Spring Garden Street between 9th and 10th streets) doesn't seem to hurt business all that much as the place is busy in early evening with a dinner crowd and a night with a bar crowd.

                    Here is a link: http://www.siamlotuscuisine.com/ which includes menus so you can decide for yourself wheather it's worth a short cab ride from center city

                    Welcome to Philadelphia.

                    Please don't swayed by the bullshit comments you've been hearing, especially from Newgirlintown, whose endless criticisms can be summarized by saying, "Philly isn't New York." Well, no shit. Neither is Dallas, Miami, L.A., Des Moines, Tumbuktu, etc...

                    1. re: Anthony_D

                      Re: Siam Lotus. I'm there.

                      As to Philadelphia being no New York - true enough, but after just over a month here I feel like I'm already discovering the ways that New York is no Philadelphia.

                      Burgerwise PhilPA definitely gives NYC a run for its money. The average food cart here (bacon-and-egg sandwich in the morning, something savory in the afternoon) is a cut above. Cheesesteaks, hoagies and other things that come on a Sarcone's roll are - as is well known - well out of NY's league in terms of the average quality level.

                      I miss my favorite bagels and pizza, my Union Square Greenmarket and other things, but so far I'm not feeling too sorry for myself, foodwise. And as I mentioned in my original post, the whole reason I thought Erawan was noteworthy was not that I think it's Philly's best (I wouldn't know since this is my first Thai meal in town) but that it was better than most of the casual Thai food I had in NEW YORK.

                      1. re: GDswamp

                        "As to Philadelphia being no New York - true enough, but after just over a month here I feel like I'm already discovering the ways that New York is no Philadelphia."

                        Exactly, when you travel or move to a new area, you can either bitch and moan about it's not like the place where you are from or you can learn what differentiates a place from anywhere else you've been-what makes it unique and what in that uniqueness is a cut above what you're used and why.

                        I eat well and find a lot to offer when food shopping in Philly.

                        "And as I mentioned in my original post, the whole reason I thought Erawan was noteworthy was not that I think it's Philly's best (I wouldn't know since this is my first Thai meal in town) but that it was better than most of the casual Thai food I had in NEW YORK."

                        Well, it took an out-of-towner to let me know that this place exists. I'll have to check it out.

              2. re: joypirate

                $5 a plate to sit in a fairly nice clean restaurant? ...and you can't compare Thai prices to U.S.

              3. Because it's in a rubbish location.

                If it were 4 blocks east, there would be customers.

                1. n

                  Location has nothing to do with it, the food simply isnt that good.
                  It is sad to say that there really isnt any really good Thai food in Philly.
                  Most of the restaurants serve food that is reminiscent of Thailand but they cut so many corners, use cheap ingredients and most of it is not fresh to the degree that it misses the whole point of thai cooking.
                  By fresh, I dont mean the food is bad ..........rather say for example the difference between fresh and canned coconut milk, fresh and dried kaffir lime leaves, fresh coriender roots, actual Tamarind instead of the syrup.
                  Most of the places end up being thai inflected chinese restaurants but that my friends is very different from Thai food.

                  Check out Aruns in Chicago.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Newgirlintown

                    See, this is what I'm saying. I don't doubt that the cooking at Erawan is somewhat Americanized - if only due to the unavailability of certain ingredients - but I think a number of Newgirl's criticisms don't apply, e.g.:

                    "Most of the restaurants serve food that is reminiscent of Thailand but they cut so many corners, use cheap ingredients..."

                    While I haven't been to Thailand, I can certainly vouch for the freshness and quality of the ingredients, and the care of the preparation, in the food I ate at Erawan the other night. As I mentioned in my original post, the noodles in my noodle dish were clearly handmade; the rice was unusually light and tasty; fruits and veggies like the hunk of mango in the dessert were very fresh and ripe; there were lots of fresh herbs in every dish; and everything was carefully plated and served. I don't think the kitchen can be faulted for cutting corners on either ingredients or preparation.

