Dont judge a book by its cover was the subject line in an email from an enthusiastic foodie encouraging me to check out Pad Thai. The location isnt particularly inviting, she wrote, but the place is clean and cheery on the inside, and the food is good. She especially recommended the summer rolls and spicy basil beef.
Never one to pass up a tip about a potential hole-in-the-wall discovery, I decided to peek inside the covers of this recent addition to the local catalog of Thai titles. Heres my synopsis.
Prologue: It all began when Wiraporn Phoomsakha got laid off from the printing company where shed worked for 10 years. A native of Thailand who had come to the States in 1999, the resourceful Phoomsakha persuaded her husband, Vatasin, to partner with her in opening a Thai restaurant.
The couple settled on a location in a modest brick building just off I-85 that had for over a decade been home to the Vietnamese restaurant Kim Son. They spruced the place up, decorating it attractively on a shoestring budget. Colorful batik elephant print tablecloths added a distinctive note to an otherwise standard Thai restaurant decor.
The couple opened the doors to Pad Thai last summer, with Vatasins brother, Sorasak an experienced chef who has worked locally at Thai Lanna, Champa and Twisted Noodles in charge of the kitchen.
Chapter 1 A Tantalizing Beginning: The summer rolls (listed on the menu as fresh roll ) turn out to be every bit as delightful as my tipster suggested. Featuring a pastel pastiche of shrimp, chicken breast, carrot, lettuce, mint and noodles visible through translucent rice paper wrappers, theyre considerably larger than most and a bargain at $5.95 for two.
Shrimp in blankets of crisp egg roll wrapper are another fetching starter. So is chicken satay, well-seared but still moist on bamboo skewers, and served with a pair of tasty dipping sauces: traditional peanut, and a lightly sweet rice vinegar punctuated with finely diced cucumber and red onion.
The first hint of discord in the Pad Thai story takes the form of the classic beef salad, yum nua. The vegetables are fresh and the petal-thin beef tender if ragged. But the dressing is a bland shadow of the ideal for a Thai classic thats supposed to sparkle with fish sauce, chiles and lime.
Thai coconut soups flavor is likewise lacking in character, though fresh mushroom, scallion, and tomato are welcome garnishing touches. The soup and salad will prove to be foreshadowings of a recurring motif: emphasis on fresh ingredients too often undermined by timid spicing.
Chapter 2 Yearning for More Spice: Green curry is one of several dishes on the menu marked with two chiles, icons indicating that the dish is very hot. It isnt. Its flavorful, mind you, and chock-a-block with snappy green beans, julienne red and green bell peppers, and basil. But on a scale of zero to two chiles, its a one at best.
Thats pretty consistently the case across the board, from the coconut soup (rated one chile) to Panang curry (two chiles). Id suggest mentally subtracting one chile from the ratings, and ordering accordingly. If its two-chile heat youre craving, specify that you want the dish extra spicy when you order it. And look serious when youre saying it.
The restaurants namesake dish is authentically mild, though its the sweetest rendition of pad thai I recall ever having. Otherwise, the dish is a respectable rendition of the traditional medley of rice noodles, bean sprouts, egg, scallion and ground peanuts.
Crispy duck, one of a handful of listings under the Chefs Special heading, is worthy of its special place on the menu.
But my favorite among all the dishes I sampled over the course of two visits is found among the regular entrees. Spicy basil beef serves up bright, crunchy vegetables and lean, exceptionally tender beef in a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and flavors riddled with basil leaves. Once again, my email correspondents tip proves to be on the money.
Chapter 3 Lost in the Weeds? Both times I dined at Pad Thai once on a weeknight and again on a weekend there was only one server on the floor. While friendly and enthusiastic, she was clearly overwhelmed at times. As a result, the meal felt rushed and confused entrees arriving midway through appetizers, server hurrying to place the appetizer order before youve had a chance to order drinks, that sort of thing.
Chapter 4 Sweet Seduction: Mango over sticky rice: if its available, get it. Tropically fragrant and artfully garnished with black sesame seeds and a drizzle of coconut cream, it will seduce you into planning a return visit to Pad Thai. Youve confirmed the truth in the saying dont judge a book by its cover. Next time, though, youll know to give the table of contents a careful reading.
2425 Guess Road, Durham
Rating: * * 1/2
Atmosphere: modestly furnished, traditional Thai
Noise level: low
Service: friendly but often rushed and confused
Recommended: fresh rolls, chicken satay, spicy basil beef, mango over sticky rice
Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection
The N&Os critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * * Extraordinary * * * * Excellent. * * * Above average. * * Average. * Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.