I absolutely love pad thai, but that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until I tried real pad thai in Thailand that I became addicted. Now I’m constantly in search of great pad thai as I travel the world, but I’ve found can be quite difficult to find the real stuff.
When I was a young child, my mom took me to a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. I didn’t really enjoy the food, and I was particularly unimpressed by the fried bananas.
Fast forward 30 years. I landed in Bangkok, Thailand for the first time in October 2015. A local university student in my dorm offered to pick lunch up for me while I got settled. I might have thought it a little corny when she brought me a styrofoam box of pad thai, but that changed after my first bite.
So why is the pad thai in Thailand so much better? As far as I can say, the ingredients are just a little different. Whether it’s the water they use, the quality of the soil, the plant varieties or the oil, everything combines to make it so much better. It also has a very distinctive smell almost impossible to find outside Thailand.
A year later, I brought my brother out to Thailand for the first time. Before coming out, I asked him what his favorite food in the world was. Without hesitation, he said pad thai. I said, “Great, because you’ve never had pad thai.”
“What are you talking about?” he replied. “I just said that it’s my favorite food. I eat it all the time.”
“I know. But you’ve never had real pad thai. You’ll see.”
I picked him up from the airport, brought him into the city center, dropped his stuff off at the hostel, and took him straight to the first street food truck serving pad thai we could find (not hard, considering they’re everywhere!). We paid for our portions – about $1 each – and he took his first bite.
The expression on his face clearly said he had died and gone to heaven. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ve never had real pad thai! This is the best!”
To be fair, it was good, but not the best. Over the next few years, I found much better places around to order pad thai from. My favorite was at Moustache Pad Thai in Chiang Mai, where the chef wore a mustache (uncharacteristic for a Thai) and served one bowl of pad thai after another to a long line of customers every night from his food truck.
You can find some amazing plates of pad thai at fancy restaurants too, but there’s really no reason to do so. The street food trucks and carts, as well as the curbside shacks, serve almost uniformly delicious dishes. You can find them as cheap as $0.50 for a portion, although they do get more expensive in the touristy parts of Thailand (such as Phuket and Krabi). There’s certainly no reason to blow your budget on a $10 plate of pad thai at a fancy restaurant.
It’s not to say you can’t find excellent quality pad thai around the world. I keep trying to in my travels, and sometimes I find Thai food which is just as good as the street food trucks in Thailand. I remember one day walking through the world-famous Borough Market in London and whipping around to find the source of that distinctive smell of real Thai food (it was a small stand in the Green Market). I also have a restaurant in Edinburgh that I regularly frequent called Thailander, with a mother and her son from Chiang Mai cooking all the dishes.
If you love Thai food, I have two recommendations. Either get to Thailand as soon as you can to try real pad thai and see just how good it can be, or never go and don’t get a standard with which to compare every Western dish of pad thai.