                    "...the difference between fresh and canned coconut milk, fresh and dried kaffir lime leaves, fresh coriander roots, actual Tamarind instead of the syrup..."

                    This is, I think, is largely a question of availability and not of quality. Since I moved here I've been scouring the farmer's markets, the RTM and various neighborhoods to see what's available in terms of out-of-the-ordinary and local produce. Philadelphia seems to be a great food city, but so far I haven't seen much in the way of fresh kaffir lime leaves or coriander root. Not to say it's not out there, but it may be hard to get. All expatriate chefs are compromised by the availability of traditional ingredients in their new home.

                    I don't want to get carried away here. My meal at Erawan was not 'amazing.' In fact, in many ways it looked a lot like typical Americanized Thai. The things I thought were out-of-the-ordinary and better than average were subtle things like the freshness of the rice, the real spiciness of the noodle dish, the homey noodles, etc. But, to put it another way - the night BEFORE I ate Thai, I went with a visiting friend to Caffe Casta Diva. The place was completely packed, service was very friendly. My meal, though well-intended, was (to my taste) not that great. Dinner for two at Casta Diva costs at least half again as much as dinner at Erawan. I think you could say of both restaurants that the food served there is only an approximation of what you could get in Thailand/Italy. But I think the food at Erawan, was, bite-for-bite, better. And I seriously doubt that it cost less to produce than the food at Casta Diva. So why is Erawan "overpriced?"

                    1. re: GDswamp

                      I have been hearing that Costa Diva has slipped. I hope it's not true, and maybe someone is on vacation - hope, hope!

                      1. re: GDswamp

                        If you re-read my post, I was making the point that the backbone of flavor that makes Thai food excellent is lacking in virtually all these restaurants.
                        Let me clarify......

                        You make the points...
                        Handmade noodles
                        Light jasmine rice...
                        Fresh mangos
                        Careful plating.....

                        All the above is nearly irrelevant to the FLAVOR of Thai food.

                        There are factories that make hand made noodles in Chinatown.
                        Any restaurant can get them.
                        Fluffy jasmine rice really just depends on you buying a rice cooker/holder from Zojirushi.
                        the rest is academic.

                        The importance of flavor in Thai cooking deends on the following..

                        Fish Sauce
                        Lime Juice.......must be fresh
                        Palm Sugar
                        Coconut milk.....canned acceptable
                        Cilantro .............must be fresh
                        Cilantro roots...........fresh
                        Kaffir Lime leaves.........fresh
                        Banana Leaves..............frozen fine
                        Pandan Leaf.........frozen fine
                        galanga................absolutely fresh
                        Ginger...............absolutely fresh
                        Shallots......................not onions
                        Shrimp paste
                        Tamarind.............paste not syrup
                        Tamarind syrup is the thai equivalent of Balsamic reduction, the folks in thailand cringe just like the people in Modena.
                        Tumeric root.......frozen is fine.

                        There really is no excuse, anybody in philly can head to the PP grocery at 43rd and locust to buy virtually everything on that list.
                        The problem with the restaurants is they cut corners across the board.
                        Its OK to use high quality canned coconut milk but everything else needs to be fresh..........or quick frozen.
                        It's really a matter of lack of education and the willingness to dumb down ethnic foods to western tastes.
                        You can buy cilantro at the market but for some reason, they cut off the roots.
                        A market that "gets it" like PP sells it with the roots.
                        Its the roots that go in curry paste not the leaves......!
                        Availability is no excuse.

                        Part of the reason Mediocre Italian food is less satisfying than mediocre Thai food is that Italian is familiar.
                        Those who are equally familiar with true Thai cooking will find places like Erawan no better than going to the Olive garden for Italian food.

                        1. re: Newgirlintown

                          I feel like you're not exactly getting my points, but I won't continue to flog them - I told myself I'd avoid these kinds of arguments when I left the NY board for the PA one.

