There are many days when I'm convinced that Thai cuisine tops all others, and exists not just to feed, but to induce true happiness. And on those days I'm grateful for Arharn Thai. The fresh, clean, bright, modern, affordable eatery fulfills not only a general craving for curries, noodles, heavy coconut-milk sauces and crunchy salads, but also consistently delivers better-than versions of beloved staples, plus items that remain unique to its menu, locally.
For one, when Arharn opened more than five years ago, it showed us a whole new version of The Dish of Dishes: pad Thai. Owner Pong Peanvanvanich and business partner Korakoch Prasertsin fold the loaded noodles into a thin, elegant egg purse to produce the Pad Thai Ho Kai ($8.60), a simple spin that's fun to eat.
Woon sen (bean thread noodle) options rarely appear on other menus, and they, too, contribute to another pleasing pad Thai adaptation ($7.60) that feels, texturally, a little tackier than the standard rice-noodle rendition and a touch lighter in the belly as well. They also make for a nice larb-like salad in the Yum Woon Sen ($7.20), replacing cabbage leaves to accompany spicy, citrusy shrimp and minced chicken.
To stay grounded in Thai authenticity with apps, Tod Mun ($4.50) fish cakes dazzle with lime leaf essence, curry and a sweet dip. The fried egg-noodle-wrapped Shrimp Cocoon ($4.50) feels more Chinese, with its dip more sweet-and-sour.
No Thai feast should really ever be commenced sans Som Tom (green papaya salad; $7.20), and it's handled well here with the right balance of chili, fish sauce and garlic soaking the shredded fruit. Tomato wedges, prawn slivers and peanut crumbles get mixed throughout the haystack.
It's difficult to push past a standby favorite like Massaman Curry ($7.60) with its potato heft and legume-laced spicy sweetness. But our coconut-milk-bereft Jungle Curry ($7.60) blends veggies like baby corn, zucchini and jalapeños with Thai chili paste and krachai root. The latter is called "lesser ginger," but it's still responsible for tangy bite and part of an overall floral nature.
Again pushing past favorites, we approach China once more with the Pad Phet ($7.20), its garlic-chili sauce coating chewy beef shavings and landing squarely in safe stir-fry territory. Previously a devotee of the Choo Chee Pla, a killer Panang curry tilapia dish, I opt for a deep-fried version of the fish in the Pla Lad Prig (both $9.80), which subs another garlic-chili sauce with bell peppers, onions and scorched whole basil leaves to incredible effect.
The brown-rice menu option, though steep at $2.50, remains appreciated, as do homemade desserts that include a potent green tea ice cream and a good coconut one with peanut crumbles (each $2.20). Newly added is the Pandan rice cake ($3), a hamburger-sized rice wad turned slightly green and a touch sweeter by an accompanying pandan leaf (a Southeast Asian tropical plant). It's lightly salty, too, under frosting-like coconut cream garnished with toasted sesame seeds and red beans; a sugary postscript to main-meal bliss.
All of which explains why Arharn's holding its own as one of the indies among the eastern chain row. Its survival speaks to superiority, and foreshadows some exciting news that Arharn promises to announce soon.