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Litmus tests: Thai food

tatamagouche Jan 1, 2011 10:21 AM

What dishes do you use to gauge the quality of a Thai restaurant by? Been thinking about this because I do so love some of the dishes that I believe originate in the north, like miang kum and haw moak, but outside of those, the vast majority of Thai menus in the US are virtually the exact same, from the noodles dishes to the curries...among those, do you have a benchmark for, say, drunken noodles or massaman?

  1. g
    gordeaux Jan 1, 2011 10:36 AM

    1. With an exclamation point would be khao soy aka kaosoi aka khaosoi
    2. Red curry
    3. Papaya salad

    29 Replies
    1. re: gordeaux
      tatamagouche Jan 1, 2011 10:41 AM

      Oh man, wish I could find #1 around here.

      What do you look for in/like about a red curry as opposed to other types?

      1. re: tatamagouche
        g
        gordeaux Jan 1, 2011 07:02 PM

        test #1 of a red curry: Can I make it better at home?
        it's hard to say what I look for in a good red. I like crisp veggies, and interesting ones. 9Keep the carrots, and canned bamboo shoots, please!) I will NOT be coming back if the establishment uses light coconut milk, either. I don't like a ghastly amount of palm sugar, either. Truth be told, I like it better if it's not sweet at all. Extra bonus points for slivered fresh lime leaf.

        1. re: gordeaux
          mcf Jan 2, 2011 07:37 AM

          I've stopped eating Thai food out due to sugar content. Candied dinner isn't my thing, and there are very few dishes that I can find around here that aren't heavy handed on the sweet end of the sweet/salty juxtaposition.

          1. re: mcf
            alanbarnes Jan 2, 2011 10:34 AM

            You need to find a better restaurant. Maybe the overuse of sugar is designed to generate broader appeal to the Sweet-N-Sour Chicken crowd, but it certainly isn't a traditional part of Thai cuisine. Yes, a bit of sweetness is appropriate in some dishes (eg pad thai), but even then it should be balanced with salty, sour, and spicy flavors.

            As for the OP, I figure that pad see ew is as good a place as any to start. And anywhere that makes really good pad ma-kur will forever have a special place in my heart.

            Curry dishes are telling, too. Even if the place is using a commercial curry paste, is it punched up with fresh ingredients? Do the veggies show telltale signs of having been cooked (or pre-cooked and held) too long? You can tell a lot about how much pride the folks in the kitchen take in their work by how they produce something as "standard" as a green chicken curry.

            1. re: alanbarnes
              mcf Jan 2, 2011 11:08 AM

              My choices are limited, and even the most highly rated on in my area (including by moi) has too much sweetness for my tastes and needs. The food is very fresh and prep is excellent there, but Thai food has sugar added where I just don't want sugar.

              1. re: mcf
                alanbarnes Jan 2, 2011 12:57 PM

                I guess I'm still confused by your claim that "Thai food has sugar added." What dishes are you thinking of? Many noodle dishes have some sugar in the sauce, as does pad priew wan. And palo is pretty sweet. But those are the exceptions; I can't think of anything else particularly sweet on a typical Thai menu.

                Sure, a little subtle sweetness from things like coconut milk or shredded papaya is fairly common. But sugar just isn't a major player in the vast majority of preparations. Seems that with some judicious ordering you could enjoy your local Thai places again, if that's what you want to do.

                1. re: alanbarnes
                  mcf Jan 2, 2011 02:42 PM

                  You and I may have very different experiences of sweetness; I taste it very strongly, perhaps because I don't typically eat any sugars. Plus, Thai food blows up my blood glucose meter readings. Whenever I've asked, in a Thai restaurant, which main dishes have no sugar, I'm usually given one or two choices that have less, not none and am guided to the least sweet ones. I don't eat noodle dishes. I've also been politely schooled in more than one Thai restaurant, about how sweetness is integral to the cuisine at such times. I've never been served an unsweetened curry so I stick to my own: See the recipes here for some examples: http://www.templeofthai.com/recipes/

                  1. re: mcf
                    alanbarnes Jan 2, 2011 03:27 PM

                    I guess it must just be a matter of individual perception. Yes, many Thai dishes have a sweet component, but in good Thai food it's generally subtle and always balanced. Sweet flavors are prominent in a few dishes, but they're the exception rather than the rule.

                    OTOH, I've noticed that some places hit the sweet button way too hard. Far too many examples of pad thai are drenched in ketchup and have lots of white sugar to boot. My suspicion is that this is an attempt to appeal to American palates, but regardless of why these dishes are oversweetened, the fact is that it's just not very good food.

                    Of course, if you don't want any sweetness **at all** that's another matter entirely. But characterizing a curry as "candied dinner" just because it has a few grams of palm sugar is neither fair nor accurate. Better to reserve that kind of disparagement for the places that actually deserve it.

                    @tatamagouche: I have no problem with a restaurant using a commercial paste as a starting point for a curry, and many of them do. But I know full well what those products taste like without embellishment (hint: it's just like a 20-minute dinner at my house) and I expect a restaurant to deliver more than I can get from one of the many tubs of Mae Ploy in my fridge.