                          Thanks for mentioning the PP market. When my in-laws got back from Vietnam they bought themselves and us copies of Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a really interesting cookbook with a variety of southeast asian recipes. So far everything I've made from the book has been brilliant - full of the intense, vibrant flavors that I associate with the best Thai and Vietnamese food I've had.

                          SO - now that I know where to buy ingredients, even if it turns out I can't find realrealreal Thai food in Philadelphian restaurants, I may be able to make it at home.

                          1. re: GDswamp

                            We arent arguing, we are discussing..........call PP before you go to check availability.

                    2. Welcome to philly!

                      I feel like I need to apologize for the folks who insist on justifing the position that all Thai food sucks in philly and help you find some chow.

                      If you want to satisfy your urge for simple, basic curries and specialties, try the Thai vendor in the Reading Terminal Market. It's cheap, hit the spot Thai.

                      For more formal, sit down Thai, try Siam Lotus on about 6th and Spring Garden or My Thai on 22nd ish and South.

                      Let the nay saying begin. Cause, lately that is what alot of folks have turned this site into.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Shoeman


                        This is great.

                      2. Ok, here are some thoughts on some Philly Thai places:

                        -My Thai, good for curries, green papaya salad was made w/out green papayas (they used iceberg lettuce instead), a bit of a problem for me.

                        -Thai place in RTM, curries are decent, pad thai is really odd, not pad thai like at all, it’s not necessarily bad, just not like pad thai.

                        -The noodle shop on 18th near Sansom, pad thai is also really odd and not like pad thai at all, and not very good.

                        -Erawan, good food but, along with My Thai, you can’t help leaving and feeling like you had a good meal that could have been great. I don’t think I necessarily agree that there’s a problem with ingredients. Maybe the problem is what they perceive the market to be for more authentic Thai, maybe the problem is the prices are tied to the amount of business they do, I dunno, it’s all sort of speculative. But you get the impression they COULD BE really great, but only succeed in being pretty good.

                        I also haven’t tried Siam Lotus, which I’d like to try based on this board.

                        Speaking generally as a fellow transplant I sort of made the mistake of looking for analogous favorite restaurants when I moved here and I’ve since realized that you have to look for the strengths of the city. No place yet in Philly has equaled Boston’s Thai places like Dok Bua or Khao Sarn (which rivals Sriphaphai[sp?] per the hounds who’ve been to both), or even places like Brown Sugar or the Thai place in Boston’s Chinatown mall, BUT, there’s no Burmese in Boston like you’ll find at Rangoon in Philly, and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting better BBQ here than you’ll find in Boston. Basically, I had to come to learn that each city had vastly different strengths and I’m still scoping out the strengths of Philly.

                        Though, honestly, all this is moot if we don’t chip in to keep the site up. I haven’t paid in awhile, but I will fix that directly.

                        Link: http://chowhound.safeshopper.com/21/c...

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: joypirate

                          That was a great posting - thanks. When we are traveling through the US, we rarely find Italian food as good as we get in the family-run places here.
                          The food we ate in China recently was no better than our favorite (again, family-run) places here.
                          And oh, what they wouldn't give out west for some of our thin-crusted pizza!

                          When we're in NY, we look for different things.

                          And now - on to make my contribution to Chowhound. What would the day be like without checking in to see what's hot and what's not?

                          Thanks again.

                          1. re: joypirate

                            Ooh! Very great post. What should I order at Rangoon?

                            And, yeah - good point. I'd better scratch around in the piggy bank and see what I can come up with for the site....

                            1. re: GDswamp

                              I haven't had Burmese food anywhere else, but when I've been to Rangoon I've particularly enjoyed the green tea leaf salad (totally unique taste - really interesting) and the chili shrimp. The hostess there has also been quite friendly - I went there with a large party once, and we basically just went down the menu and asked her what was good, and she pointed us to things, so don't hesitate to ask for suggestions.

