Hunting for the ultimate pad Thai may be a continuing quest. Most Thai restaurants appeal to a largely Caucasian clientele, which influences many of them to compromise their cuisine by taming the long and gradual development and release of flavour that is a Thai culinary attribute. I am always looking for serious Asian restaurants that make no concessions to Western palates. Even in these enlightened times, they are few and far between.
Contrary to common belief, not all Thai cooking vibrates the Scoville Scale (the empirical measurement of detectable heat) and every region in Thailand has its own temperament which is reflected in the cuisine.
Despite the advent of the tourism industry in Thailand in the 1960’s, Thai cuisine had no real profile outside of Thailand until the late 1980’s.
During 1940’s, as part of a campaign to promote democracy and nationalism in Thailand (formerly known as Siam), and seeking to reduce domestic rice consumption, pad Thai became widely embraced in a profile-raising effort by the government to encourage the sale of rice noodles from street carts and in small restaurants. Rice has always been at the core of Thai cuisine. To eat pad Thai became a patriotic act, one which allowed the government to make more rice products available for export.
In a few decades, pad Thai has gone from being virtually anonymous to becoming a ubiquitous restaurant and take out staple. In reality, it is a minor dish in repertoire, but it has become a global ambassador for Thai cuisine. I confess, I have always been a disciple of Thai curry but indifferent to pad Thai. For the purpose of this article I embarked on a two-month quest to distinguish the different nuances in preparation and flavouring among a diversity of restaurants. When ordering pad Thai I now have a benchmark for authenticity and an expectation of fresh, firm, medium-slender rice noodles with a particular bite profile. Precisely cooked, pad Thai noodles are never starchy, gloopy or stuck together. The properly cooked rice noodle should be dry and with separate strands, much like correctly cooked al dente pasta.
Deconstructing the recipe for pad Thai divulges a collection of ingredients that are not overly remarkable. It is only in the combining and balancing of these ingredients that we discover the resulting dish is greater than the sum of its parts. Peanuts and nearly raw bean sprouts add a required, reserved crunch and counterpart for the rice noodles. A well prepared pad Thai divulges its flavour profile incrementally: restrained sweetness with bursts of salty, sour and tart flavours in a fresh tasting, lemony, hot dish.
Pad Thai is never sickly sweet or an undignified neon orange or fluorescent tangerine. It derives its colour and aromatics from tamarind paste and fish sauce, and is ideally an unassuming brownish-red shade, studded with bits of green onions, bean sprouts, tofu, chilies, salted radish, cilantro, toasted peanut and scrambled egg.
An inordinate number of non-Thai restaurants feature pad Thai (or credible variations) on their menus, yet in far too many instances they bear only a passing acquaintance with the properly executed dish. In knowledgeable restaurants, additional lime, fish sauce, chili pepper, and rice vinegar are optional and offered by way of condiments. No self-respecting cook would put peanut butter, ketchup, teriyaki sauce or shredded coconut in pad Thai. To those who claim that this is fusion, innovation or artistic individualism, I can assure you that it is not.
A decade ago, the name of London chef Dani Gruden became synonymous with pad Thai when he was the chef/co-owner of The Braywick Bistro. People flocked there to eat his pad Thai. Today, Chef serves a wicked Malaysian-inspired version with coconut milk, ginger, tamarind, cilantro, brown sugar-beansprouts, green onions and cashews at Blu Duby. Tamarine by Quyn-Nhi also does a stellar variation from the Viet-Thai repertoire.
The use of chopsticks is not a Thai custom. Thai food is eaten with a fork (left hand) and a spoon (right hand); there is no need for a knife as food is served in bite-sized morsels, which are forked into the spoon and fed into the mouth. Thai meals typically consist of a single dish, or rice with several complementary shared dishes served concurrently.
Thai curries (kaeng, also written as gaeng) are unique because they are made with fresh aromatic roots, leaves and herbs, whereas Indian curries (masalas) depend on combining dry spice mixtures. All curry pastes vary widely depending on the tastes and techniques of the cook. Green is the hottest among all the Thai curries and cilantro root is commonly used in its preparation due to its intense flavour. Red is the original preparation and yellow is the mildest of the curry preparations.
Locally, there is a myriad of Thai, Viet-Thai, and Laos-Thai and other Asian-inspired restaurants. Due to the popularity of Canadian-Asian food, lots of Chinese restaurants pay homage to the Thai genre. Thai culinary repertoire of Thailand, like Korea’s, has spicing techniques and aromatic infusions of curry-inspired recipes that are suggestive of India. That is just scratching surface of the Thai culinary canon. If you want to know how good the restaurant is, you only need check out the pad Thai.
Brothers Eddy and Alex Phimprhrachanh are the proprietors of Thaifoon, downtown London’s upmarket Southeast Asian restaurant. Their with-it and tasteful take on the ancient Thai culture, with a décor that honours the past while embracing modernity, has earned both raves and admiration for their culinary vision and ambitions.
“Thaifoon has become more of a hub for my family these days,” says Eddy. “Our first few years we were focused on building the business and I was active in every role at Thaifoon. But the past few years I’ve really taken a step back and just let Thaifoon speak for itself. My brother Alex purchased into the business and he’s now running day-to-day operations. My sister who was the previous manager is now raising a family and my dad pops in to do maintenance once in a while. Thaifoon has become our family hub and our loyal customers enjoy not only our food and atmosphere, but my whole family as well. When my sister visits the restaurant she could easily step into the dining room at a lunch rush and catch up with a familiar face. It’s not uncommon for a customer to pop into the kitchen to say hi to myself or my mom.”
