Phad Thai is a popular dish made in Thailand consisting of stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, bean sprouts, chicken or shrimp, and topped with chopped peanuts. Rumour has it that street vendors make the best Phad Thai so I decide to give it a try on the streets of Pattaya.
I’ve never understood why some foodies wax poetic about Phad Thai, a.k.a. “Thailand’s National Dish”. I mean, this is not Prime Rib. This is not Peking Duck. This is not even foie gras.
It’s not that I dislike the flavour. It’s just that I don’t think it’s anything special. But what I DON’T like is the texture of the rice noodles. I find them a bit gummy.
But then, I had never before eaten Phad Thai cooked by a vendor on the streets of Bangkok, let alone the streets of Pattaya …
Before I get any further, I have to clarify one thing: I’ve been to Thailand several times, Bangkok more often than Pattaya.
But in my untutored opinion, and based on my personal experience, the Thai food in Pattaya is better than the Thai food in Bangkok. Does that include Thai street food?
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way …
I’m in Pattaya, and I’m exploring the neighbourhood of a hotel I have just checked into, looking for a place either to eat dinner at or to buy something to take back to my hotel to eat for dinner in my hotel room.
I’m not having much luck unless I want to have Greek food for dinner. Sounds yummy, but I’m in Thailand, not Greece. So I give the taverna a pass as I keep walking, not having the slightest idea what I’m going to find.
I turn the corner (because, if truth be told, I’m afraid to cross the street).
As I keep walking, I pass a pale green building with an ostentatious Chinese style facade – the kind you would see in Chinatowns, but NEVER see in China itself.
There is also what appears to be a Chinese style Buddhist shrine out front. I check out the signage, and it turns out to be a supermarket. I think if worse comes to worse, I can pick up something at the market.
I cross the street at the first opportunity and head back in the direction of my hotel (and the supermarket).
Before I get to the supermarket, however, I see a food vendor … I look … I sniff … and I keep walking …
And I start thinking … And I turn around … And I walk back to the food vendor to take another look (and another sniff) …
There are bean sprouts and what appear to be spring onions and thinly sliced carrots, arranged in such a way that if you only want bean sprouts, you can only have bean sprouts.
Five dishes are listed on the vendor’s signage, and only four of them have English translations.
Of the translations, the only one I understand is Phad Thai, which – as I suggested earlier – is NOT my favourite Thai dish.
“Try it! You’ll Like It!”
I make eye contact with the kid, and he smiles at me. I’m not sure why.
Is it because I’m the first foreigner he has ever seen up close and personal (this is NOT the touristy part of town, after all)?
Is it because he is excited that a foreigner wants to eat something at the same spot he is going to eat something at? Or is he trying to tell me something?
That look on his face seems to be saying, “Try it, you’ll like it!”
The kid gets his takeaway, he walks off, and the vendor tries to tell me something that I don’t understand.
“Please Be Patient!”
In retrospect, I realize that the vendor is asking me to be patient because another customer is ahead of me in line – not that there is a line. She just doesn’t want me to think I’m being ignored.
That comes as a relief as she starts to input ingredients that I don’t particularly fancy.
Nothing disgusting, such as cow’s stomach or lizard gizzards or anything like that.
But there are those giant green leaves that I detest. She is ripping them up and throwing them into the wok. And it gets worse …
She throws in some leafy vegetables that don’t look too appetizing (have they been washed?) …
She cuts a tomato into fours and throws that in. She cuts a large green pepper into slices and throws that in. Then come spoonfuls of dry stuff followed by dollops of liquids from plastic bottles.
And I DO have to admit something. It is starting to smell AWFULLY good! Should I keep an open mind?
The vendor plates it, gives it to an elderly customer that has been lounging on the sidewalk, and the magic moment comes.
The vendor looks at me, and I say, “Phad Thai”. She points to the various ingredients to determine which ones I want her to include.
I point to the diced chicken (which is raw) and one of the four three types of noodles, three of which appear to have been pre-cooked and marinated.
When it comes to the dry powders, I indicate that I want EVERYTHING!
When the vendor gets to the dried chilies, I make a gesture to indicate that I want more because I LOVE spicy food and I don’t want her to tone it down because I’m a foreigner.
But the vendor thinks I don’t want any – I AM a foreigner, after all. We’re not known for our high tolerance of spice in the Land of Smiles.
So I try making another gesture to let her know that not only do I want some dried chilies, I actually would like LOTS of dried chilies!
“Sorry, But I Don’t Speak Thai!”
A woman who has joined the non-existent queue understands my gesture and laughs approvingly.
I don’t know what she says to the vendor, but the vendor adds two generous dollops of dried chilies, looks at me to make sure that’s what I want, and I give her an enthusiastic thumb’s up.
Suddenly, I remember how to say, “Sorry, but I don’t speak Thai,” in Thai, which seems to please the woman waiting in line.
First comes the chicken, next comes the egg, then comes the spices, the bean sprouts, and the liquids – but not necessarily in that order.
Ground peanuts come last.
The vendor plates my feast into a styrofoam container, and I must say, it is a VERY generous serving. It almost doesn’t fit.
She says something to the woman waiting in line as I hand her a 100 baht note, and the woman waiting in line smiles at me.
I have no idea how much change to expect, but I’m handed back a 50 baht note, the rough equivalent of HK$12.50 or US$1.50
I can’t wait to get back to my hotel to dig in. I pull a beer out of the refrigerator, sit down on my spacious balcony, and open the styrofoam container.
All I can say is, I now understand why so many foodies wax poetic about Thai street food (in general) and Phad Thai (in particular).
It bears ZERO resemblance to the Phad Thai I’ve had at five-star hotels or even at the working class cafes and restaurants I’ve eaten at.
The noodles aren’t the least bit gummy, and the taste is absolutely DELICIOUS!!!
I like it SOOOOO much, in fact, that I return the following night, order the same thing, take more photos, and try to tape a video of the woman cooking my mouth-watering meal.