Pad thai, oh my!

Thai This
24501 Del Prado
Dana Point, CA 92629

If there’s one thing in life that I really want to be able to count on, it’s a perfect dish of pad thai.  I’ve made it my personal mission, my duty if you will, to order pad thai in every Thai establishment I set foot in so that I can better judge what “perfect” really means.  Because, really, without diversity, there is no perfection is there?  And without my abundance of experience, I wouldn’t really have much to say here either (nor would I expect you to read it).

Pad thai achieves its status as a simple, satisfying, and mouth-watering dish because the raw sweetness of brown sugar dances playfully with the tang of fish sauce while succumbing to the dominating texture of fresh ground peanut.  The peanuts’ earthiness and rich full flavor gently support the stir-fried noodles’ leading role in the play of the plate, while the crisp bean sprouts play a supporting, though critical, role by injecting a buoyant mouth feel into the mixture, without which the tongue might lose itself in the delightfully smooth swirls and twirls of soy, sugar, and salt.

Read on to hear about my most recent encounter with the tasty devil…

Yes, pad thai can be wondrous if made properly.  But, trust me, it’s not as easy as it might seem.  I tried making pad thai myself this past spring, and all was going according to plan and the kitchen was smelling delightful until I spooned about a quarter-ounce too much of fish sauce into the massive wok, thoroughly destroying the delicate balance of flavors.  From that experience I learned to be receptive to the varying guises that pad thai will inevitably display given the potency of each ingredient.

Sometimes, though, I just get in such a mood that I’m yearning, nay lusting for a succulent spoonful of noodles.  Last night was one of those nights, and so I went to check out a restaurant called Thai This in Dana Point.  Thai This, as you astute readers may have noticed, is actually what some may call a pun (others may simply call it corny), and such punnery is evident throughout the restaurant and its menu (pictured below), which is shaped like an envelope dispatched abroad.

Thai This is your standard casual, no frills Thai spot.  It’s one of those places where you can come on a whim with friends, grab a table without wait, and be served promptly, efficiently, and without affection or particular attention.  But that’s okay.  Good service is all relative, and for me in a casual Thai restaurant, my highest priority is the food, not the ambiance, the service, or the décor.  That said, Thai This did not stand out in my mind as being particularly good or bad in any of the aforementioned categories (aside from the utter profusion of bamboo) , but was fairly indistinguishable from the pack.

So, how was the food then you ask?  The thing that’s most important?  Well, unfortunately, it also did not stand out from the pack.  I feel like Thai food is regrettably susceptible to the easy-way-out approach to restauranting, which I definite as taking standards and simply reproducing them at a mediocre level.  There seems to be little personal pride in the food that Thai This is presenting to its customers, which is surprising given the uniqueness of its menu’s design and the effort put into the restaurant’s interior.  While many of the dishes had surprises (more on that later), they were generally lost under the overbearing flavors of Thai spices, leaving little to draw me back.

One example of this was my first course, the Handroll Salad, which were essentially fresh rolls without shrimp in them.  I usually love fresh rolls because they are, as they’re aptly named, fresh, and the accompanying peanut sauce gives them the requisite oomph to achieve that eternally satisfying combination of slightly sweet and slightly savory.

My biggest complaint about this dish was that the peanut sauce was not poured, but drenched over the rolls, completely smothering them in thick, sticky ground peanut.  Combined with the fact that the rolls themselves contained little other than lettuce, I was left wondering why I was eating pure greasy peanut.  The possibly saving grace of the dish was the surprising inclusion of avocado and cilantro on top of the rolls (always welcome additions in my book), but unfortunately the subtle flavor of avocado was also lost under the dominating weight of peanut, long before I could even smell the cilantro, let alone taste it.

Enough kidding around, though: let’s get down to business.  The pad thai was, in short, less than spectacular.  A frequent complaint I have about pad thai is that the sauce is too sticky or too thin, one or the other extreme, which either results in the noodles sticking together too firmly or falling apart too loosely.  This pad thai did not have that problem, and in fact possessed the ideal viscosity.  Similarly, the bean sprouts and tofu were all well and good, as expected.

Where it really faltered was the taste of the sauce: too much fish sauce, not enough sugar.  And to put the nail in the coffin, the noodles were overcooked and unpalatably soggy.  The first bite immediately struck me as a chore to chew, never a good sign, and though the shrimp was very fresh and complemented the texture of the bean sprouts commendably, it could not save the dish from its critical fault.

Here’s a side note rant: what’s the deal with not de-tailing shrimp?  There is nothing gourmet, upscale, sophisticated, or classy about having to dig through your noodles to locate the shrimp and awkwardly have to make room on your already crowded plate to pry the tails off the end.  It’s not pleasant, so please restaurants, just de-tail them for us.  It’s annoying.

The other noodle dish we ordered, Drunken Noodles, saved the entire meal for me.  Despite the surprising cilantro also being completely obscured by the surrounding tastes, its slight spiciness was deliciously intertwined with the robustness of the flat noodle and crispy smack of sautéed vegetables, most noticeably the green bell peppers.  Quite a noodle dish indeed and I have not a single complaint about it.

For me, Thai food is a craving, a burning desire to eat unhealthy and to indulge in filling, savory morsels of salt and sugar, noodle and peanut.  Thai This had promise given its humorous décor and menu and its wide selection of dishes, but unfortunately it struck out at the bottom of the ninth.  A Thai restaurant that cannot claim a good pad thai is not one worth returning to, so I won’t be returning to Thai This anytime soon.

The Good: Huge menu and good drink selection from its Bamboo Bar; fanciful décor; inexpensive; quick and efficient service; excellent Drunken Noodles

The Bad: Dishes were relatively unoriginal, and attempts at uniqueness were unsuccessful; pad thai faltered; bamboo everywhere felt a bit contrived; not particularly memorable for anything

The Word: Despite lots of promise and rave reviews in the Zagat guide, I found Thai This to be unexciting, uninspiring, and all around disappointing.

As always, you can check out the entire photo set from the meal on my photo gallery page for more interior shots, another appetizer we got, and a few other tidbits I found funny.

Mark posted this on July 18, 2008 and is filed under Pics and Videos, Restaurants.

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