                    1. re: alanbarnes
                      mcf Jan 2, 2011 05:28 PM

                      "But characterizing a curry as "candied dinner" just because it has a few grams of palm sugar is neither fair nor accurate. Better to reserve that kind of disparagement for the places that actually deserve it."

                      Of course it's accurate and fair, it describes *my* experience of the meal on *my* plate! If you were there, I didn't see you! :-)

                  2. re: alanbarnes
                    tatamagouche Jan 2, 2011 02:45 PM

                    mcf, have you ever tried asking if they do any off-menu dishes, or have a separate menu for Thai-speaking customers?

                    alanbarnes: actually, use of commercial vs. homemade curry paste is an issue I think about too—I take it that the vast majority do the former, and it sounds like that's not necessarily a deal breaker for you?

                    1. re: tatamagouche
                      mcf Jan 2, 2011 02:56 PM

                      I have asked if it's possible to get dishes without sugar, and am usually guided to one, maybe two that are less sweet. I try not to be high maintenance. I note on Thai recipe sites that soups are often sugar free. I make my curry without sugar, with a lot of veggies and proteins and eat it without rice, in a soup bowl.

              2. re: mcf
                huiray Jan 2, 2011 03:10 PM

                I've had really sweet "Thai" dishes before too in ostensible Thai restaurants. I once had a popiah dish that was drenched in what seemed like half the world's supply of gooey really sweet molasses.

                As alanbarnes says below Thai food shouldn't be overly sugary - and even with desserts not every kind (that I've tasted, anyway) are that sweet. I always thought it was a symptom of Americanized joints altering the taste profile for American taste buds - i.e. to suit the American sweet tooth. Yes, yes, I know many folks, obviously including you (mcf), don't have said sweet tooth (in the States, and here on Chowhound) but I am talking about a generalized American eating public - especially in the Midwest - which does seem to have a sweet tooth?

                1. re: huiray
                  mcf Jan 2, 2011 03:27 PM

                  I guess what I'm saying is that *any* added sugar makes it "overly sweet" to me, and that added sugar in Thai food is traditional, not an Americanization. I don't know why some places make curries so sweet they're like treacle, bleccch.

                  1. re: mcf
                    huiray Jan 2, 2011 03:40 PM

                    Gotcha.
                    True, Thai food does have sugar - but I was referring to some places "boosting" the sugar content for a generalized American taste...

                    1. re: huiray
                      mcf Jan 2, 2011 03:54 PM

                      Maybe they do; or maybe some Thai cooks had grandmas and moms that made it sweeter? :-)

                      1. re: huiray
                        thew Jan 2, 2011 04:03 PM

                        this reply is to the whole sweetness subthread, not just huiray.

                        thai food often tastes sweet here, not because it is made sweeter for the american palette, but because the heat that balances the sweet is toned down, in the perception that americans do not like hot.

                        without the heat to temper it, the sweet stands out more.

                        what thai chefs need to do (besides accept that falangs may well like heat levels as hot and hotter than thais) is lessen sugar if and when they lessen heat.

                  2. re: mcf
                    g
                    gordeaux Jan 2, 2011 07:31 PM

                    I'm pretty much with you in regards to sugar content. I have a few joints in my area that I have talked into hooking me up with "no added palm sugar" orders. I really don't like many savory items sweet, even if it might be a traditional prep.

                    1. re: gordeaux
                      b
                      BKK Brendan Feb 6, 2011 11:50 PM

                      Just wanted to throw my experience in the sugar topic. Here in Thailand, I have noticed an excess of sugar in many dishes. I don't know if it's a "traditional" way to prepare the foods here, but Thai people seem to love sugar. I find many times the dishes are just too sweet for me. The people I work with sprinkle added sugar on a variety of noodle dishes and some soups. They even cover a whole piece of pizza with ketchup before eating it.

                      Before moving here I never thought Thai food was sweet. I just expected spicy, but sweet & spicy is combined a lot here.

                      1. re: BKK Brendan
                        mcf Feb 9, 2011 06:56 AM

                        Thanks for weighing in, that confirms what I understood to be Thai tradition, not an adjustment made for American tastes.

                        1. re: mcf
                          huiray Feb 9, 2011 07:54 AM

                          ...alternatively we could refer to thew's excellent point that they dial down the heat but leave the sweet-o-meter at the same setting...
                          :-)

                          1. re: huiray
                            mcf Feb 9, 2011 08:28 AM

                            But that's not the issue; I posted that Thai cooking uses too much sugar for me, and others said that's not how real Thai food is made. I know that's not true, and the OP just confirmed as much from Thailand. In fact, in Thai cooking, it's the balance between salty and sweet that's key to tradition, not spice/sweet.

                            Note the absence of a gadzillion posts about it from me, though. ;-)

                            1. re: mcf
                              thew Feb 9, 2011 10:21 AM

                              actually the key to thai cooking is the balance between 5 flavors - bitter, sweet, sour, salty and spicy

                        2. re: BKK Brendan
                          n
                          NancyC Mar 29, 2011 12:09 AM

                          I live in Thailand too and I agree, although some things are more balanced (like pad thai) than their American counterparts. Generally I find the coconut-based curries a bit too sweet, preferring chili-paste stir-fried dishes, and many street foods are surprisingly sweet, like grilled pork skewers. Usually the best bet for me is anything that is supposed to be heavier on the sour flavor, those aren't too sweet.

