Restaurant Review

Thai restaurant in Durham offers great tastes but timid spicing

CorrespondentMarch 16, 2012 

“Don’t 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 isn’t 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. Here’s my synopsis.

Prologue: It all began when Wiraporn Phoomsakha got laid off from the printing company where she’d 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 Vatasin’s 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, they’re 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 that’s supposed to sparkle with fish sauce, chiles and lime.

Thai coconut soup’s 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 isn’t. It’s 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, it’s a one at best.

That’s pretty consistently the case across the board, from the coconut soup (rated one chile) to Panang curry (two chiles). I’d suggest mentally subtracting one chile from the ratings, and ordering accordingly. If it’s two-chile heat you’re craving, specify that you want the dish “extra spicy” when you order it. And look serious when you’re saying it.

The restaurant’s namesake dish is authentically mild, though it’s 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 “Chef’s 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 correspondent’s 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 you’ve had a chance to order drinks, that sort of thing.

Chapter 4 – Sweet Seduction: Mango over sticky rice: if it’s 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. You’ve confirmed the truth in the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Next time, though, you’ll know to give the table of contents a careful reading.

Pad Thai

2425 Guess Road, Durham


Cuisine: Thai

Rating: * * 1/2

Prices: $$

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.

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection

The N&O’s 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.

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