In Search of Perfect Pad Thai

A former Angeleno scours Thai Tucson for her favorite dish.

I can remember the first time I tasted Thai food. It was in Los Angeles in 1982 and I coerced my carpool partner with a coupon and offer for a free dinner. On alternate Fridays we either stopped for dinner or happy hour and it was my turn to choose. I promised Lynn if she didn't see anything on the menu that looked good, we could leave.

My destination was a hole-in-the-wall called Sukothai. It was 5 p.m., early by L.A. dinner standards, and we were the only ones present. Immediately she wanted to leave but the smells begged me to stay. A hospitable, diminutive woman entered and invited us to sit down. We confessed that neither of us had ever tasted Thai food and she made some recommendations. After our first bites we were hooked. I remember ordering pad thai, chicken satay with peanut sauce, beef with ginger and onion, steamed rice and Thai iced tea.

Thailand is almost halfway between China and India so the cuisine borrows from both countries. Every culture has a noodle dish; pad thai, (aka padt thai or stir fried Thai noodles) is the national dish of Thailand. According to my Barron's Food Lover's Companion, pad thai combines rice noodles, tofu, shrimp, crushed peanuts, nam pla, garlic, chiles and eggs all stir-fried together. Pick up any Thai cookbook and the ingredients differ. Pungent sauce (or nam pla), made from a fish and seafood stock reduction, is the staple to Thai cooking, like soy sauce is to Chinese cooking. Like any seasoning, a little dab will do you.

Through the years, I found many opportunities to introduce friends and co-workers to Thai food. Not a week went by when it wasn't a staple in my diet. No matter what variety of dishes I ordered, pad thai was always included. It was rarely bad, often good, frequently great, and sometimes the exact flavors just jumped off the plate and for a second I wanted to put it on a foodie pedestal of nirvana worship.

A year ago, I moved to Tucson and am still searching for that perfect plate of pad thai. When Angeleno friends visit, they ask what they can bring me and I always request a Los Angeles Times, an in-flight magazine and an order of pad thai from Thai Dishes in Manhattan Beach. James flew with a slightly warm Tupperware container in his luggage. I've always liked a man who takes orders. While he lunched on Beto's burritos, I ate my precious pad thai. For breakfast he enjoyed an Italian omelet while I ate from the Tupperware, not even bothering to microwave, much like cold leftover pizza the morning after.

Like sex, I thought if I didn't eat any pad thai the craving would go away (or so I've been told), but that's not the case. On a three-day weekend in L.A., I ate Thai food twice, once at 2 a.m. at Sanamluang Café in the middle of Thai town--10 compact blocks in East Hollywood teeming with Thai cafes, Thai coffee houses and Thai retail. Since I'm not going anywhere for awhile, I thought I should venture out and taste what Thai Tucson has to offer.

Except for The Bamboo Club, all the sampling was eaten as takeout, often over the kitchen sink. Why should pad thai be any different than any other takeout? Here's a taste of local pad thai:

Char's Thai Restaurant
5039 East Fifth St.

This ample dish was light orange in color with a mound of thick rice noodles, bits of chicken and scrambled egg, ground peanuts, a small handful of bean sprouts and a few strips of sautéed green onion. Aside from the missing requisite lime quarter--where a generous squirt can improve just about anything except hot chocolate--major taste bursts lacked. $5.95.

6502 E. Tanque Verde

Another ample portion with a mound of thick rice noodles but here the noodles were neon yellow. I expected them to taste of chicken broth but they didn't. Chunks of dark meat chicken, slivers of sautéed green onion, bits of scrambled egg and few twigs of bean sprouts minus the lime did not pad thai make. $7.95.

The Bamboo Club
Park Place Mall near Century Theatres 5870 East Broadway Blvd., Suite #524

Traditional pad thai is not very spicy but this rendition piqued the palate. Rice noodles, the thickness of angel hair pasta, shared the platter with chunks of chicken and plump shrimp, green onion strands and shredded carrots redolent of a deep orange-red liquid-like chile paste. Shredded iceberg lettuce added contrasting color while a solo lemon quarter was buried beneath. $11.

Karuna's Thai Plate
1917 E. Grant Road

At last, I found goodness bordering on greatness. Opening the Styrofoam container, the pad thai looked and smelled familiar. Noodles, thinner than the above mentioned thickness and wider than angel hair pasta bubbled a warm golden brown--the color of toast. Ground peanuts were slightly stir-fried into the noodles with green onion slivers and scrambled egg bits, and tasted equally delicious for breakfast. $5.50.

National dish or not, every cook and cookbook has their own recipe. In the Star Wars Cookbook II - Darth Malt and More Galactic Recipes, there lurks a recipe for Padmé Pad Thai. Who knew extraterrestrials had such exotic culinary adventures?