                          In my case the vendors believe I'm Thai so they aren't altering the heat (and I like it nose-runningly spicy anyway), and the sweetness still stands out in certain dishes. Overall I do not find it overwhelming, I'd still say it's less sweet than the US version of Thai food, but it's not AS big a difference as I'd expect (only talking about sweetness, not the general deliciousness which is very high here of course!).

                          In my town what is written as Panang curry on an English menu is not the same as what the non-English-speakers call Panang...the English-menu Panang tastes more Malaysian, lots of peanuts, but definitely "candied." I can't say I don't enjoy it now and then, though!

                          However, I NEVER eat Thai desserts or drinks the various drinks here, other than mango sticky rice. Toooo muuuuch suuuuugaaaar!

                          These are minor complaints of course, there aren't many better places to move to for the food!

                      2. re: mcf
                        h
                        humanbagel Feb 9, 2011 09:11 AM

                        In addition to requesting the dish to be less sweet, you can also take matters in your own hands and balance it to your taste with salt or fish sauce. If they don't give you the little condiment tray, I would imagine they'd be willing to accomodate you if you asked for one.

                        I doctor up Thai restaurant dishes all the time because I prefer the sour side of the spectrum. I think the practice of DIY flavor-balancing is a pretty common thing, as BKK Brendan mentioned how some Thais add sugar to their noodles.

                        1. re: humanbagel
                          mcf Feb 9, 2011 09:14 AM

                          Thanks for the suggestion but that won't work for me; I'm diabetic controlled by diet alone.
                          Avoiding sugars is both preference and necessity.

                          1. re: mcf
                            h
                            humanbagel Feb 9, 2011 09:26 AM

                            I totally understand. My mom is diabetic controlled by medication, and she has a brother who lives in Thailand with diabetes as well. Sadly, we've already lost one aunt in Thailand due to uncontrolled diabetes, and the general consensus was her enjoyment of sweetened dishes was partly to blame.

                            1. re: humanbagel
                              mcf Feb 9, 2011 09:31 AM

                              It's the food, not meds, that best controls and prevents complications. Not just sugar, but all carbs, especially starches and sugars. Sadly, not enough diabetics are given a chance to prevent progression and to reverse damage the way I have. And some folks, like your aunt, I guess, may just be too resistant to making necessary changes. :-(

                          2. re: humanbagel
                            b
                            BKK Brendan Feb 9, 2011 08:54 PM

                            That's very true. DIY flavor balancing is very common. There's a big condiment tray at every table here. Generally there's sugar, fish sauce w/ chilis, some kind of larger orange chilis in vinegar, dried/crushed red chilis & Thai sriracha sauce(which incidentally is much sweeter than what you get in the US). There's often more stuff but those seem to be the most common. Everyone can adjust their dishes in many ways. It's kind of nice to have all the options, but usually for me everything is good enough on it's own or maybe with a little bit of fish sauce if it's a rice dish.

                        2. re: gordeaux
                          c
                          Cinnamon Feb 4, 2011 07:32 PM

                          I agree with this and papaya salad. Panang curry in particular.

                          I look for distinct flavorings, indications of fresh vs. jar. Kaffir lime threads is a nice touch. Big difference between the run of the mill and those making from scratch. Phenomenalness of thin soups is another indicator for me.

                    2. g
                      givemecarbs Jan 1, 2011 03:29 PM

                      Great idea for a thread tatamagouche! I love the thai food I get in my area but I would love to learn more about it.

                      1. linguafood Jan 2, 2011 08:19 AM

                        Tom Yum Gung. I know, it sounds simple - but it has to have the perfect balance of flavors: the lime, the fish sauce, the chilis.

                        Of course, with Thai food, you always want that multi-faceted, well-balanced flavor profile (and insane heat, but that's just me :-D).

                        Curries aren't too important to me since I make a mean Thai curry myself.

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: linguafood
                          mcf Jan 2, 2011 11:08 AM

                          I make Thai curry at home, too. It's very easy and no added sugar, lots of heat, as you say. :-)

                          1. re: mcf
                            v
                            Val Jan 3, 2011 02:57 PM

                            I would agree with mcf...Thai curries are pretty easy at home but DAMNED if I can find that papaya salad anywhere around here...we do have a few Thai restaurants but have yet to find that salad and taste it.

                            1. re: Val
                              BobB Jan 12, 2011 11:42 AM

                              Are you referring to som tum (green papaya salad)? Very common around here (Boston), and often quite good. Great mix of sweet, hot and crunchy!

                              1. re: BobB
                                v
                                Val Jan 12, 2011 03:00 PM

                                Yes, BobB, yes!!! I am very frustrated not to have tried it yet!!! I COULD go out and buy the green papaya at Asian store and try making it but I like trying new ethnic dishes at a restaurant and then if I love it, make it at home, you see? Don't want to go thru all that if I don't know that I like it. <am on a pretty strict budget and hate waste>

                                1. re: Val
                                  goodhealthgourmet Jan 12, 2011 03:12 PM

                                  Val, i did some searching for you. Phensri Thai Restaurant in North Fort Myers and Roy's Restaurant in Naples both serve Thai green papaya salad.

