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Jan 1, 2011 10:21 AM

Litmus tests: Thai food

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?

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

    29 Replies
    1. re: gordeaux

      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

        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

          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

            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

              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

                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

                  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:

                  1. re: mcf

                    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

                      "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

                    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

                      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

                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

                  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

                    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

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

                      1. re: huiray

                        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

                    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

                      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

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

                        1. re: mcf

                          ...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

                            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

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

                        2. re: BKK Brendan

                          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

                        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

                          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

                            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

                              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

                            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

                          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. 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. 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

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

                          1. re: mcf

                            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

                              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

                                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

                                  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...

                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                    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

                                      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

                                        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

                                          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

                            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.

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