#1: Aroy Thai
4654 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 (map); 773-275-8360; aroythaichicago.com
#2: Thai Lagoon
2322 West North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-489-5747; thai-lagoon.com
2308 West Leland Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625 (map); 773-334-9055
Remember the first time you tried pad Thai? If you're not, you know, Thai, it was probably a moment of genuine discovery, one great step towards discovering the noodles of Asia. But whenever people ask for advice about Thai food in Chicago, it's not the dish they're usually asking about. Instead, we spout off tales of "secret" menus, delicately fried delights, and fiery salads. Though its the first Thai dish most of us try, pad Thai is also the one that gets left behind the fastest. Answer this: when was the last time you ever had great pad Thai. Not serviceable, filling, or adequate pad Thai; but truly extraordinary, life-changing pad Thai? Yeah, we're not sure either.
But we're nothing if not curious, so we sprinted off to Lincoln Square and visited the four of the most respected Thai restaurants in town, figuring one of them would serve us an earth-shattering pad Thai. Instead, we left confused and with belly aches. It wasn't that all the pad Thai was bad, we just didn't love any of them. Plus, we felt guilty. Here we were sitting in some of best Thai restaurants in town, ones stuffed with dishes so wonderfully spicy that you sweat just thinking about them. Yet, we ordered pad Thai, and every mushy, sugar-coated noodle felt like the owner punishing us for ordering it. We needed help.
Can You Find Authentic Pad Thai in Chicago?
Taking a step back to do some research, we searched for the most in-depth examination of pad Thai online. That led us directly to Leela Punyaratabandhu's five part investigation of the dish on her blog, She Simmers. By pure luck, Leela not only lives in Chicago, but she also writes the My Thai Cooking column for Serious Eats. Surely, she'd have all the answers we needed. Perhaps, she'd even do all the work for us!
That was not the case—at all. "My experience has been the same as yours," she wrote in an email, "I have all but given up trying to find pad Thai that is made the same way it is in Thailand." This is even though the components of pad Thai are "common knowledge to every Pad Thai eater in Thailand," leading her to believe that when "Thai restauranteurs in the US make Pad Thai for themselves and their family, they make it differently than when they make it for their diners."
The only option was to judge pad Thai by a different criteria. Leela stressed that we should look for the "right noodle texture" and make sure to avoid "a no-no ingredient such as soy sauce (especially dark sweet soy) or ketchup/tomato sauce."
Once it became clear that we couldn't expect to discover authentic pad Thai (i.e., the same kind of pad Thai served in Thailand), it became a moot point. So, instead, the question became, Who has the tastiest rendition of this Americanized take the Thai original? And there's a lot to like when it comes to America pad Thai. The best sauces we tried had a sweet-savory-sour complexity—helped along by a squeeze of lime—that proved alluring. Most restaurants knew their way around a shrimp, as well, expertly stir-frying the little guys. But the centerpiece of the best pad Thai plates we ate were the rice noodles. When they're firm and pliant and not too clingy, they can be really enjoyable and comforting.
Here's the criteria we came up with:
- Noodles: (10 points) These should be distinct and not stick together. They should also be springy and bouncy, not soft and mushy. Color from the wok is also a plus.
- Sauce: (10 points) There should be some balance between the sour and sweet, with a strong tamarind flavor leading the way.
- Shrimp: (5 points) We've never had good chicken in pad Thai before, so we decided to go with shrimp. They should be plump and juicy.
- Garnishes: (5 points) As far as we're concerned, the more merrier. Ground peanuts add texture and depth, but don't forget about the scrambled bits of egg. Bean sprouts, carrots, and cabbage are also welcome for their crunch. Firm slices of tofu also help bulk the dish out.
- Overall: (10 points) Do all the different elements come together in the end? Would you actually order this again?
We had theories. At first, we assumed that the most respected Thai restaurants in town would serve the best pad Thai. But then we wondered if this was all off. Perhaps the best pad Thai comes from the places that make the most of it. They'd have the most practice, right? In the end, we went with a mix of both; we included the most critically acclaimed places, along with those with high Yelp scores.
- Aroy Thai
- Hot Woks Cool Sushi
- Opart Thai
- Penny's Noodle Shop
- Spoon Thai
- Star of Siam
- Sticky Rice
- Tac Quick
- Thai Lagoon
- Thai Village
- Thalia Spice
It may not completely live up to the authentic standards, but Aroy Thai's pad Thai sure as hell tastes great. Featuring bouncy noodles coated in a light and lively sauce, this is one of the only bowls we finished and then thought about ordering another. Though we hoped to find a collection of solid options, Aroy ran away with the contest. It wasn't even close.
Check out the rest of the picks by clicking on the slideshow. Did we miss your favorite spot? Let us know in the comments!
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