Yalies sick of Louis’ Lunch and Pepe’s Pizza need not look far for a change. Just stroll up Chapel Street to find a dish as characteristic of New Haven as hamburgers or pizza. Welcome to pad thai territory.
Just past the Yale Rep, the stretch of Chapel between York and Park streets boasts no fewer than five Thai restaurants. Yalies know the neighborhood as a destination for cheap, delicious ethnic food, and almost everyone orders pad thai. It took five meals, some good, some woefully bad, but the best pad thai emerged.
The first stop was Thai Taste. With golden ornaments, Singha beer posters and a framed portrait of the king of Thailand, the decor was stereotypical except for the seasonal decorations. Jack-o’-lantern lights adorned the entrance, and a purple fabric spiral topped with a cauldron of “Witches’ Brew” hung near the register. Wooden oars and an Ivy League crew banner dotted the walls. Sculling and pad thai? Only in New Haven.
The pad thai was exemplary. Because pad thai always contains similar ingredients — rice noodles, shrimp, fish sauce, tamarind, bean sprouts, scallions, peanuts — the dish’s success lies in the details. Thai Taste’s version sported heaps of crunchy peanuts and fresh bean sprouts that provided a pleasant textural contrast to the noodles. By comparison, the pad thai served at Thai Taste’s neighbors featured merely a dusting of peanuts and limp, oily bean sprouts.
Thai Pan Asian, the second restaurant on my list, was something like the living room from hell. Ushered into a side room, a friend and I waited forlornly for a menu. The room had a marble fireplace and a mantle with a bowl of fake tropical fruits, and banal piano music tinkled in the background.
I eventually returned to the main dining room to tell our server that we just wanted some pad thai. Evidently, she didn’t understand, because a hefty Thai man with a skinny moustache and a bright yellow polo shirt returned to our table to confirm our order. The pad thai was pretty good: The shrimp were slightly overcooked, but the sauce was vibrant and rich.
Stop number three was a restaurant actually named Pad Thai, so expectations were high. Like Thai Taste, the décor blended stereotypical Thai restaurant and pumpkin chic. The woman behind the counter called back to the kitchen in what seemed like Thai, which was a comforting sign of authenticity. Given the quality of the noodles, however, it may as well have been Hindi.
I am convinced that the Pad Thai staff must know exactly how bad their pad thai is and thus decided to overcompensate with the name of their restaurant. The noodles were bland, and the shrimp were dry and fishy. I couldn’t bring myself to finish more than half.
Also a letdown was the fourth stop, Indochine Pavilion. The room was like a tropical garden with light blue walls and fake plants hanging from the ceiling and even separating some of the tables. There’s nothing better than eating pad thai next to a plastic palmetto.
Indochine’s problem was grease. The pad thai arrived in a puddle of brown, oily sludge. Fearful of what might lie beneath, I reluctantly ventured below the top layer of noodles, but I stopped when I ate a shrimp that tasted as though it had lingered for days in tropical heat without refrigeration.
The last stop was Bangkok Gardens, a slightly more upscale restaurant on York St. with a sunny atrium. Plaques from the New Haven Advocate certify it as ‘Best Thai Restaurant,’ and it was significantly busier than the others of the bunch. But the pad thai wasn’t No. 1. It was certainly good, a balanced dish with shrimp that weren’t overcooked or fishy, but it lacked the crunch and vibrancy that distinguished Thai Taste.
Five meals later, it’s clear that New Haven pad thai breaks down into the good (Thai Taste, Bangkok Gardens), the bad (Thai Pan Asian) and the ugly (Pad Thai, Indochine Pavilion). With its crunchy bean sprouts and peanuts, Thai Taste nabs the number one spot. Birthplace of pizza or not, New Haven’s pad thai holds its own.
¦ scene’s pick:
1151 Chapel St.
172 York St.