Consisting primarily of shredded green papaya, pounded with lime juice, fish sauce, hot chilis, dried shrimp, peanuts, long beans, and tomatoes, Som Tum is an archetypical Thai dish that at its best represents the balance of sweet, sour, hot, and salty elements the cuisine is known for.
SriPraPhai ($7): Overtly fishy aroma from lots of dried shrimp, but not enough acidity, heat, or sweetness. The papaya was semi-limp, indicating that it sat shredded for too long before serving.
Chao Thai ($8.95): Bright, fresh, and balanced. It started out relatively mild, but had a slow heat that built up. Plenty of peanuts give it a nice, balanced savoriness.
Advantage: Chao Thai
The term "sticky rice" often gets misapplied to refer to any type of Asian rice with a mildly sticky texture. True sticky rice (or glutinous rice) has an opaque, milky-white grain that gets extremely sticky when steaming. It's served in cakes that should be torn off with fingers and eaten straight from your hand. Perfect sticky rice should never be mushy, instead having distinct grains that hold tightly together while maintaining their individuality.
SriPraPhai ($1.50) This is about as good as sticky rice gets, and it comes served in a cute miniature bamboo steamer basket to boot.
Chao Thai (Free) Not bad, but the bottom of the rice cake had started to turn to mush.
Another classic, a meat-based salad boasting all four of the major Thai flavors. In addition to the quartet of fish sauce, chilis, sugar, and lime juice, the dish is further lightened with mint, shallots, and scallion. It should taste meaty, but never heavy with the characteristic nutty aroma of Khao Khua—toasted glutinous rice powder.
SriPraPhai ($8.50): After our experience with the Som Tum, we asked our waiter to make all of our hot dishes much hotter, which he said was no problem. Our Larb was whisked back to the kitchen and returned a few moments later, but even still, there was almost no heat at all. Without chilis to balance out the sweetness and acidity, the dish comes off as cloying. The beef, however, was extremely tender, and their Khao Khua was excellent.
Chao Thai ($8.95): Much more assertive in flavor than the SripPraPhai version, with ground chilis and whole toasted chilis garnishing the dish along with a sprinkling of fried shallots. Rather than ground beef, their beef is hand chopped, which looks nice, but comes off as slightly tougher. It was also heavier than the SriPraPhai version, with a strong, beef-fat flavor.
The ideal dish would have been the beef and Khao Khua from SriPraPhai with the aromatics and heat of the Chao Thai version. As it was, both were flawed.
Chinese Broccoli with Crispy Pork and Oyster Sauce
Thai oyster sauce tends to be a little lighter and sweeter than Chinese-style oyster sauce, and like in China, it's often paired with garlic. The classic stir-fry of Chinese broccoli and crispy nuggets of pork belly is one of my favorites. Ideally, the broccoli should be bright green and still quite crisp (though not raw), and the pork belly should be in nuggets that are crisp but still tender and juicy in the center.
SriPraPhai ($10.50): Whoah, garlic! The dish was riddled with good-sized nuggets of it (not necessarily a bad thing!). The broccoli was bright and fresh&mdahs;bordering on too raw in some of the stem pieces—and the pork belly was spot on. We wanted a little more flavor and smokiness from the sauce to compete with all the garlic, but it was a fine dish nonetheless.
Chao Thai ($10.95): Much heavier on the pork belly (which was also spot-on here), with a more complex, sweet and smoky sauce that was significantly lighter on the garlic.
Advantage: Chao Thai
Pad See Ew
Pad See Ew is a stir-fry made with wide steamed rice noodles. Rice noodles must be used the same day they're made—they go stale very fast, becoming crumbly instead of slippery and supple. It's a good way to judge how fast a kitchen turns around its stock. Made with Chinese broccoli, light soy sauce, egg, and a touch of sugar, Pad See Ew is a simple dish that should be sweet, but not overtly so.
SriPraPhai ($9): "Oh my god—this is like candied noodles," summed up our general impression. Despite the noodles being fresh and well-cooked, we couldn't take any more of the cloying sweetness after the first few bites.
Chao Thai ($8.50): The noodles were definitely older than those at SriPraPhai, a few of them crumbled and cracking, but the flavor was much better. Only lightly sweetened with a nice smoky char from the wok. A little heavy on the white pepper.
Advantage: Chao Thai
Green Curry With Shrimp
Thai curries are all about the curry paste, traditionally made by pounding herbs, spices, and other aromatics in a large mortar and pestle. Green curries are predominantly flavored with chilis, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, shallots, and spices like coriander and white pepper along with shrimp past and plenty of salt. Coconut milk forms the base of the curry, and crunchy Thai eggplants are the traditional main vegetable.
SriPraPhai ($9): Excellent—maybe the best green curry I've had outside of Thailand. With a rough texture, the paste is quite obviously hand-pounded. Complex and fresh with a very assertive heat (finally!). Crunchy green, seedy Thai eggplants are a nice authentic touch, though I could have done without the chunks of canned pineapple that inexplicably found their way into it.
Chao Thai (12.95): Totally run-of-the-mill with the smooth texture associated with store-bought or blender-made curry paste. Serviceable and decently spicy, but it paled in comparison to the SriPraPhai version. Chinese eggplant didn't work as well as Thai either—the eggplant got mushy in the curry.