Look near the top of any Thai restaurant menu in America, and you're sure to find one Thai dish in particular: Pad Thai.
However, as chef Nattapon "Nat" Thitathan explained to me in a recent email, there's not just one style of Pad Thai. The popular street food —rice noodles stir fried with egg and vegetables in a sweet and tangy sauce — varies depending which part of Thailand you visit.
This might come as news to some fans of Thai restaurants in the U.S., where Thitathan has heard customers complain that their Pad Thai isn't "authentic" because it doesn't match their past experiences with the dish. He reached out to tell me, yes, that Pad Thai probably is authentic, but that, "The cooks probably just came from a different region of Thailand."
Different from, say, Bangkok in central Thailand, where the tamarind paste, meat, and vegetable takes of Pad Thai we typically see in San Diego may be found.
Central style is just one offering of The Pad Thai Stand, which serves a variety of Pad Thai dishes at weekly farmers markets. Thitathan operates the stand, and when I paid an anonymous visit to his Hillcrest booth, he was downright evangelical in telling customers the varied Pad Thai experiences. "I want you to dream about Pad Thai all week," he told my friend as a pile of noodles, chicken, and vegetables sizzled on a flat top grill.
While he can list no fewer than ten different Pad Thai styles, here he offers a mix of four: Northern, Central, Southern, and Ayutthaya, which is a city 50 miles north of Bangkok. All are available with vegetables, chicken, or shrimp.
His northern take hails from Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand near the border of Myanmar, incorporating peanut oil and Massaman curry into the tamarind sauce base. The southern take — inspired by the town of Chaiya, on the long, slender Malay peninsula Thailand shares with Malaysia — pairs the tamarind with chili peppers, shallots, and roasted coconut milk.
The Ayutthaya takes a different approach altogether, replacing tamarind with a mixture of dates and cranberries. Thitathan says either northern or southern styles can be made with the base Ayutthaya sauce, but I went for the standard version with vegetables, which include cabbage, water chestnuts. To experience the difference, I tried a tamarind base for both northern and southern styles, with chicken. All three featured copious amounts of mung bean sprouts.
I found the Ayutthaya Pad Thai to be most intriguing. Due to the inclusion of cranberries, I went in thinking it might prove more tart than those with a tamarind base, but the dates were prevalent, giving it an earthier quality. All three included a touch of cane sugar to lend sweetness, but the Ayutthaya wound up the least sweet, which I liked.
The northern style tasted both the sweetest and most tart. The curry paste and peanut flavors did add complex midrange flavors to balance the tamarind, particularly noticeable in the bits of fried egg, but fans of brighter Southeast Asian dishes will likely gravitate to this version.
The southern, Chaiya gets my vote. The coconut came through subtly, the chili peppers less so. The balanced spiciness aided the dish in my opinion. I might be more likely to order Pad Thai in restaurants if it tasted like this.
But Pad Thai's most commonly a street food, so ordering at a farmers market seems just about right.
The Pad Thai Stand may be found at Oceanside's sunset market on Thursdays, Del Mar on Saturdays, Hillcrest on Sundays, and one at the Lawrence Welk resort on Monday afternoons.