Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain likened his first experience tasting Thai food to “like discovering a color I never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colors.” With so many vibrant colors available, most people don’t settle for one fairly basic color (let’s say black) in a box full of crayons. Unfortunately, settling is precisely what many diners tend to do when eating at Thai restaurants. Although the menu may be replete with dozens of exotic options, many diners focus exclusively on ordering that one Thai dish with which they’re familiar, that ubiquitous dish more innocuous than bold, the dish which provides flavor without venturing outside the safe comfort zone that bespeaks of the unknown. For many diners, that one dish is Pad Thai.
Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp, is the type of guy who has explored every crayon in the box and played with every color combination imaginable. He’s the kaleidoscopic, polychromatic, tie-dye guy who’s too whimsical and creative to remain in a monogamous relationship with any one basic color. Howie long ago gave up on Pad Thai because he wanted to explore the myriad of other options available at Thai restaurants. Here’s how he describes the basic black equivalent in a menu full of vibrant colors: “Pad Thai is “essentially the spaghetti ‘n meatballs of Thai food,”…”the starter dish,”…”the sweet, sorta hum-drum intro.”…”Pad Thai is so user friendly: noodles, chicken, lime, peanuts. Yummy stuff but pedestrian.” It’s a sentiment we share.
Howie doesn’t denounce Pad Thai as an inedible or bad dish. He just doesn’t find it as interesting or delicious as other options available at Thai restaurants. We also share in that opinion. So, when Howie recently proclaimed he’d experienced “the best darn Pad Thai I’ve ever had” at a Duke City Thai restaurant, my curiosity was piqued. Fittingly that restaurant is the Pad Thai Cafe. He reasoned that “when you’re ordering from a place called the Pad Thai Café, you have to try the flagship.” That made great sense to me. Pad Thai (the restaurant as well as the dish) is located at the sprawling Talin Market on Louisiana just north of Central.
As to why Pad Thai is so popular that some diners never deviate from ordering it, attribute that, at least in part, to more savvy diners who, when introducing less worldly friends to Thai food, steer them toward Pad Thai. Perhaps, they reason, Pad Thai is less exotic and intimidating than other dishes on the menu and it resembles Chinese stir-fried dishes with which the neophytes might be familiar. As with many other Thai dishes, Pad Thai does offer an intricate balance of textures and flavors—salty, sour, sweet and piquant (added to taste in the form of chilies). Bean sprouts and peanuts add a subtle though desirable crunch, a foil for the soft rice noodles and protein of your choice. Finding Pad Thai’s combination of spices and seasonings appealing and its flavors mild and easy on the palate, many diners never “graduate” beyond Pad Thai and don’t ever try anything else on the menu.
As of 2007, there were at least 11,600 Thai restaurants operating across the globe, many of them bearing the name Pad Thai. It’s a good bet that almost–if not all–those 11,600 Thai restaurants offer Pad Thai on their menus. Every one of Albuquerque’s two dozen or so Thai restaurants certainly does. In 2014, Andrea Lin, erstwhile restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, published a primer on finding Pad Thai in the metropolitan area. She sampled Pad Thai at six Thai restaurants, finding desirable qualities in each and shortcomings in some. Her observations didn’t include much hyperbole or exaltation. That’s typically how it goes with Pad Thai. Even its most ardent aficionados don’t describe it in terms reserved for more transformative dishes.
Having fewer than a dozen tables in a rather Lilliputian space benefits the Pad Thai Café greatly in that the wonderful aromas emanating from the kitchen aren’t distributed beyond the relatively confined space. You’ll imbibe those aromas with alacrity even as they increase your appetite and cause involuntary salivation. Those enticing aromas preface a dining experience sure to be memorable. The menu is familiar though not quite the compendium larger restaurants offer. Still, you’ll find most of the dishes with which you’ve fallen in love at other Thai restaurants—and a Pad Thai dish that may well be the best in the city. But, I digress.