                                  or you could take a drive up to David Wong's Pan Asian in Bonita Springs...
                                  http://naples.floridaweekly.com/news/...

                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                    v
                                    Val Jan 12, 2011 05:39 PM

                                    OMG!!! You are too sweet for words! Thanks so very much! (Every Thai place I've tried to scope out didn't offer it...must admit I've never tried places as far as N. Ft. Myers...Ft. Myers, yes, but not N. Ft. Myers!heh)

                                    1. re: Val
                                      goodhealthgourmet Jan 12, 2011 07:26 PM

                                      my pleasure :) i can't bear the thought of you missing out on the opportunity to try such a great dish...i love som tum!

                                      1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                        v
                                        Val Jan 17, 2011 12:02 PM

                                        SOM TAM FAIL!!! I was all set to go to David Wong's today since I'm off work but good thing I called first...they're closed for lunch until further notice. argh!!!!! Well, as soon as I can convince my son to come with me, we'll go for dinner. Won't take too much convincing, I suspect.

                                        1. re: Val
                                          goodhealthgourmet Jan 17, 2011 03:31 PM

                                          darn. that's a huge bummer.

                                          if you can't get him to accompany you soon, just go by yourself...unless you're one of those people who won't eat dinner out alone. i'd go with you if i was there!

                          2. re: linguafood
                            DonShirer Jan 13, 2011 02:41 PM

                            I don't eat at Thai restaurants often enough (I should end the sentence there!) to have a "litmus test" since I always want to try something new, but yes, I often start off with the Tom Yum Goong and compare it with my memory of a previous Thai restaurant's version. Haven't really met a bad one yet.

                          3. j
                            jcolvin Jan 12, 2011 05:05 PM

                            Pad Thai, Som Tam, Tom Yum Goong. The three basics. If the Pad Thai is an "american-style" slop of sweet ketchupy sauce that's a huge turn-off regardless of the quality of the rest of the food. Pad Thai should be dry and chewy and tamarindy. NO KETCHUP!!!

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: jcolvin
                              Airo Jan 19, 2011 03:16 AM

                              I strongly agree here about Pad Thai being the litmus test. It seems to be valid every time when I judge a Thai eatery.

                              1. re: Airo
                                greygarious Feb 4, 2011 06:11 PM

                                Pad thai is Thai Food 101, the dish that introduces most spice-timid Americans to Thai food. It's the one chance to make a good first impression that will lead to return visits which delve deeper into the menu. I live in the Boston area and have eaten at nearly a dozen Thai places here, but happily have never encounteres a pad thai containing ketchup.

                                1. re: greygarious
                                  thew Feb 5, 2011 05:53 AM

                                  funny. i've encountered it with ketchup in thailand

                                  1. re: greygarious
                                    huiray Feb 5, 2011 08:46 AM

                                    I think the utter distaste for ketchup on CH with many so-called "epicures" is misplaced. Ketchup, good ketchup, is a fine ingredient in its own way in the appropriate place. In a lot of non-noseturnedup-American cuisine it is a fine ingredient.

                                    1. re: huiray
                                      greygarious Feb 5, 2011 09:24 AM

                                      I use plenty of ketchup in my cooking and as a condiment but I have eaten and made many a pad thai, so I feel I know what ingredients would enhance or ruin the dish for me. I don't claim that tomato ketchup makes pad thai inauthentic, just that it has no place in pad thai for me.

                                      1. re: greygarious
                                        huiray Feb 5, 2011 11:53 AM

                                        Yes, you are of course free to treat ketchup in the way that satisfies you. My comment wasn't directed towards you in particular, really, but towards folks in general as a sigh about why ketchup seems to be treated so badly.

                                        1. re: huiray
                                          tatamagouche Feb 5, 2011 02:18 PM

                                          Homemade ketchup with onion rings is the only way to go.

                              2. k
                                Kunegunde Jan 12, 2011 07:20 PM

                                A former coworker and I turned out to have the same test dish: the drunken noodles mentioned in the OP. If the kitchen was good with the wok, the wide noodles would have a nice scorchy tang to them. Their choice of vegetables would indicate what you could expect for variety and freshness. And the amount of chili when you asked for it very hot would calibrate the meter and also give you an idea if they took you seriously. A great dish of drunken noodles would usually mean a long and tasty relationship with the restaurant.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Kunegunde
                                  a
                                  Antigone Jan 13, 2011 04:39 AM

                                  +1 on the drunken noodle litmus test. My only problem with that is, that if the drunken noodles are incredible, I'll never try anything else on the menu.