Eddy has never been one to rest on his laurels. The mega-successful Lavish ultra-lounge was opened in 2008 by Eddy to not only offer the LGBT community a welcoming and hip place to go at night, but to provide a premier high-energy night club to the London community at large.
Thaifoon continues to set itself apart with bang-on exuberant flavours and an eye for detail and presentation. The 30-seat restaurant is a tasteful and refined take on the ancient Siamese culture, with a soothing décor with a rich palette of browns and blacks with golden accents and pleasing Thai iconography. The minimalist room is sleek, with a sexy, upbeat soundtrack, rich dark woods and ultra-soft leather banquettes with cushions.
The kitchen’s oeuvre is a consistent showcase of Thailand’s regional flavours of hot, sweet, sour and salty, honouring tradition while embracing modernity. Thaifoon is careful to give you just the level of spicing you want. The restaurant is very popular with vegetarian and gluten-free clients.
Won-ton bundles are flawless — well-executed crispy and crunchy parcels of chili-infused minced chicken accompanied by a ginger and plum sauce. Savoury curries surpass expectations with richness and variations on spiciness that are tempered with velvety coconut milk and fragrant aromatics. The pad Thai is proper with perfectly cooked noodles, firm tofu with a silky interior, egg, crisp bean sprouts, scallions, fragrant cilantro, minced peanuts, lime juice and the crucial sweet and sour tanginess.
“I think our secret to success is sticking to the basics of authentic Thai cooking. After the Thai-volution started in our city, classic Thai dishes were being re-invented at many restaurants. My mother, Arounvaty, who is the head chef at Thaifoon, kept her recipe grounded in how she was used to making and eating pad Thai back home — rice noodles cooked with fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, a few other spices and a touch of soy for the caramel colour. We’ve tickled around with measurements but our ingredients remain true to what we believe in.”
Thaifoon continues to receive raves and praise for their cuisine and responsive, knowledgeable service. Coconut and green tea ice creams are made in-house.
This is London’s premiere upscale go-to Thai restaurant. There is a top-shelf cocktail list, with head-turning mangotinis, lycheetinis and Mai Thais, and an above average selection of imported beers and complementary wines.
120 Dundas Street (East of Talbot)
Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am–2pm
Dinner Every night 5 pm–close
Here are a few other Thai restaurants that are worth a closer look.
Mai’s Café and Bistro
This relatively new hot-spot in Wortley Village has a deceivingly unimposing frontage leading into a compact and stylish interior, where the intoxicating fragrance of Asian spices permeates the room. There’s a satiating medley of traditional Thai fare and an ambitious and unexpected assortment of bistro fare form the unconventional menu. Although emphasizing the genuine Thai taste, Mai’s appears to want to be all things to all people. Kai, Mai`s sister, is a welcoming and knowledgeable presence in the restaurant. Overall Mai’s offers an above average dining experience with an enthralling flavour of Thailand, which guarantees the restaurant a constant stream of loyal clientele and first-timers. Excellent curry dishes are on offer and the pad Thai is top notch. When you can order crispy Thai wontons with ground chicken, coriander and garlic, that are absolute perfection, why would you consider escargot in fresh basil cream sauce? The tom-yum (hot and sour lemongrass) soup and the spicy drunken noodles (stir-fried rice noodles with chicken breast, fresh chilies and sweet pepper and basil sauce) are knockouts. Many of you will remember Mai as the former owner of Café Milagro in Byron. 142-A Wortley Rd. 519-679-1221
An Old East Village neighbourhood favourite, this humble and unassuming hole-in-the-wall offers superior Thai food served with pride and attention to detail. Don’t be put off by the façade or the cramped interior — the food shines. 671 Dundas St. 519-646-2909
Bangkok Pad Thai
This busy restaurant is a Richmond Row stalwart, with a casual atmosphere, pleasant ambience and friendly service. Despite the name, Pad Thai does not seem to be their raison d’être, but the restaurant remains a well-known crowd pleaser with above average Thai food and good prices. 735 Richmond St. (between Oxford and Piccadilly St.) 519-433-6634 bangkokpadthai.com
Stratford Thai Cuisine
Chef Nancy Senawong, formerly of Thai Angels restaurant in Toronto, opened her second restaurant, Stratford Thai Cuisine, to good word-of-mouth and great reviews. “I came to Canada nearly a decade ago and was surprised to find only a few authentic Thai restaurants in Toronto. Having a childhood in the food industry and growing up watching my mom cook helped me to articulate my own style of Thai cooking. Knowing the right balance of spice and flavouring is the key to authentic Thai cuisine. Also, being chosen as one of the Toronto a la Cart (multi-cultural street food) program by the City of Toronto gave me encouragement to pursue my ambitions further.” 82 Wellington St. Stratford 519-305-2100 stratfordthaicuisine.com
Exeter Thai cuisine is the new sibling restaurant of Stratford Thai Cuisine by chef Nancy Senawong. We are already hearing rave reviews about the food. 365 Main St. Exeter 519-235-3737 exeterthaicuisine.com
Also worth checking out are The Banana Leaf in Woodstock, both Le Café Siam and Lotus Thai in St. Thomas, and Mone Thai in the market square in Stratford.
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.