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Jul 6, 2013 12:20 PM

Traditional pad thai anywhere?

I'm getting frustrated with my Oakland-Berkeley pad thai search. From what I read, it should include the following ingredients, few of which seem to be in any version I've had in recent years:

tamarind pulp
fish sauce
palm sugar
preserved radish or turnip (hua chai po)
shrimp paste in oil (gach tôm xao dau an or tôm nâu bún riêu)
shell-on dried shrimp (kung haeng)
chile flakes
Chinese garlic chives (gao choy)
banana blossom

How close can I get to that in the Bay Area? I'm about ready to give up and make it at home.

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  1. correct me if I'm wrong, but it's a post WWII dish and sorta new, right? I've never liked it much but seen many variations.

    your preferred version sounds good, but not what is easily found.

    18 Replies
    1. re: hill food

      you're both correct and not, hill food; in the aftermath of ww2, thailand was facing an extreme shortage of in-tact rice grains. but, damaged grains can still be used to make noodles. in an effort to rally national morale and reduce domestic consumption of rice, the royal family's cooks were tasked with creating a national "dish". (or so my cooking teacher in thailand told me.) this is where the name "pad thai" comes from. "pad" simply means fried, stirfried, etc (much like the japanese "yaki" as in yakitori, yakisoba, yakionigiri), and is paired with "thai" for a very nationalistic dish name. the hope of the prime minister, driving force behind the dish, was that reducing domestic rice consumption would free up more rice for export, hopefully stimulating the thai economy.

      however, the dish itself "originally" came from vietnam, where it was a non-soup version of pho commonly sold by street vendors. it's believed these vendors/traders brought the dish with them to ayutthaya, where it eventually was modified/evolved into a much more thai dish in terms of flavor and content.

      1. re: chartreauxx

        ahh ok I knew it had something to do with crop shortages and Thai pride (only country in SE Asia never colonized after all - good for them, no shame on the others)

        1. re: hill food

          my instructor claimed the shortages were exacerbated because britain made thailand pay reparations for aiding the japanese, but i don't know how accurate that is and how much of that was her having a healthy dose of thai pride! and, funnily enough, thailand has been conquered... multiple times, in fact.

          just never by europeans. thailand was at various points taken over by the khmer, mongolians (under kublai khan), and the burmese. i always get a chuckle out of the thai assertion that they've never been conquered.

          1. re: chartreauxx

            Interesting, I never new the history of pad thai. Good pad thai is sublime. The best one we ever had was in a little stand on the street in Chang Mai. I remember Plearn used to make a decent one but I haven't been there in over 10 years. I sometimes make it at home using a recipe from a Thai friend whose parents have a well regarded Thai restaurant in LA. The version I make does not have tamarind and is made with fish sauce and rice vinegar and I forget what else. Comes out good but leaves the kitchen a mess. I think we are going to Lers Ros on Thursday and will give the pad thai a try if I can convince my significant other who will be tempted by the more unusual offerings on their very extensive menu.

            1. re: Ridge

              Tried the Pad Thai at Lers Ros. It was decent but not the best version of Pad Thai. Noodles slightly overcooked and mushy. Flavor kind of flat and dominated by tamarind. Definitely was in need of fish sauce. It was not bad but was not at the level of the other dishes we ate and I was expecting better given the high caliber of the food here.

              1. re: Ridge

                "I remember Plearn used to make a decent one but I haven't been there in over 10 years."

                Ridge, I don't know how far back your experiences go of Plearn (the woman herself having emerged by the late 80s as sort of a Grande-Dame or Alice Waters of East Bay Thai cooking), but you might recall her original location on University, EAST of Shattuck, with impromptu window sign, "over 10,000 pad Thais served." So maybe I also should have characterized her above as the Thai Ray Kroc! :-)

                1. re: eatzalot

                  the one that's just west of shattuck is not very good.

                  1. re: vulber

                    I don't mean to be unkind, or disrespectful of what I take to be an honest summing-up of a personal opinion, vulber -- but in 30 years of reading consumer restaurant comments online, those I've personally found least useful consist of pure conclusion (asserting how a certain restaurant "is"), while those most helpful have been observations, details, what tried, when, how often, what liked or not liked, and why. Could you give some more of the story behind your conclusion, vulber?

                    1. re: eatzalot

                      normally i agree; but i went a while ago and don't remember the details, other than being generally unimpressed. i work very close to there and never see more than two or three tables full at any time.

                  2. re: eatzalot

                    When it first opened and for at least a year after that, Plearn east of Shattuck was a place that you were asked while ordering whether you wanted your dish mild, medium or hot. Hot was blow the top of your head off hot.

                    1. re: wally

                      Wally: Agreed, and even after she moved (1982?) to the much larger former health-food store space W. of Shattuck, one thing Plearn sold a lot of was Thai spiced stews or "curries," many with coconut-puree base; and there was none of today's glib "choice of proteins" added just before service. The meat curries were slow-cooked (overnight, she told me once) and with a customary choice of ingredients, e.g the very hot green pork curry was made with pork, and the Mussuman curry with beef; the meats became tender and flavor-infused as is impossible when you add them on short order. (I was able to duplicate the slow-cooked flavor by doing the same thing at home.)

