“You ordered pad thai!!??” one of the chef’s daughters at Plant Love House exclaimed last night. “That’s not like you,” she countered when asked why she reacted with such shock. She’s rights, it’s not like me at all. I can probably count the number of times I’ve ordered the dish. The last time was over two years ago at Andy Ricker’s now shuttered Pok Pok Phat Thai. I like to think of it as the sweet and sour pork of Thai cuisine. It’s a “real dish” in Thai cuisine—just as sweet and sour pork is in China’s Dongbei region—that’s been Americanized.
I’ve eaten my way through most of the items, including the lovely noodle soups, on the menu at this family run joint in Elmhurst’s Thai Town, and have enjoyed most everything I tried from the specials board. So when I saw pad thai listed as a special I had a hunch it would be pretty good.
Given the option of chicken and squid or shrimp I went with the latter. About 10 minutes later a DIY platter of pad thai landed on the table. A tangle of bean sprouts, dried chili, sugar, lime, and crushed peanuts orbited a mass of noodles topped with shrimp and shot through with garlic chives and bits of dried tofu. There’s no way to mix everything without making a mess, but I did my best plucking the occasional bean sprout off the table as I worked.
The resulting galaxy of flavors and textures—sweet, spicy, nutty, sour and crunchy— was delicious, as pad Thai ought to be. Most versions are way off balance either too sweet or too nutty. Mine was too spicy but only because I availed myself of the khruang prung—the condiment caddy of dried chili, sugar, chili and lime juice, and fish sauce—and overdid it on the chili.
Plant Love House’s pad thai also had some lovely little bursts of crunchy salty pickled vegetables that gave it another dimension. The cook was kind enough to to show me the package of hua chaipo, a Thai style pickled daikon. “Thanks, now that I know the recipe I am going to open my own restaurant, Plant Joe House,” I joked as I wrote down the name.