                                2. mels Jan 13, 2011 05:10 AM

                                  Drunken noodle, for sure. I make it at home so if the restaurant does a better job than me, they're in.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: mels
                                    goodhealthgourmet Jan 13, 2011 09:22 AM

                                    "I make it at home so if the restaurant does a better job than me, they're in."
                                    ~~~~~~~
                                    this is why i always have such a hard time ordering when i go out for anything besides sushi. on one hand, i like to have things i don't make at home. OTOH, there's very little that i don't can't make, so i like to compare to see how the restaurant's preparation measures up. decisions, decisions.

                                    count me in on the tom yum goong - it really is a good test, as are som tum and pad thai. and of course there's the matter of whether or not they actually respect my request for plenty of heat.

                                  2. l
                                    la2tokyo Jan 13, 2011 04:26 PM

                                    Som Tam (papaya salad). For me good Som Tam echoes all that is good with thai food - powerful yet balanced and harmonious at the same time. What I usually get is overly sweet, not spicy enough, and for some reason always seems to have the dried shrimp omitted. The flavor of the som tam I typically get in LA is unrecognizable when compared to what I had in Thailand. I have given up on ordering som tam in the US.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: la2tokyo
                                      v
                                      Val Jan 13, 2011 05:40 PM

                                      uh oh...well, I wouldn't know good Som Tam from bad Som Tam but I can't wait to try it on Monday at the restaurant goodhealthgourmet told me about in Bonita Springs!

                                      1. re: Val
                                        goodhealthgourmet Jan 13, 2011 07:10 PM

                                        yay!!! i can't wait to hear about it :)

                                      2. re: la2tokyo
                                        woodleyparkhound Jan 23, 2011 09:40 AM

                                        la2tokyo: I'm with you. I have given up on ordering som tam (and pad Thai and Tom yum) in the U.S. These were among my favorite things in Thailand. Ordering them here only leads to disappointment.

                                        1. re: woodleyparkhound
                                          linguafood Jan 23, 2011 09:57 AM

                                          Our local Thai place makes great som tam, paad thai, and tom yum. In fact, I am currently having last night's poker game leftover som tam for lunch. Nice kick, good acidity, no sugar.

                                      3. q
                                        Q47 Jan 13, 2011 05:52 PM

                                        Should your Thai restaurant ask you how spicy you want your dish on a scale from 1-5, regardless of whether there is a little chili next to the menu item?

                                        37 Replies
                                        1. re: Q47
                                          alanbarnes Jan 13, 2011 06:22 PM

                                          I think so. "Thai hot" food is too much for many (most?) folks in the US. But a restaurant that refuses to tone things down for the local market is going to have problems developing a wide customer base. On the other hand, toning everything down is going to drive away the folks who want more traditional heat levels. So giving customers a voice in how heavily a dish is spiced is a good business move, at the very least.

                                          1. re: alanbarnes
                                            linguafood Jan 13, 2011 06:31 PM

                                            Make mine a 6, please.

                                            1. re: linguafood
                                              goodhealthgourmet Jan 13, 2011 07:13 PM

                                              would that be a native 6, or a falang 6? ;)

                                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                linguafood Jan 14, 2011 07:07 AM

                                                native. i don't do whimpy thai food.

                                                1. re: linguafood
                                                  alanbarnes Jan 14, 2011 08:31 AM

                                                  The place I frequent doesn't even ask any more; they just bring me "Thai hot" food. But I've always wondered what multitude of sins that phrase might encompass.

                                                  Given Thai cuisine's focus on balanced flavors, I find it hard to believe that the traditional level of spiciness equals the maximum possible level of spiciness. And presumably there are individual variations in tolerance / affinity for capsicum even in Thailand.

                                                  So I wonder whether chileheads sometimes demand food that's even spicier than traditional preparation. There's another regular customer at the place I frequent who's always pushing for more and more heat. The eager-to-please owner serves it up, but I wonder which of us is getting the "real deal."

                                                  1. re: alanbarnes
                                                    MGZ Jan 14, 2011 08:52 AM

                                                    I agree. Balance is the goal and going too hot can upset it. I don't think properly prepared Thai food should reach "bar dare" or "fraternity prank" hot - save such things for wing sauces.

                                                    1. re: alanbarnes
                                                      t
                                                      Terrieltr Jan 14, 2011 09:04 AM

                                                      I suspect that some places will overdo the heat if asked. I find that, at a certain point, there's a bit after taste from too many chiles. There's also a point where the heat can overwhelm the other flavors. What I love about Thai food is how no one single flavor dominates the dish, so piling on the heat is unneeded.

                                                      1. re: alanbarnes
                                                        linguafood Jan 14, 2011 09:08 AM

                                                        All I can say is that when I was in Thailand (unfortunately a year or two before my conversion to a chili head), most of the things served were completely inedible to me. Visiting my girlfriend's aunt in Northern Thailand, we had to routinely evacuate the house due to the smoke created by the peppers cooked in the kitchen.

                                                        Bar food was yam nua with a crazy amount of peppers. Good for sales of Singha, for sure.

                                                        I would love to go back, now fortified appropriately, and try all those dishes again at the source.... I also had the most fantastic gua tiew on Ko Phi Phi with a broth that was out of this world. Not spicy, of course, but fantastic. Not a dish you find stateside very often. >sigh<

                                                        1. re: linguafood
                                                          alanbarnes Jan 14, 2011 09:19 AM

                                                          Now that's the best way to answer my question - a field trip!