                      Yet like Ridge, I haven't been there in at least 10 years, and might well agree with vulber's conclusion today (I was just curious what lay behind it). 30 years ago, Plearn (last name not at hand, and formidable besides) was one true Thai restaurateuse helping to popularize Thai cooking when most Americans had never even heard of it.

                      1. re: eatzalot

                        Plearnjai Kundhikanjana. Plearn went downhill in the "choice of meat" direction before they left the big space at 2050 University. This page says she and her husband retired, which might explain any recent further decline at the current location (liquor license is still in his name):


                        1. re: eatzalot

                          Apropos authenticity, years ago a US-native Bay Arean who'd lived extensively in Thailand, and was much more critical of our Thai restaurants than anyone I've yet seen on Chowhound, grumbled about gaffes like frequent substituting of lemon juice in Thai dishes calling for lime (on the accurate assumption that the local public wouldn't notice). He also mentioned how certain excellent Thai specialties use very hot pepper as an integral element -- thus a restaurant that numbs them way down to accommodate heat-shy palates may bring in more business, but is also producing "a dish that shouldn't be made."

                          As a restaurant customer, I'm less rigid about authenticities generally, but I can respect his point. It also shows how local adaptations create not just "new" dishes, but also offshoot, inauthentic understandings of dishes. Compare the history of Alfredo "sauce," alien to Alfredo di Lellio himself. Or all those young Americans who picked up the historically recent notions (contrary to mainstream 20th-c. US cookbooks like FF and JOC, to say nothing of French!) that "macaron" means a Gerbet macaron sandwich, while "macaroon" is something with coconut or chocolate. (Americans with much experience of recipes have always understood the two words fundamentally to mean the same thing; and in four editions of Larousse Gastronomique I didn't even find the Gerbet sandwich macaron mentioned.)

                        2. re: wally

                          Also, before Plearn moved to the place East of Shattuck on University, they had a place on University on the the north side up near where Keystone used to be towards Berkeley Hardware. I really didn't eat there a lot, but I did learn about iced coffee there.

                          1. re: wally

                            To be clear, wally, the "Univ., East of Shattuck" location I've referred to is the location you've just described -- near Berkeley Hardware, and on the North side of University Ave. Plearn opened there about 1981 (not long after the pioneering Siam Cuisine much farther West on Univ., which opened 1980).

                            In 1982 or 83, Plearn moved just a couple of blocks, to Univ. just WEST of Shattuck, South side of street now (2000 block of Univ., even-numbered address) into a large, cavernous space that had been a health-food store in the 1970s. I believe that's the 2050-University address that Robert cited, and I learn now that Plearn moved at some point even FARTHER West (and back across the street to the N. side), to 1923 Univ. where currently listed. I have not been to that location, and from the report here about the principals retiring, the lackluster assessments make sense.

                            The huge 2050-Univ. address -- not the current one -- is where "Plearn Thai Cuisine" (its precise name on biz cards, which I may still have) prospered and became widely known. (The very early window sign I mentioned upthread, "over 10,000 pad Thais served," was only at the very first of these addresses, and did not reappear at 2050. Around 1984 I quizzed Plearn herself about the former sign; she said affably that they'd stopped counting.)

                            1. re: eatzalot

                              Plearn moved from 2125 to the larger space at 2050 after a rave review from Stan Sesser in the Chronicle.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Did you see Sesser's review at the time? Do you know the date?

                                1. re: eatzalot

                                  I remember the review because it was so over-the-top enthusiastic. It was no later than 1983.

            2. The original comment has been removed
              1. have you had the one at lers ros? (yes, i know it's one of the less exciting items on the menu, but i've heard good things about theirs)

                1 Reply
                1. re: vulber

                  I don't recall having ordered it there but I plan to. Seems like the most likely place to get a good version.

                2. Seriously, fish sauce and palm sugar missing? Those are awfully standard, easily available Thai ingredients. Are they substituting another, cheaper sugar for palm?

                  Fish sauce is a "background" or umami ingredient of course, in a great many thai main-course dishes, but its use can be extremely subtle. During my brief experience of Thai cooking classes, veteran chef instructor stressed this (also emphasizing that unfamiliar cooks shouldn't just sniff an open bottle of it in its pure concentrated form because "you will go insane," and more to the point, get a distorted idea of that ingredient's real role).

                  One factor in modern Thai restaurants around the Bay Area is that many owners and cooks aren't Thai, but Vietnamese. That doesn't make them inauthentic cooks, any more than our many Korean sushi-restaurant proprietors or Turkish Italian-restaurant cooks are automatically so (in fact some very well regarded places fit those descriptions), but they might have even less incentive than native Thais to push Thai authenticity to what is overwhelmingly an undemanding public, frequenting such restaurants.