As is human nature, once you’re comfortably seated you’ll take a gander at the restaurant’s thematic trappings. More than at any Thai restaurant we’ve visited in Albuquerque, the Pad Thai Café’s walls are festooned with framed photographs of Thailand’s royal family. Thankfully (for the sake of your appetite) you won’t have much time to ponder restaurant walls adorned with the smiling countenances of The Donald or Hillary because a complimentary pair of egg rolls will soon capture your focus. The golden-hued, mostly vegetable egg rolls are served with a bright red sweet and sour sauce. They’re quite good, a portend of appealing appetizers soon to follow.
19 March 2016: Make one of them the chicken satay. Satay is Thailand’s version of shish kebab, a savory meat Popsicle constructed from skewered strips of beef, chicken or lamb and designed to be dipped in a traditional peanut sauce or cucumber sauce. In Thailand, satay is one of the more popular street foods, commonly purchased directly from food stalls (so why isn’t there at least one food truck in Albuquerque dedicated to the proliferation of satay?). The satay at Pad Thai Café is terrific, lightly coated in a yellow curry and imbued with a pronounced grilled flavor. Six satay are served per order and they’re so good, you may order a second batch.
19 March 2016: Though the satay stands out on its own, the two dipping sauces elevate the skewers to perhaps best in town quality. Unlike far too many peanut sauce concoctions in the Duke City, the Pad Thai Café’s version isn’t as cloying as a Reese’s peanut butter cup. It’s got a nice balance of savory and sweet flavors. Texturally, the sauce is more ground peanuts than peanut butter. Even better is the cucumber sauce, a delicious dish of chopped cucumbers, peanuts, red peppers and red onions in a tangy-vinegary sauce. The cucumber sauce provides a pleasant balance of sweet, sour, savory and piquant with no one overly dominant flavor.
19 March 2016: Thai fish cakes (tod mun pla) are not to be missed at the Pad Thai Café. Sold on many a street corner in Thailand, this street food favorite makes for a wonderful appetizer at sit-down restaurants, too. Although ten fish cakes constitute an order, some of the fish cakes are barely bite-sized (though their flavors are much larger). Infused with a red curry which imparts a pungent flavor, the fish cakes are lightly battered and wok-fried to a golden-hue. The consistency of each is firm, but “bouncy,” meaning they have a nice “give” when you bite down on them. The cucumber sauce is a perfect foil for the fish cakes.
31 March 2016: Pot stickers are an extremely important part of the Chinese New Year’s feast which is celebrated throughout Asian countries such as Thailand with a significant Chinese population. Not only are pot stickers believed to bring wealth, it is said that as they cook, they recover family wishes of generations past. Whether or not the Pad Thai Café’s pot stickers bring you fortune, you will believe yourself fortunate to have them on your plate. These golden-hued dumplings are more crispy than any other deep-fried pot stickers in Albuquerque. They’re also served with the best dipping sauce. While most dipping sauces tend to be a rather humdrum derivative of soy sauce, this sauce is an amalgam of pepper, garlic, soy, chili and perhaps other seasonings. It’s a lively sauce with a balance of heat, savoriness and sweetness. Eight pot stickers are served per order.
19 March 2016: The massaman curry is superb though you’re well cautioned to spoon on the accompanying rice in moderation. Too much rice and you risk a curry dish that isn’t as moist as you might like and won’t be as piquant as fire-eaters enjoy. Prepared to your exacting specifications for heat (Thai spice for me), the curry is counterbalanced with coconut milk, potatoes and crushed peanuts. This spicy yet sweet concoction provides a pleasing layer of flavor to your protein choice (pork works very well) and the potatoes. It’s a massaman curry with a wonderfully balanced flavor profile.
If you’ve noticed my use of the adjective “balanced” throughout this review, that’s by design. Perhaps more than at any other Thai eatery in Albuquerque, the Pad Thai Café is successful at creating and serving dishes with the balance of flavors that is truly the heart of Thai cooking. Every Thai chef should strive to imbue every dish with at least two of the five major flavors (sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter), a sort of yin and yang balance. In my estimation, too many of Albuquerque’s Thai restaurants forego balance and serve dishes which are overwhelmingly sweet (some would say “Americanized”).
