Uptown Pad Thai Showdown
It’s tough to get a bearing on Uptown’s dense cluster of Thai restaurants. They often seem so interchangeable – ubiquity confused with uniformity. In an effort to begin distinguishing them, what better litmus test than Pad Thai? It’s the spaghetti and meatballs of Thai cuisine, an ever-present standby, a simple dish that’s hard not to like. Lightly stir-fried noodles with chunks of meat and veggies, flavored by peanuts, cilantro, a tamarind-based sauce, and some spice – it’s a simple canvas that leaves ample room for personality.
The general consensus is that True Thai in Seward is one of the current standard bearers for Thai in our metro. So we spoke with Anna Prasomphol Fieser of True Thai to get an expert opinion on what makes for truly good Pad Thai. (The Heavy Table has previously commented that Anna’s Pad Thai “will enhance your understanding of the dish’s true potential.”) That was not an overstatement. Her Pad Thai strikes the perfect balance between sweet and spicy with its rich, enveloping sauce. The big chunks of flat chives and crispy bean sprouts create a nice balance to the thinly sliced, flavorful pork. The noodles are light but substantial enough to hold up the rest of the flavors.
“Dry radish and tamarind are very important as Pad Thai must be salty, sweet, and sour,” says Fieser. “Many restaurants soak the noodles in hot water before cooking. This makes them mushy. You should instead soak the noodles in cold water overnight to get the proper al dente firmness. You then blanch the noodles in hot water just before cooking in a hot pan with cold oil.” True Thai’s well-known success with this dish provides a great control sample on which to judge the pretenders to the Minneapolis Pad Thai throne.
This truly blind tasting was conducted by seven eager participants feasting on take-out Pork Pad Thai (though one restaurant did not offer pork as an option) from the five restaurants closest to the Hennepin-Lake intersection. The judges were asked to write notes on the dishes’ appearance and aroma, quality of the noodles, vegetables and meat, and the spice level (all were ordered with “medium spice”), then to assign an overall score of 1-20. The results are listed here from last to first place.
Sawatdee Express ($6) 1404 W Lake St, 612.825.4054
This author was skeptical whether the order we received for our taste-off was representative of the normal product at Sawatdee Express. It took a return visit to confirm our fears: Their Pad Thai is extremely sub-par. This review does not speak for the Pad Thai at their numerous sit-down locations across the metro, nor their Express location in the downtown skyway. What is clear is that their Uptown location is in serious need of technical re-adjustment.
The aroma of their Summer Pad Thai is slightly salty, nutty and somewhat off-putting. The chicken, though probably the best part of the dish, was not much better – slightly dry and mostly flavorless. The spice content looked like little more than red pepper flakes strewn over the noodles, which decimated every other flavor involved. The real problem with the dish was the mushy noodles. As the ‘Express’ name might indicate, their Pad Thai was made with no stir-frying involved. The noodles were simply soaked in hot water, which left them falling apart to the slightest touch. If their aim is to snag the tipsy bar-goers on the block with quick turn-around and a cheap price, then mission accomplished. In relation to the rest of the neighborhood’s Pad Thai, though, theirs leaves plenty to be desired.
Total Score: 24 / 160
Chiang Mai Thai ($11) Calhoun Square, 3001 Hennepin Ave, 612.827.1606
The judges were in agreement on the very pleasing aroma and appearance of Chiang Mai’s offering, though were slightly amiss at the lack of vegetables. The main complaint was the unsubstantial noodles – thin to begin with and considered by the panel to be overcooked. Though not very spicy, the flavor of the sauce was better received. It was slightly tangy, even a bit sour, and nicely complemented the well-textured and chewy pork. It seemed that while very decent all around, no one component of this Pad Thai stood out as spectacular. All the judges said it was a passable Pad Thai, though many had trouble describing it only minutes after eating it. After revealing that it was from Chiang Mai, the panel was a bit surprised, commenting that among the myriad of dishes they are known to produce very well, Pad Thai may not be their strongest effort.
Total Score: 72.5 / 160
Roat Osha ($11.50) 2650 Hennepin Ave, 612.377.4418
The first thing one notices about Roat Osha’s Pad Thai is the heaping amount of carrot shreds on top. The dish also featured large stalks of green onion, as well as crispy bean sprouts that the judges agreed were fresh and bright. Everyone also agreed on the high quality of the noodles. They were wide, substantial tasting, and well textured with a nice bite to them. The pork did not score as highly. It was thinly chopped and well proportioned, though it was thought to be dry overall. This seemed to be a lament about Pad Thai in general – that dry protein is just the expected norm and is a forgivable miscue to the overall success of the dish. The spice content was not an intense interpretation of “medium spice,” but was very well integrated, slowly building to a nice robust after-burn. Roat Osha’s Pad Thai was well received, though not raved about. The majority of judges enjoyed it and would order it again, though there seemed not to be a unified selling point to push it from good to great.
Total Score: 97 / 160
Amazing Thailand ($11.95) 3021 Hennepin Ave, 612.822.5588.
Amazing Thailand’s Pad Thai scored very high on the quality of the pork. It had large chunks of textured, flavorful pork – certainly the most tender and moist of the five. However, this left some judges feeling it made the dish too slippery and unwieldy, as if the sauce wasn’t fully integrated. The wide, firm noodles were considered among the best in the tasting and the vegetables were by far the most crisp, especially the bean sprouts. The main knock on this offering was the slippery texture and the appearance of the dish – it had a distinctly more orange hue than the rest. Amazing Thailand’s conception of “medium spice” was the most mild of the five; several judges called it slightly sweet rather than spicy. Overall, it seemed to work because it wasn’t too extreme in any one direction – all of the components worked together to a harmonious medium. Theirs is certainly a Pad Thai worth recommending.
Total Score: 108 / 160
The Clear Winner: Tum Rup Thai ($10.75) 1221 W Lake St, 6121.824.1378
Tum Rup’s Pad Thai won this blind tasting by such a considerable margin that it took aback everyone involved. Of the five involved in this test, it is the least-frequented restaurant among the judges. Their Pad Thai featured a wonderful, heady aroma with a large amount of crispy veggies and rich, meaty pork. What set Tum Rup apart was clearly the base flavor of the sauce. Commenting on its richness and peppery flavors, the panel considered it to be the most faithful representation of a classic Pad Thai. Overall it was fresh and balanced, with a pleasant spice component that cuts the richness of the sauce allowing all the other flavors to peek through. Consider the verdict a little piece of vindication for a restaurant that The Heavy Table has previously referred to as “thoroughly tamed.”
Total Score: 130 / 160
The quality of the noodles in the dishes seemed to be the best bellwether for overall success – not surprising for a dish that is 90 percent noodles. The judges were asked to construct a fantasy Pad Thai-by-committee. The aroma and appearance from Chiang Mai, the noodles from Roat Osha, the meat and vegetables from Amazing Thailand, and the spice / sauce flavor from Tum Rup were considered tops overall. “Pad Thai appears to be a simple dish,” says Fieser, “but the ingredients need to be just right, the preparation just so, and the cooking just exactly the same each time.” This tasting appears to support that surprising potential for variation. It also stands to comment favorably on the variations Uptown has to offer.