                  (My own problem with pad Thai is that it's such a cliche dish. The sole Thai noodle course that many Americans know or try -- a great missed opportunity if so, since Thai expat cooks have offered other, diverse, often excellent Thai rice-noodle main courses ever since Thai restaurants arrived here in force around 1980. Pad see-iew, rad nar, pad kee-mao, etc.)

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: eatzalot

                    Crappy Americanized pad thai might be a cliche, but I don't think you can say that about the real thing, since it seems to be completely unavailable.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      "Cliche" only in the sense of being ordered seemingly knee-jerk style, unthinkingly, or without ever trying the several other famous Thai rice-noodle dishes. (Rather as some Americans always order broccoli beef or General Tso's chicken in all Chinese restaurants, whether the kitchen and specialties are Dongbei, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, Macanese, Muslim Chinese, etc.)

                      On one retaurant-comment web site for instance -- I wouldn't have believed this possible until I read it for myself -- a Chinese restaurant with unusual regional specialties accumulated 200 "reviews" before any of them got around to noticing the kitchen's particular regional focus, pride, and strength -- a nutshell illustration of what's so wrong with such sources for restaurant information.

                      The same way that people often repeat catch phrases without any thought. A typographer friend told me that "cliche" evolved as typesetters' jargon for a small clamped frame of movable type that could be kept assembled for frequent use.

                    2. re: eatzalot

                      Isn't it a national dish synonymous with the cuisine?

                      It's not General Tso's at all. The problem is the abundance of Thai cuisine in the US was created to serve American tastes, rather than serve the Thai community.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        I mentioned General Tso's chicken just as an example of the famous 10 or 20 Chinese-derived dishes that, statistically, most non-Chinese customers order at most Bay Area Chinese restaurants (sometimes called the American Chinese menu). Those few dishes completely dominate the online comments (on Yelp for instance) about Chinese restaurants I know, even when the chef has unusual or highly authentic specialties that likely would also appeal to many customers if they'd try such. This actually affects the usefulness of comment sites as a source of information about the restaurant.

                        I alluded to a specific restaurant with 200 such reviews for American-Chinese specialties, and one for its real expertise (of the kind people here on CH might discuss).

                        A corresponding dish in online comments on Bay Area Thai restaurants is pad thai. Many commentators that I've seen never ventured even to the several other popular, diverse rice-noodle stir-fries that many Thai restuarants offer, writing things like "I always get the pad thai." Satay skewers, tom kha gai soup, and one or two colored coconut-puree curry stews might round out the "American-Thai" cliche sub-menu.

                        1. re: eatzalot

                          You likened a *national dish* to General Tso's.

                          You didn't have to explain that you were using General Tso's as a derogatory example of food regarded as inauthentic.

                          It's not an American cliche, it's a popular dish in Thailand.

                          1. re: sugartoof

                            To clarify, pad (or phat or paht) Thai (translated as "Thai-style stir-fried rice noodles" in my Thai cookbooks) is described by some writers as a de-facto Thai "national dish," popular in the home country and representative of its cuisine -- in the same sense as gulasch in Hungary, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding in England, or Rösti in Switzerland. That's the sole "national dish" connection I intended.

                            The characterization of the most popular few dishes ordered in US Chinese and Thai restaurants was accurately descriptive, and anyone can verify that. Authenticity was not my point. Some of the American-Chinese menu is often authentic to its Chinese origins. ("Derogatory" is only in the eyes of the reader.)

                            1. re: eatzalot

                              What are you talking about?

                              Pad Thai is popular in Thailand. It's a real dish that is an integral part of Thai cuisine in Thailand.

                              General Tso comparisons make no sense. Both dishes are poular amongst what?

                            2. re: sugartoof

                              A better parallel is Kung Pao Chicken, which is on all the Chinese American menus, and is also staggeringly popular in China.

                              1. re: bbulkow

                                Yes, I remember when kung pao became very popular in the early wave of US Sichuanese restaurants and cookbooks, I was getting it on both East and West coasts in the late 70s.

                                Interestingly Fuchsia Dunlop's much more recent Sichuanese cookbook (Land of Plenty) reported that kung pao was politically deprecated in China (or something like that) and consequently was rarely seen there for a while, but has since been officially rehabilitated.

                                1. re: bbulkow

                                  Kung Pao worksI guess, but what's the point of making the comparison at all then? General Tso's is a great one if you're attempting to mock Americanized food, it's just that it doesn't apply because there's no reason to mock anyone with a preference for Pad Thai. It's a good staple dish.

                          2. re: eatzalot

                            Who cares if something is a cliche if it's good?

                            I'm not in a rut, there are other Thai noodle dishes I like. I'm just craving a really good dish of pad Thai. Which reminds me, I should phone the Sabuy Sabuy 2 guy.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Oh, agreed; they are separate points. This thread has gotten me interested in trying a good traditional version, so I hope reports will continue coming in.

                          3. If it is any comfort, apparently the "tradition" of Pad Thai isn't really that long anyway.
                            I take it that what people are really looking for is a "very good Pad Thai."