                                                        2. re: alanbarnes
                                                          jgg13 Feb 8, 2011 11:51 AM

                                                          That's something I've worried about in the past. I'm always afraid of asking for something super hot that's simply *not* supposed to be super hot.

                                                        3. re: linguafood
                                                          goodhealthgourmet Jan 14, 2011 08:46 AM

                                                          @lingua, neither do i...i just wish it wasn't so difficult to convince the servers that i really *want* as much heat as i ask for - it usually takes a couple of attempts before they get it hot enough for me.

                                                          1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                            tatamagouche Jan 14, 2011 09:34 AM

                                                            For me too, at some places, and I'm *not* a hardcore hothead. Actually what I usually say is "the way you eat it." That doesn't guarantee I'm eating something exemplary to the cuisine in general, but hopefully it gives me a glimpse of the identity of the chef/place in particular.

                                                            1. re: tatamagouche
                                                              MGZ Jan 14, 2011 10:23 AM

                                                              "Acquiring" a taste for chiles/hot is actually the consequence of repeated exposure desensitizing pain receptors. Consequently, the ability to perceive the otherwise masked flavors emerges. A "higher" level of taste, if you will.

                                                              Truth be told, ol' Capt. Saicin is a dear friend. I love heat, but heat alone is easy. Equipoise takes skill. When a chef can acheive that with a great deal of heat, then you've got a spot worth frequenting.

                                                              1. re: MGZ
                                                                tatamagouche Jan 15, 2011 01:59 PM

                                                                Agreed. Capt. Saicin—ha.

                                                      2. re: linguafood
                                                        mcf Jan 15, 2011 01:19 PM

                                                        Our local Hakka Chinese/Indian/Thai place knows that we tolerate "911" and finally told us to order "Indian hot." That's about as high as you'll ever want to go without sucking on a fire extinguisher afterwards. They kept bringing out fresh peppers and sauces to see how high my daughter and I could go, they were in awe of her, especially.

                                                        1. re: mcf
                                                          linguafood Jan 15, 2011 02:46 PM

                                                          mmmm. sounds like my kinda place :-D

                                                          1. re: linguafood
                                                            mcf Jan 15, 2011 03:59 PM

                                                            When you and GHG stop by, I'm buying. :-)

                                                            1. re: mcf
                                                              linguafood Jan 15, 2011 04:02 PM

                                                              DEAL!

                                                              1. re: mcf
                                                                goodhealthgourmet Jan 15, 2011 04:09 PM

                                                                i'm in! :)

                                                                1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                                  mcf Jan 15, 2011 04:13 PM

                                                                  Check it out; spicy food endorphin release as good as orgasm and acupuncture. Well, neurochemically, anyhoo:

                                                                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endorphin

                                                            2. re: mcf
                                                              goodhealthgourmet Jan 15, 2011 03:57 PM

                                                              mcf, perhaps you & DD should try the phaal at Brick Lane in the East Village...you need to sign a waiver first :)

                                                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                                mcf Jan 15, 2011 04:01 PM

                                                                I was just thinking about that neighborhood after reading an article about St. Mark's Place the other day. That's where I went most days I was supposed to be in tenth grade classes. I'll mention it to her... best to leave the spice sissy husband home; he likes spice, but he can't keep up.

                                                                1. re: mcf
                                                                  goodhealthgourmet Jan 15, 2011 04:15 PM

                                                                  there's a Thai spot down there called Klong that's supposed to be good, but it opened long after i moved away...go do some recon!

                                                                2. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                                  thew Jan 16, 2011 05:56 AM

                                                                  too bad the phaal at brick lane doesn't taste good, to go along with the heat. or i'd have it more often

                                                                  1. re: thew
                                                                    goodhealthgourmet Jan 17, 2011 03:28 PM

                                                                    that is too bad. i wish these places would realize that for some of us, heat and flavor aren't mutually exclusive.

                                                              2. re: linguafood
                                                                GraydonCarter Jan 23, 2011 06:04 AM

                                                                > Make mine a 6, please.

                                                                I found a restaurant that defines it this way:

                                                                1 Mild, but will impart a stimulating "Kick" to lips and tongue.
                                                                2 Will set tongues and lips tingling; the sensation lingers and spreads "a hearty glow".
                                                                3 The tingle glow is transformed to a "ranging fire" but the exotic flavors of Southeast Asia come through.
                                                                4 Can you take it? This level is for "addicts, masochists" and Thai nationals. Order Thai beer and tissues with these dishes. Management accepts no responsibility for side effects.

                                                            3. re: Q47
                                                              q
                                                              Q47 Jan 18, 2011 07:44 PM

                                                              To answer my own question (should the restaurant ask?) I've found that even when my friend orders a "5" (on a scale of 1-5) it isn't spicy enough for him, so it is probably better to just always get pepper sauce on the side.

                                                              The other day at an Asian/Japanese/Chinese/That restaurant, my Pad Thai was served completely void of any heat. It was indeed delicious, so I didn't complain, but I did ask for pepper sauce. Which was very hot, and difficult to disperse through the dish after-the-fact.