                              1. re: Sarah K

                                Rangoon: Galanga soup, summer chicken salad, eggplant dishes, almost everything is very good and unique.

                          2. You should try Tamarind (2nd and South) or Cafe Vientiane (West Philly). Both have excellent nuanced curries, with authentic ingredients, as well as a good variety of non-standard dishes. Also, both are BYOBs.

                            Tamarind also does larb, rarely seen in Philly Thai restaurants.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: Jack_T

                              Cool! Thanks. I'll try both.

                              1. re: GDswamp

                                Second the Tamarind recommendation... very nice place (though I can't vouch for the authenticity)

                              2. re: Jack_T

                                I live right around the corner from Cafe Vientiane, and haven't been bowled over - one of those "good but not great" experiences that seem to be coming up often on this thread! I would say give it a try if you're in the neighborhood/looking for a BYO, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

                                1. re: Sarah K

                                  Erawan is my favorite Thai place in Philly with Siam Lotus coming in a close second. Whenever I go to Erawan we're usually the only ones in the restaurant. It is a few dollars more than other places mentioned in this thread, but it's my favorite anyway. It's also considerably harder to park around that part of the city compared to Spring Garden where Siam Lotus is located.

                                  Attached is a picture of my favorite dish at Erawan, the Erawan Noodles.

                                  1. re: halene

                                    I looked for it further up the board, and may have missed it, but did anyone notice that someone (was it joypirate?) organized a Chowhound trip there on May 31 of 2006 (or was it 2005?) which was spectacular. At least 30 of us were there, the price per person was very modest ($31 or so, BYO) and I had some of the best Thai food I had ever had in my life. Way too much of it, by the way, but I'm still talking about it one or two years later.

                                    Always meant to go back, but time goes so fast.


                              3. welcome GDswamp! Good Thai is hard to find. My fiance and I have searched for 5-6 years in Philly now. Currently, my personal favorite is Cafe de laos on 11th near Washington. They have smaller portions but it is the closest to what I have had in Thailand. They are a BYO, we usually get take out but it's spicy, fragrant, delicious. Don't get the curry. get the thai fried rice, or pad kee mao or the sauteed pork with vegetables in the chili sauce. The laos sausages are amazing. and the laos papaya salad is closer to the Thai version than the "Thai" salad they make. Make sure you order the Laos papaya salad--it is mouthwatering--stinky (fish sauce) and authentic.

                                I do have to say that over the last two years they have gone through different ownership and so it has gone through ups and downs, some inconsistancies...but last week we had take out and it was delicious.

                                I have been searching for the fried fish with chilli sauce, the amazing stuff found in Thailand and the only place I found that came close was at Banana Leaf in Chinatown--a malaysian place but serves amazing dishes that "could pass for thai" but similar to southeast asian cuisine.

                                I could go on but if you have specific questions let me know. I have lived in many different cities and it is pointless to compare ethnic foods against various cities because the groups of ethnic minorities are so diverse, the flavors vary. Mexican food in FL is not going to be the same as Mexican food in Cali or Texas or Arizona...it really varies. Every city has it's gems. Philly is one of those.

                                I just realized how old the original post was. since 2005!! WOW. hope you found some other great eats by now!

                                1. Not to beat a dead horse, but Erawan isn't in the top tier of Thai in the city and costs the same as those that are, so you could call it expensive for that. Also, the location means you have to go out of your way to get there, so you might as well head to Chinatown or one of the many recommendations already listed here.

                                  Another recommendation I can make is Chabaa Thai in Manayunk. It's a little pricey as well, but the ambiance is great, the food is fresh, the curry is spicy and the staff is friendly.

                                  I haven't had a green curry that even comes close anywhere else in the city.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: drewdraws2

                                    The food is good there but I find the atmosphere a little lacking. Would definitely recommend Siam Lotus as a better option.