we want Thai takeout all the time. Thai food masterfully walks a delicate line between salty, spicy, sour, and sweet, perhaps no better demonstrated than in pad Thai. Undeniably the most ubiquitous and oft-ordered dish in American-Thai restaurants, it's perfection. From the slight funk of fish sauce to the peanutty topping to the just-a-little-chewy noodles to the fresh squeeze of lime juice brightening it all up… sorry, what were we saying? Oh, right. Pad Thai. While it's an American favorite, there are a lot of other sleeper hits waiting to be discovered on your local Thai takeout menu. We asked the chefs at our favorite Sacramento Thai restaurants to ID the best dishes you're not ordering…yet.
"Tasty and comforting," is how Ann Redding, co-owner of NYC's Uncle Boonsrestaurant describes this street food dish. Also often listed as lard na or lad na, it's comprised of wide rice noodles in a gravy—usually with Chinese broccoli, Redding adds. If you can find it on your takeout menu, order it! Just don't forget Redding's rule: "Must request the chiles soaked in vinegar to season [it] with. Otherwise it's just not right."
Fight an impending hangover (or just hanger) with Pad Kee Mao. Photo: Flickr/minhimalism
Pad Kee Mao
The name means "drunken noodle." It's a dish Thai street vendors sell to tipsy party-goers, and it's also Leah Cohen of NYC's Pig and Khao's pick for a satisfying late night meal. Like Laad Naa, this dish is made with wide rice noodles. "They're similar to Chow Fun noodles," explains Cohen: "Spicy, sweet, and salty, with Chinese broccoli, eggs, onion, meat, chiles, garlic, soy, fish sauce… a little oyster sauce." In other words: A little bit of everything. This dish is saucy and sticky and indulgent, which makes it ideal for both sopping up too much booze and for random Tuesday nights after a long day of work.
Khao Pad Kapi
This dish is briny and funky, thanks to shrimp paste. It's fried rice that's typically accompanied with sweet pork, shrimp, egg, green mango, shallot, and long beans. Redding calls it out as one of her all-time favorites.
Psst—we have a recipe for easy weeknight Thai-style larb, too. Photo: Linda Xiao
"The first time I had larb in Thailand was insane," says Cohen, explaining why she loves this simple dish so much. It's comprised of ground meat (duck is Cohen's favorite, but you'll also frequently see pork, chicken, or beef) that's been cooked in water and mashed up with a spoon and lime juice, shallot, cilantro, fish sauce, and tons of chiles. It's seriously spicy and aggressively seasoned—which is why it comes with a side of raw veggies, like cabbage, carrots, and lettuce. "The raw veg cuts through the heat level and acts as a palate cleanser." Unlike sautéed ground meat, larb doesn't become caramelized, but what it lacks in crispy bits, it more than makes up for in flavor.
Pad Kra Pow
"Everyone in Thailand eats this once a week," says chef Jet Tila of this spicy basil stir-fry.This dish is made by sautéing chiles and garlic in a hot wok, then adding ground meat along with peppers, onions, fish sauce, and palm sugar—all hit with a big handful of sweet or Thai basil. "The dish has been adapted regionally," explains Tila, so you'll sometimes see it with mint instead of basil. "Order it by saying 'Kra Pow,' and then the protein of your choice," says Tila—"but you have to eat it with a hard-fried runny egg on top, and over jasmine rice."
This massaman curry comes from Uncle Boons. Photo: Marcus Nilsson
This spice-forward curry from Southern Thailand is one of the country's most famous dishes, and a great break from the green curry routine. "It's a Southern-style curry," explains Alex McCoy of D.C.'s Alfie's restaurant." Its influenced by Arabic cooking in that the spices—green and black cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, and nutmeg—are deeply toasted in the pan before being cooked down with garlic and shallots. "It has a wonderful roasted flavor," he says, adding that it has raisiny-tart notes thanks to tamarind, palm sugar, and fish sauce. A flourish of chopped peanuts adds crunch. Still on the fence? Take it from McCoy: "If you like beef stew, you'd love Massaman curry."
Don't discount this egg omelet. It's dynamite in its simplicity, according to Tila. The eggs are whipped to a frothy, airy frenzy with fish sauce, sugar, and soy sauce. Unlike a classic French-style omelet, Kai Jeow should be golden-brown. It's eaten with rice, a protein, and sriracha. "People put sriracha on everything and that's bullsh*t," says Tila. "But this is one thing your really should eat it with."
Pad See Ew. Let's talk more about that sauce. Photo: Flickr/specialkrb
Pad See Ew
Are you sick of those wide rice noodles yet? (No.) "These are basically pan-fried rice noodles with egg, Chinese broccoli, and your protein of choice," says Tila. The star ingredient is what sets this dish apart from laad na: a sweet soy sauce made with molasses. "It's nice and dark, with a sweet-salty balance." In fact, Tila thinks this dish is a shining example of the inherent complexity of Thai food. "I don't think that Americans have made Thai food too sweet—it's just that the spice and acid are often missing. And anyway, if it's not a little sweet it's not authentically Thai." This dish often hits the bullseye.
Papaya Salad with Roast Chicken and Grilled Pork
You may have encountered papaya salad, but Ngam's Hong Thaimee encourages you to take it to the next level: "This is a traditional Thai pairing," she explains. "The three are frequently eaten together." The chicken is often skewered, and sticky rice will come with. "At Thai street carts, the spice level is often customized," she explains. "People think Thai food is spicy, but it's a matter of taste."
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