                                                              Maybe I need a Thai word that can be communicated to the chef that means "he says he likes it medium hot, but he's an American so take it easy on him."

                                                              1. re: Q47
                                                                thew Jan 19, 2011 03:29 AM

                                                                pad thai isn't a spicy dish. in thailand it is served with crushed peppers on the side, not a hot sauce

                                                                1. re: Q47
                                                                  linguafood Jan 19, 2011 07:52 AM

                                                                  FWIW, just a couple days ago i went to our local Thai place that actually listens when you order "very, very spicy". in fact, both the tom yum and the tom kha, as well as the yam nua, were almost inedible. almost, i say. we did finish the beef salad, but the soups were difficult. perhaps i need to tone it down next time, but frankly that's a problem i'd like to have more often than the other way around.

                                                                  1. re: linguafood
                                                                    BobB Jan 19, 2011 11:56 AM

                                                                    I also have more of a problem with very high capsaicin levels in soup than in less liquid dishes. Probably not surprising, but I've found that tom yum in particular is usually served at much higher heat levels in Asia than in the west. While I have yet to get to Thailand I've eaten it in Singapore and India, and in both places found it quite lavaesque compared to the versions I've had in the US and UK - as you say, not inedible, but challenging.

                                                                    1. re: BobB
                                                                      linguafood Jan 19, 2011 02:23 PM

                                                                      This dinner was probably the closest to ANYthing I had in Thailand, back in 98 when I was a total wuss with regards to spicy food. I practically had to live on rice & grilled chicken/squid or gua tiew for the entire time I was there.

                                                                      Oh, to go back and see how I'd fare today.....

                                                                      1. re: linguafood
                                                                        GraydonCarter Jan 21, 2011 12:03 PM

                                                                        So if Guay Tiew Pad Thai "isn't a spicy dish" as Thew reports, I'd be pretty happy with that kind of regimen.

                                                                        1. re: GraydonCarter
                                                                          linguafood Jan 21, 2011 12:22 PM

                                                                          Guay Tiew and Pad Thai are different dishes. The former most often is noodles in (delicious, dark) broth, tho it can be ordered 'dry.' But yeah, neither are prepared spicy, that's what the tray with all the condiments is for.... dang, I miss that food!

                                                                          1. re: linguafood
                                                                            huiray Jan 21, 2011 12:38 PM

                                                                            Just asking: you are not referring to chow kway tiew/char kway teow (炒粿條) - which is a SE Asian/Chinese dish (the Thai Chinese have their variant) - are you?
                                                                            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Char_kwa...

                                                                            1. re: huiray
                                                                              linguafood Jan 21, 2011 12:46 PM

                                                                              No. It was generally a noodle soup that _could_ be ordered as a dry dish, too.

                                                                              But I think I just realized that "gua tiew" or "guay tiew" apparently just refers to the rice noodles used in the dish. So I guess it can even be part of the name for pad thai.

                                                                              1. re: linguafood
                                                                                huiray Jan 22, 2011 10:12 AM

                                                                                Ah, OK.

                                                                                Yes, "kway teow"/"guay tiew" does refer to the rice noodle [Hokkien dialect]; oftentimes the variety used - at least in many Malaysian/Singaporean dishes would be what is also called "Hor Fun" in Cantonese. I daresay it would be the same in Thailand? Interesting that in Thailand "Guay Tiew" without further qualifications would refer to a soupy dish as you experienced it.

                                                                    2. re: linguafood
                                                                      b
                                                                      beachmouse Feb 4, 2011 07:26 PM

                                                                      The owners of our favorite local Thai place say they have issues with finding a wholesaler that can get them the quality of spices and hot peppers they prefer at a price point that lets $8-$10 entrees work. Their solution was to start growing their a lot own in their backyard, and I can say that the peppers in even their mild dishes have quite a kick to them compared to many other places we've tried around here.

                                                                      And it's just fun to go to a place in an ordinary-looking strip mall, see the lunch cook bringing in what looks like half a shrubbery, and know that part of the shrub is going to shortly end up on your plate or in your bowl.

                                                                2. MGZ Jan 14, 2011 05:14 AM

                                                                  As this discussion teeters on the precipice of the "authenticity" cliff, I’ll quickly add my agreement with the notion of using the papaya salad as the litmus. It provides an instant window into the skill of the kitchen as, to me, it exemplifies the requisite balance that defines Thai food. When done properly, the dish produces an elegant, magical chord.

                                                                  It should have a subtle sweetness derived primarily from the fruit (I eat virtually no simple sugars so, like others have mentioned above, the saccharine sweetness of too much added sugar is easily discerned, overwhelming, and disappointing). It should be “sweat beads on the temples” and/or “upper lip tingling” hot without anyone asking. The tang of lime sour notes and the mild flavor-enhancing saltiness of fish sauce must similarly be identifiable without being too dominant. The funky bottom, umami, tones from (ideally) the dried shrimp and fish sauce must also be heard. The foregoing elements must be capable of separate identity as well as glorious harmony. On top of all this there must be some textural crunch.

                                                                  If I am presented with such a plate, I know the place is a winner. If not, at least I learned my lesson right away.

