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When Flavors Collide (in a good way)
by Matthew Amster-Burton

November 22, 1999

There is nothing more exciting about cooking than achieving synergy. Chop some tomato, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro, and toss them together in a bowl. Taste. Like a bowl of tangy vegetables. Now squeeze a lime into the bowl, stir, and let it sit in the fridge for an hour. Now it doesn't taste like vegetables with lime juice: it tastes like salsa.

Or consider beef stew, chili, or any hearty soup. I can never help dipping the wooden spoon into the pot and tasting when the first bubbles break the surface. Big mistake. Flavors, sharply differentiated and overpowering, assault the mouth. Something has gone wrong! Nonsense. After an hour or two of simmering, the stew becomes whole. Onion gives up its pungency to the pot. Canned tomato loses its metallic tang. Synergy.

Great chefs think about this sort of thing all the time. Recently I read Jean-Georges Vongerichten discussing how he developed a particular sauce for fish. I've forgotten the details, but he initially dressed the fish in a strong herb, and the marriage was auspicious but the contrast too great. He consulted the spice rack in his head and figured out which seasoning would mediate between the fish and herb to make the dish harmonious. Every flavor is a combination of chemical compounds, and though lead cannot transmute into gold, alchemy is not dead.

To me, no dish captures the synergistic magic that is cooking like phad thai. This traditional Thai noodle dish (sometimes spelled pad thai, and the "thai" sometimes capitalized) takes a large number of ingredients, agitates them in a hot wok, and produces something that tastes like phad thai and nothing else. It also tastes incomparably delicious.

Briefly, phad thai consists of rice stick noodles stir-fried with fish sauce (in Thai, nam pla) and egg, and garnished with chopped peanuts. All of these ingredients are required and the dish will not taste like phad thai without them. However, phad thai is made all over Thailand and the world with all sorts of other ingredients, and there is of course no official version. Some of the things that can legitimately appear in phad thai are: chili sauce, ketchup, chile powder or flakes, vinegar, peanut butter, shrimp or other meat, radish, sugar, peanut oil, tofu, garlic, and scallions. In addition to peanuts, it can be garnished with bean sprouts, lime, and cilantro. I have been told that in Thailand phad thai is not spicy; in the US it has been reconfigured for our conception of Thai food and is often fiery.

Typically here I would embark on a quest to make perfect phad thai at home. I don't believe this is possible, however. Home stoves don't generate enough heat to give the noodles the taste of the wok. If you're interested in trying it anyway, here are some recipes I found that sound promising enough. Let me know if you have any success.

Instead, here's where to find the best phad thai in the three cities in which I know where to find it. If you've got a report from a city not on the list, please email me and I'll be happy to add it.


Siam on Broadway
616 Broadway E
(206) 324-0892

My favorite phad thai is still my first, and luckily it's less than a block from my door. Siam's light-pink noodles are drenched in a rich sauce and dotted with chunks of scallion and tofu. They're served with your choice of meat (I find beef stands up well to the full-flavored concoction) and garnished with peanuts, bean sprouts, and a wedge of lime. The result is a stringy, tangy, juicy, wonderful mess. I've eaten Siam's phad thai nearly two hundred times and can't imagine ever getting tired of it.

New York

Thai Cafe
923-925 Manhattan Ave.
(718) 383-3562

Plan Eat Thailand
184 Bedford Ave.
(718) 599-5758

When we moved to New York in 1998, one of my first orders of business (okay, besides finding a job) was to find a new Thai joint that could support my weekly habit. I scoured Manhattan, making forays into strange neighborhoods in search of what I needed. No dice--I followed trails of rave reviews to over two dozen different places and couldn't find any phad thai that was better than average. Either the noodles were soggy and brown (as at the unfairly named Pad Thai in Chelsea) or dry and uninteresting (see, or don't, Thai Village by the West 4 St. subway entrance). Then my friend Neil took us to Plan Eat Thailand in Williamsburg, and the search came to an end. Plan Eat's noodles are translucent and delicate, but bursting with flavor and strong of constitution (read: chewy). And when you say "hot" at Plan Eat, they take you seriously. Thai Cafe, under the same ownership, is even better.

When I got a job on 14th St., things were really looking up. I used to hop on the L train, get off right in front of Plan Eat, and be full of phad by the time I got back to work at the end of my lunch hour.

My only complaint about the fare at Plan Eat and Thai Cafe is that their meat and fish additions are subpar, but I can't stand big vegetable chunks in my phad thai, so when I order at one of these otherwise fine establishments, I ask for no meat, but no vegetables either. The noodles can easily stand on their own.


9 Beauchamp Pl
London SW3
0171 581 8820

Friday night in London, April 1999. I hopped the tube to Harrods in search of a gift for Laurie. Already famished before stepping into the food halls, my hunger was brought to a head by the palatial tableau. After gaping at the heaps of tea, cheeses, meats, I selected a £2.90 box of gingerbread cookies and set out to find dinner amidst the affluence of Knightsbridge.

Patara, the Thai place I decided upon, is one of two London branches of a Bangkok-based chain. They also have branches in Geneva, Singapore, and elsewhere. (This seems to be a decent way to pick a restaurant, as long as it's not an American one: my favorite Chinese restaurant in New York is part of a Beijing chain. Why the US only sees fit to export McDonald's and its ilk I don't know, since it would have been great to find a Fresco Tortilla outlet in England.) I ordered the phad thai with shrimp; like everything else in London, it was hugely expensive, but unlike most food in London, I would have gladly paid double. Next to Siam, this is the best phad thai I've ever had, pink and lightly sauced. In addition to a world-class noodle, the shrimp were a marvel, butterflied in the shell, perfectly cooked and tasting like shrimp--neither fishy nor bland.

Unfortunately, I had to return to New York the next day, or I would have gone back to Patara to try as much of the rest of the menu as possible.


Oh, how I wish I knew

This article is incomplete. It will not remain so for long. Every day I pass the window of Council Travel and watch the price of a round-trip ticket to Bangkok edge ever lower. As much as I love Siam, Plan Eat, and Patara, I'm certain the world's best phad thai is not to be had in any of them. A room at a decent hotel in Bangkok is under $30. Phad thai from a street vendor costs a quarter; in a restaurant, it might set you back $2. The justifications pile up like loose tea at Harrods, and the negatives disappear faster than a plate of shortbread. I can't stay away for long.[HOME]

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