19 March 2016: One of the biggest culprits is Pad Thai (the dish, not the restaurant). Sure you can squeeze some lime to give it a slight sour bite or sprinkle on chilies to give it piquancy, but often the results are more like an adulterated dessert than a savory, balanced dish. I suspect Howie discerned the balance of flavors in the Pad Thai Café’s signature dish. That balance allows you to appreciate the savory flat rice noodles and crushed peanuts, the pleasant funkiness of the fish sauce and slight sourness from tamarind (which accounts for the dish’s reddish hue) without worrying about tooth decay from a cloying dish. Howie may have undersold how good this Pad Thai dish is…and it’s even better when you heat it up the next day because you probably won’t finish the generous portion on your plate.
31 March 2016: You might think that a dish called drunken noodles would be made with copious amounts of alcohol, but that’s typically not the case. Several theories abound as to the unique name. One posits that the dish was devised by someone who came home drunk and created the dish from available ingredients (why then isn’t it called “drunkard’s noodles?).” Still another origin theory attributes the name to the dish’s sloppy, drunken appearance. This theory has little credibility unless you really care about the aesthetic qualities of the dish. Most of us are interested only in its deliciousness. The Pad Thai Café’s version is the best I’ve ever had—stir-fried wide rice noodles with fish sauce, chili, garlic, basil, baby corn, carrots and broccoli and your choice of protein (beef, chicken, pork or shrimp). The concoction is stir-fried with chili added to your exacting degree of piquancy (still another theory as to this dish’s name has to do with how much beer you’ll drink to combat its heat). There are many elements on this dish that make it a star: velvety rice noodles impregnated with sauce, a balance of flavors that appeal to different taste buds and the addictive properties of capsaicin from the chilies.
31 March 2016: Several years ago, I visited a sandwich shop in Charleston, South Carolina which had recently been named one of the best 21 sandwich shops in America. In a head-scratching moment as inexplicable as the popularity of Justin Bieber, this restaurant essayist visited one of America’s most heralded best sandwich shops and ordered…hold on to your seats…laab. Yes, laab. Gasp! Laab is a very popular “cooked salad” typically found on the menu at Thai and Lao restaurants, not sandwich shops.
Laab is essentially a minced meat (pork, chicken or beef) dish with healthful elements of a salad. The Pad Thai Café’s version is made with grilled minced pork, lime juice, fish sauce, chili powder, roasted rice powder, shallots, green onions, Kafir lime leaves, cilantro and mint. There are few salads as refreshing courtesy of fresh sprigs of Kafir lime, cilantro and mint which counterbalance the heat and pungency of the fish sauce and chili powder. This is not a boring composed salad; it’s an adventure in complementary and disparate flavors working very well together.
19 March 2016: Our inaugural visit transpired when mangoes weren’t in season so we didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy our favorite mangoes and sticky rice dessert. Sensing our disappointment, our server offered to put together a dish she promised we’d enjoy. It was a magnificent masterpiece, a dessert worthy of a place in the pantheon of great Duke City desserts. Picture a scoop of mango ice cream (replete with chunks of mango) and a scoop of coconut ice cream atop layers of sticky rice and coconut milk with shaved almonds tossed in for balance. This dessert should be a permanent fixture on the menu.
31 March 2016: When you discover a restaurant as amazing as the Pad Thai Cafe, you’ve got to share it with your friends. For the most part that means sharing my observations on this blog. Among my cherished readers are three of my very best friends, fellow foodies who’ll drop what they’re doing to join me for a meal to validate the veracity of the claims on my blog. My second visit to the Pad Thai Cafe was with Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott: Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate; and the dazzling Deanell Collins. They were all surprised at the diversity, explosiveness and balance of flavors in every dish we enjoyed. By meal’s end, there was near unanimous consensus that the Pad Thai Cafe is the Duke City’s very best Thai restaurant.
Named for a dish that had never before “wowed” me, the Pad Thai Café would be a restaurant we’d have on our regular rotation if we had a regular rotation. It’s one of the very best Thai restaurants in the Duke City.
Pad Thai Cafe
110 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 March 2016
1st VISIT: 19 March 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Chicken Satay, Tod Mun Pla, Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Mango Ice Cream with Sticky Rice, Egg Rolls, Laab, Drunken Noodles, Potstickers