                                                                  5 Replies
                                                                  1. re: MGZ
                                                                    linguafood Jan 14, 2011 07:08 AM

                                                                    No peanuts on your som tam?

                                                                    1. re: linguafood
                                                                      MGZ Jan 14, 2011 07:43 AM

                                                                      Sure. They're certainly a welcome part of the "textural crunch."

                                                                    2. re: MGZ
                                                                      tatamagouche Jan 14, 2011 07:48 AM

                                                                      I don't think I've ever had sweetened papaya salad. Sounds gross. Just lucky I guess?

                                                                      1. re: MGZ
                                                                        v
                                                                        Val Jan 14, 2011 08:13 AM

                                                                        wow, thanks, MGZ, for a little of what to hope for when I finally try this salad out. It's difficult to expect "authentic" here in SWFL, but they might come close.

                                                                        1. re: Val
                                                                          v
                                                                          Val Feb 4, 2011 03:59 PM

                                                                          Tried the Som Tam tonight finally and really loved it...BUT there was no heat to it unfortunately...loved the textures, though and I could taste the fish sauce a little, lime juice a little but no spice. hmmm...well, I would definitely try it again...lovely salad!

                                                                      2. mariacarmen Jan 18, 2011 10:10 PM

                                                                        i don't make any "authentic" thai dishes at home myself, just dishes using thai-ish ingredients, so i can't say that i have any dishes i make better than any thai restaurants. My litmus tests are pad thai and tom kha gai. I haven't been very adventurous in my thai restaurant eating, as you can see, but i have had some really good home cooked thai dishes by a relative (by marriage) that weren't as "standard" as my two picks. just didn't know enough about them to have them as litmus tests.

                                                                        and I like my thai hot and have not found a place that does it so. although I've heard tell of a place nearby, which I've tried and enjoyed, but now understand i'm just to say HOTTER HOTTER HOTTER and they will comply!

                                                                        1. r
                                                                          racer x Jan 22, 2011 09:54 AM

                                                                          I make no claims as to seeking "authenticity" when it comes to Thai food. I judge merely to find what pleases me most.

                                                                          green curry (and I really hate it when they ruin this dish by adding peas)
                                                                          green papaya salad
                                                                          thai ice tea

                                                                          3 Replies
                                                                          1. re: racer x
                                                                            GraydonCarter Jan 23, 2011 05:58 AM

                                                                            I'm really showing my ignorance here but I've only run across one restaurant (King and I, Nyack) that uses pumpkin in their curry, and I really liked it. With a little research, I see that Thai Muang Squash is common in Thai cooking, but I've never seen it in the US.

                                                                            Has anyone seen squash or pumpkin turning up in their dish?

                                                                            1. re: GraydonCarter
                                                                              mariacarmen Jan 23, 2011 08:08 AM

                                                                              We had it last week in a place in the Bay Area.

                                                                              1. re: GraydonCarter
                                                                                alanbarnes Jan 23, 2011 09:18 AM

                                                                                The place around the corner from my house is very proud of its pumpkin curry. It's listed on the menu as a "Chef Specialty."

                                                                            2. greygarious Feb 4, 2011 06:20 PM

                                                                              I'm fairly wimpy as regards capsaicin. At my favorite Thai place, sadly long gone, I loved their seafood red curry, which I ordered easy on the heat. They had the usual 1, 2, and 3 pepper icons to indicate spice level and this curry was a 3 but they toned it down for me to 2-ish. I was chatting with the waiter, who told me that in his native Thai family, the heat level they liked would correspond to a 12. Pointing at the little bottle of sriracha (6 oz, maybe?) he said if he were eating my curry, he'd add the whole bottle to it. Ouch.

                                                                              1. b
                                                                                BKK Brendan Feb 7, 2011 12:02 AM

                                                                                For me it would be:
                                                                                Gra-pow (spicy basil-rice dish)
                                                                                Tom Yum goong
                                                                                Kai Jeow (Thai style omelette)

                                                                                I've never had excellent versions of those three in US Thai restaurants, but those are my favorites.

                                                                                1. h
                                                                                  humanbagel Feb 7, 2011 12:58 AM

                                                                                  I usually sample a noodle soup, a rice, and a stir-fried noodle dish. Not all by myself though!

                                                                                  Boat Noodles - because i'm never NOT in the mood for them. I look for a hearty, savory broth and all my favorite meat parts. If I have to add a lot of extra fish sauce or I can't find any minerally-tasting offal, it has failed me.
                                                                                  Stewed Pork Leg w/Rice - as long as the pork leg is tender, flavorful, and moist, i'm happy. oh yeah, and it has to be served with those pickled mustard greens.
                                                                                  Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Noodle) or Pad See Ewe - if the noodles in the dishes have that nice, slightly charred/smokey (aka "wok hay") characteristic to them, if they aren't overly sweet, and if I don't have to doctor it up too much with fish sauce and/or vinegar, they get an A in my book.

                                                                                  1. missmar79 Feb 8, 2011 11:21 AM

                                                                                    green curry or red curry... chicken

                                                                                    sometimes pad thai...

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