Pad Thai, it seems, especially in the UK, epitomises what Thai food is about; yet, it is not merely because the name of the dish contains the word “Thai”. It is the flavour combination – tamarind-sour with a hint of sweetness and not to aggressive chilli flakes – that lures many diners to Thai restaurants and request this particular kind of stir-fried noodle; and surely, the convenient factor of the dish – it takes minutes to cook and minutes to eat. Pad Thai vendors occupy and create bustle at many corners of Bangkok. No, you can’t really miss a Pad Thai stall if you pass by Thailand. In London, likewise, Pad Thai makes itself ordered and eaten in all Thai restaurants and if you pop into any Thai high street chain in London – Patara, Thai Square, Busaba and Rosa’s – it is very likely the diners next to you are feasting on their own dose of this street classic. Say, if you want an easy Thai night out in the West End, where should you get your Pad Thai? Which is the most authentic? Here are the facts and figures of my West End high street chain options.
Let’s start with what you should expect in your Pad Thai on the streets in Bangkok. Noodles but also a combo of dried shrimps, chopped sweet pickled turnip, fried tofu, crushed peanuts, egg, bean sprouts and chives. You’ll get prawns, too, though their size depends on how upmarket your Pad Thai stalls are. Thais usually serve their Pad Thai with a garnish of fresh beansprouts and banana blossoms to undercut the sweet-and-sourness of the fried noodle. But, let’s admit you’ll never find every ingredient i mention – let alone fresh banana blossoms – in your budget high street Pad Thai in the UK. So, where to go for a decent flavour compromise? If you want to see one, check out this post.
Are there not too many of Thai Squares? I headed for this chain on Shaftesbury Avenue and found two Pad Thai dishes on the menu: one with chicken and the other with prawns, which you’ll pay a few extra £ for. I ordered the latter, priced just above £10.
Ingredients ticked. There were bits of everything I mention in this Pad Thai. The Sen Chan noodle had good texture and not one but overcooked and so were the prawns. I spotted half a handful of carrot slices sautéed with the beansprouts and chives which did not do any harm to the dish. The flavours, however, were authentic but mild as if they were a little skint on tamarind sauce and sugar. No chilli was to be seen anywhere.
This is a more “fine dining” looking chain restaurant but the damage cost per meal isn’t much different from a dinner at any Thai Square. The Sen Chan Pad Thai – there is only the prawn combo on the menu priced at £9.95 – I had at their restaurant on Greek Street had all the bright and bold flavours with fresh springy prawns. Chilli flakes were already added to the noodle so you cannot opt out from this delectable heat. Flavour-wise, this was probably the closest you’d get off the street of Bangkok. The only down side was that there wasn’t much in the dish apart from the noodle, the prawns, the veg and some little sprinkle of crushed toasted peanuts. I could barely find egg and you can just forget about other bits I mentioned. But, it had all the flavours going. Miracle…
I have blogged about Rosa’s (here) and I know they can deliver really good Pad Thai but on my latest visit to their Soho outpost it wasn’t quite up to scratch. The chef appeared too heavy-handed the seasoning, which left my dish a little drowned in sweet tamarind syrup. That aside, Rosa’s Pad Thai was quite similar to Patara. There was some authentic taste there but not much else going on on the plate. The positive was that this was probably the most budget (£8.75) and authentic Pad Thai you’d find in the West End.
No photo available for this Pad Thai, I’m afraid as I stupidly deleted many of my meals before downloading them!!! Argh!!!!!!!! That said, you can check out my old Busaba post for photographic reference of their Pad Thai here. Since I first blogged about Busaba, I feel the chains are transmongrifying fast into Wagamama. I used to love their Pad Thai because it was so full of bits, all the ingredients I mentioned, with a little extra of grated green mango and crab meat as garnish. The flavours of the dish, however, didn’t taste as authentic as you would get in the above Thai restaurant. It was heated and sweet but a flavour similar to sweet chilli sauce rather than an actual tamarind based sauce. Price and size-wise, this was very large and priced at cuts-friendly £8.90. But, if you have to queue to get into this Soho branch, I’m not sure if you should bother.
Verdict? Patara (if you don’t mind paying service charge) and Rosa’s (if you do mind paying service charge). And you may now enjoy your Pad Thai.
Want my recipe? Feel free to send me an email
My head rating for Pad Thai at Thai Square, Patara, Rosa’s and Busaba Eathai says, “6, 8, 8, 7″.
My heart rating in the same order says, “6, 8, 7, 6″.
THAI SQUARE COVENT GARDEN
166-170 Shaftesbury Avenue
020 7836 7600
15 Greek Street
Tel. 020 7437 1071
48 Dean Street
Tel. 0207 494 1638
106-110 Wardour Street
Tel. 020 7255 8686