On behalf of a well-respected travel site, a well-known travel writer recently visited Bangkok on a quest to find the “perfect pad Thai.” It was a noble, if not particularly novel idea resulting in a readable, educative story about how the dish is commonly prepared in Krung Thep, as well as its fuzzy origins and somewhat uncertain future, both in the Thai culinary world and in the gajillion bastardized, hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurants around the globe (though I’m not sure I buy the throwaway assertions about pad Thai having potentially “run its course.”)
However, I also found the notion quixotic and the findings ultimately self-evident, in that of course there’s no such thing as the “perfect” pad Thai because the quality, or lack thereof, of a given plate of the wok-fried goodness–or of any food, for that matter–is an entirely subjective matter. Some like it sweet and wet; some like it slightly sour and dry; others like it smoky and salty; still others like it served with some combination of these tastes and textures. If you’re a Westerner, you may like it triple-portioned and super-fucking sweet and peanuty.
(I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that style of pad Thai–I like authentic Neapolitan-style pizza as much as anybody, but I’ll just as readily polish off a large pie from Dominos every now and again–though compared to the real deal in Bangkok, Western pad Thai is not really pad Thai at all.)
Of course, the other thing about this is the inherent flaw of a white guy, however intimate with pad Thai’s various incarnations though he may be, traveling across the globe to deem which version of a foreign dish in a foreign land is or is not perfect. It’s like sending a Japanese girl to Holland to name the “perfect” Dutch cheese, or tasking a Canadian with finding the “best” Brazilian feijoada in Sao Paulo, or asking an American in Thailand to… oh, right.
It didn’t help, either, that the five pad Thai venues covered in the “quest” included a luxury hotel restaurant and an expat-favored Thai restaurant run by a white guy. (I’m sure the latter is super authentic and that I’m totally missing out because everybody I’ve ever talked to about it just fucking loves it so goddamn much, but when I walked in, blinded by a sea of whiteness, feeling like I’d been beamed back to Brooklyn, learing tattooed cool kids and all, I walked back out.)
Strangely in this quest, pad Thai from street vendors is summarily pooh-poohed with one sweeping statement about the writer not being “wowed by any of it,” and how his fantasy of “stumbling upon some tiny out-of-the-way street cart selling the best pad Thai [he’d] ever eaten” didn’t happen. Uh, okay.
At the end of the day it’s just an opinion piece, like this is an opinionated blog post, and I’m not trying to pick on anybody here; as I say, it’s an informative, sourced story written by an established writer with far more bylines (not to mention a well-reviewed book) than I. Travel writers are trusted, by their readers and by their commissioning editors and publications, to find and follow leads, to discern the good from the bad and the worthwhile from the skip-it, and report back with informed observations, conclusions, recommendations, and warnings–that is more or less our job, as it always has been.
We travel and we experience, we research and we write, and then we share and, hopefully, somebody pays us for it and somebody wants to read it.
In that sense, this writer’s quest for the “perfect” pad Thai was a successful one. We, the readers, learned about a commonly misunderstood (and poorly prepared) dish in most places outside Thailand, we heard from local chefs, and together with the writer we visited a range of restaurants serving it, tasting it through the writer’s notes.
And yet, as time passes, as travel and, indeed, our world becomes more and more of a packaged product, I’ve become increasingly wary of what I think is an epidemic of “I Deem This That Journalism;” in other words, “this is the best craft beer in London” or “this the best sushi in Tokyo.” To be fair, there are many far, far more egregious examples of this than the “perfect pad Thai quest,” and hey, guilty as charged. I’ve done it, too, because, once more, the travel writer’s job (one of them, that is) is to share informed opinions and recs, knowing that everyone–like, say, a dickhead such as myself–will not agree with your findings.
But surely I’m not the only one fatigued by the practice of deeming this and that and that over there “the best” or not the best, “perfect” or not perfect. I can’t be only person irked when someone like, oh, Andrew Zimmern puts yet another “gross” or not gross thing in his or her mouth while everyone waits, rapt, for his or her grand proclamation of its worthiness. (I’ll never forget the episode where Zimmern spits out durian and makes a big, stupid scene while struggling for something witty to say about how much he dislikes it–while the durian farmer looks on. That, actually, was the last time I ever watched a second of his show.)
Perhaps I’m unnecessarily hung up on semantics, or more specifically on a lack of softening modifiers, i.e. “Bangkok’s 10 Best Pad Thai Restaurants” vs. “10 of Bangkok’s Best Pad Thai Restaurants.“ Is there a minor, yet important distinction here? Am I crazy for feeling there’s a world of difference between the two, particularly when the presenting writer is writing about something in a galaxy far, far away from his or her own?
Maybe, but I think there is one. In fact, I deem it so.
The pad Thai pictured above is a plate of the best pad Thai in Bangkok, prepared by an established street vendor camped out on the corner of Chit Lom Alley and Soi Rajadamri 2 most weekdays, from 3:30 or so until 7pm or so. It pairs quite well with a big bottle or can of Chang Classic, available right across the soi at 7-11; don’t mind the pack of sleeping dogs at the entryway, they’re harmless.
For more ideas for the first-timer, see this post on what to do in Bangkok (though what’s “the best” is up to you…)