Battle of the Pad Thai

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Yupha's Thai Kitchen vs. Wild Thaiger

Visit even a semi-authentic ethnic restaurant -- Thai, Indian, Vietnamese -- and you'll generally find two types of dishes on the menu: traditional specialties with unpronounceable names and flavors that pay homage to the homeland, and bastardized versions more suited to the average American palate. Though Pad Thai is a national dish of Thailand, here in the States it almost always falls into the latter category. In this Battle of the Dishes, we compare two amazingly different versions of this "safe" Thai food staple. 

In One Corner: Yupha's Thai Kitchen
1805 E. Elliot Rd., Tempe


We almost didn't find Yupha's, because the sign still remains in front of their old location in the Groves plaza. Tucked in a corner spot in the strip mall that houses Tempe Cinemas, the relocated Thai restaurant is a small, unassuming spot. Inside, deep red walls encourage luck (an Asian superstition) while stimulating the appetite. 

Yupha's is a popular lunch spot, but even when packed to capacity the noise level is barely above that of a good coffee shop. A small list of daily specials is handwritten on a chalkboard near the door, and menu items are numbered to avoid the embarrassment of mangling a dish's name. We beelined for #116.

As soon as the words came out of our mouth, the waitress asked whether we'd like the Pad Thai prepared mild, medium or hot. The table agreed on mild, this being our first visit. (We know that's wimpy. But from experience we've learned one person's "pleasantly spicy" could be another diner's "please help me, my mouth is falling off.") Score one for Yupha's. We like choices, especially when it comes to heat level.

The dish arrived shortly, a heaping mess of rice noodles with chicken, bits of fried egg, scallions, crunchy bean sprouts and tofu chunks, served with a crispy cabbage egg roll. One plate offered enough noodles to feed three of us. The sauce was pungent, with just enough spice to get our tongues tingling.

"The sauce is good, but it tastes a little fishy," said my dining companion.

Not surprising, since traditional Pad Thai includes fish sauce. The tamarind (normally the sweet component of this sweet and sour sauce, although other flavorings are sometimes used) usually balances out the slight fish taste of the sauce, but here the fishy undertone was always present. Otherwise, the Pad Thai was excellent. Good quality lean chicken; firm tofu that happily sat third chair rather than dominating the dish; and a sauce with depth.

In The Other Corner: Wild Thaiger
2631 N Central Ave., Phoenix

One look at Wild Thaiger's blazing purple sign and the sleek interior and you know they're aiming for a more modern take on traditional Thai. You'll still find a few cheesy tiger images and ostentatious god statues in the dining room. But if it weren't for those, Wild Thaiger could easily be a trendy wine bar.       

Patio seats were in short supply, but we nabbed one just after the lunch rush. Our Pad Thai arrived in less than ten minutes, garnished with a red pepper flower and with the non wok-fried ingredients segregated in little piles on the plate. A gorgeous presentation.

"This reminds me of when I was a kid and used to separate the food on my plate so it all didn't touch," remarked my friend. "Why are the sprouts and cabbage not in the dish?" 

Rather than being cooked with the noodles, shrimp, tofu and egg, the veggies were left raw and crispy. That turned out to be a brilliant idea. We could each add as much or as little sprouts, cabbage and onions as we wanted. The fresh veggies added a nice crispness to the dish and counteracted the cloyingly sweet peanut sauce that was too much for one friend.

"It tastes like they dumped a jar of peanut butter into an ounce of traditional Pad Thai sauce," he said.  

Agreed. But then again, we've eaten spoonfuls of peanut butter out of a jar many times before. The sauce was more palatable than Yupha's traditional version, but really you can only eat so much of it. And there was no heat. Not a trace of spice. Again, that's good for American palates (which, clearly, Wild Thaiger caters to), but leaves the dish lacking depth. Juicy plump shrimp and oodles of white meat chicken helped, but this really was a toss-up.

Yupha's had the more authentic dish, but the addition of shrimp and lots of peanut sauce made us clean the plate at Wild Thaiger.  

The Verdict: Yupha's Thai Kitchen, with a $1.50 side of peanut curry sauce.

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