Slurped: Of Defining 'Good' Noodles, and Pad Kee Mao
This is the pad kee mao from Ploy Thai in Elmhurst, and it is currently my favorite pad kee mao. I like it for two very specific reasons, reasons which had me thinking about the nature of food criticism. That is to say, I can offer the reasons why I believe certain attributes to be important, and I can attempt to convince you that my reasons are the right reasons. But what are those right reasons, and why are they right?
For instance, I believed for years that practically everyone on the planet would prefer a juicy steak to a non-juicy steak, regardless of degree of doneness. But recently I had dinner with a woman who insisted that what she preferred most of all was a lean steak, cooked until it was absolutely beyond done.
"Like...cardboard?" I asked. As soon as I said it I regretted my choice of words.
But the woman nodded enthusiastically and said, "Yes, just like cardboard."
Now this had me reconsidering exactly what it is that I think I'm doing every week when I tell you that I think something is "good." Must I qualify everything with the claim, if you like x attributes, then you will like y dish? And if not y, then not x? No, obviously that doesn't follow. Because y dish could either be a) bad (duh) or b) just an inappropriate instantiation of x attributes.
Case in point:
I Iike my pad kee mao not to be too sweet, because I don't like too much sugar in my noodle dishes.
And I like my pad kee mao to contain rice noodles that are thick-cut and al dente, and perhaps not seasoned all the way into the very interior of the stacked noodles, because I want to taste the sweetness of the rice noodle itself, and not just the seasoning.
The pad kee mao ($7) at Ploy Thai has all those things. The noodles come in thick, triangularly-cut sections that taste fresh and "rice-y," with more heat than sweetness. They are fragrant with basil and have a pronounced charred flavor. Your noodle comes with choice of protein; the beef was a bit tough, but seafood, and chicken, were more tender and better to my taste. In fact I don't know of any restaurant right now with noodles quite as al-dente and non-tampered-with.
Compare these noodles to the pad kee mao at Chao Thai ($7.50), one of my favorite places for Thai food, also in Elmhurst. The rice noodles are cut more finely, and they are sweeter and softer as well. They are actually pretty good, but just not for me.
Does it follow that because I like my pad kee mao rice noodles to be al-dente that I want all my rice noodles to be al-dente? No, because I do like my rice noodles to be a little less al dente when they are served in the Cantonese-steamed preparation, such as here. So in other words, you cannot make the claim "if the rice-noodles are not al dente, then the dish cannot be good."
You can only say: "If you happen to like your pad kee mao noodles to be cooked al-dente, with restrained and not-too-sweet seasonings, then you will like the noodles at Ploy Thai."
But then, what am I really telling you, except that I just like things the way I like them?
I guess that's okay. What kind of a noodle columnist would I be if I didn't have super-picky standards for what constitutes good noodles, standards which pretty much preclude me from truly enjoying 80% of what I eat? That's fine by me. Maybe the frequency of my noodle-induced pleasure is lower than most, but when I am truly pleased, as I was by Ploy's pad kee mao, then it's like winning a prize, or finding money on the street.
And it's not like I'm constantly displeased by what I eat. I just go around thinking, "Well, if I were the sort of person who likes x attribute, then I would not like y dish," and that degree of abstracting, of removing myself from the dish at hand, really helps.
8140 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373 (map)
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.