Read up on Pad Thai's origin, which holds undoubted Chinese influence but a debated creation moment, and you'll discover that it was popularized as palatable propaganda.
Thailand Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram (who changed the country's name from Siam) wished to Westernize, aid his economy, and improve the national diet in the early 1940s, his son told Gastronomica in 2009. The government distributed his recipe (or was it the family cook's?) and supported a massive street-cart army, essentially birthing a convenient, contagiously delicious national dish.
Its key, writes Pitchaya Sudbanthad in The Morning News, relates to balance: "The ideal Pad Thai sits in tenuous equilibrium between the forces of sweet, salty, and sour in its components; none can dominate any of the other."
This in mind, I set out for a friendly battle among four of the Springs' interpretations, ordering each at a "hot" spice level.
For providing customization, Arharn Thai (3739 Bloomington St., 596-6559, arharnthai.net) remains unmatched. Beyond the standard Pad Thai ($7.60), you can also get the Pad Thai Ho Kai ($8.60), which places a fried egg purse around the noodle affair, or the Pad Thai Woon Sen ($7.60), which subs thin bean-thread noodles in for the wider rice noodles. Protein choices include beef, pork, chicken, shrimp ($2.50 more), tofu or vegetables. You can do combo meat (beef, pork, chicken) or seafood (tilapia, shrimp, squid) plates for $3 more.
I get the seafood, and chef Pong Peanvanvanich's pretty garnishes immediately catch the eye. Cilantro sprigs top a tangle of shredded cabbage and carrot, and a pile of peanut dust rests in another corner of the square plate. Pot sticker-shaped, tempura-battered tilapia segments and a trio of prawns top the egg-flecked noodle mound, with the lightly chewy, sear-marked squid segments mixed in for fun asymmetry.
The wok's breath is toned down, and I'm reminded more of a Bangkok street-style Pad Thai, lighter in color thanks to only a pinch of paprika. Otherwise, Pong uses restrained amounts of fish and oyster sauce, lemon juice, sugar, salt, garlic and, for "hot" orders, two teaspoons of Thai chili powder. She buys her chilies fresh, roasts them in a dry wok weekly, then blends them. They get the job done.
Pong says she can't call her version 100 percent authentic because in Thailand it's often served with tiny dried shrimp bits, fine-chopped radish and/or banana flowers, plus green onions and bean sprouts, street-side. Nonetheless, hers earns the win for displaying the most verve in our 'verse.
NaRai Thai/NaRai Siam Cuisine (805 Village Center Drive, 531-5175; 120 E. Cheyenne Mountain Blvd., 434-1975; narai-thai.com) owner Jasmine Andrew doesn't try to make a true-to-Thailand Pad Thai, even though she just returned from a trip home and knows the classic version well. She cooks what her customers like, to the degree that when she played with adding tamarind paste (present in many "authentic" recipes), they requested it back the way it was. So that's what you get today ($7.95 lunch/$10.50 dinner).
I opt for the combo of chicken, beef and shrimp for $3 more, and marinades of the former two show with moistness and tenderized texture inside the thin, flavorful cuts. Those, like crumbled peanuts and scrambled egg bits, are already folded into the noodles, served sans garnish. NaRai's Pad Thai is notably nuttier with that peanut backbone, and deeper wok hay. The "hot" isn't really so, allowing all ingredients to speak up.
Andrew's method: a fish-sauce base hit with lime juice at the end of the sauté, with further acidity from white vinegar balanced by sugar, for ideal sweet-and-sour behavior. Red paprika adds some color, and she re-bakes dried Thai chilies to unlock their essence before grinding them down and incorporating. Of tantamount importance, she says, is a long-enough cook time to caramelize all the sugars present, which explains the darker-than-most appearance and bigger wok flavor. Beautiful all around.
Lanna Thai (8810 N. Union Blvd., 282-0474, lannathaicosprings.eat24hour.com) owner Varanya Meyer says she wants her customers "to experience real Thai food, not Americanized," citing too much sweetness in typical U.S. treatments. As such, you'll notice some unique-to-town items on her larger menu. And she maintains that her Pad Thai ($10.95) stands as authentic to Bangkok, her birthplace.
Of those chosen for this food fight, it's the only with tofu joining the standard mix, as well as bean sprouts. She also house-roasts peanuts, which appear quite prominently amid the rice noodles, both rough-ground and whole, and in the finishing flavor — not just nutty, but toasty, to nice effect.
That roasted quality heightens the wok element, too, which segues seamlessly into the (house-ground) Thai chili burn that's a respectable but not unbearable "hot." Bites with green onion strips amid all the egg bits, soft chicken and shrimp provide an extra dimension.
As for sauce — and this is a slightly wetter and less texturally tacky version than many — a little soy takes it toward the brown-sauce side, with fish sauce contributing the necessary umami. Meyer uses a restrained bit of sugar and finishing lime juice for counterbalance. It's a great plate overall.
The red curry roasted duck is so stupid-good at Thai Guy (6821 Space Village Ave., 573-8054) that I have to try the restaurant's Pad Thai ($7.95). After a few bites, I write "less dynamic overall."
There's heat on the "hot," but it lacks the floral, earthy element of fresh-ground, dried chili flakes. Both the noodles and generous chicken portions haven't really absorbed much flavor. I find out why in an interview inside the kitchen afterward.
Chef Exkaphan Ritta whips up a fresh order. I watch garlic and red onion join the protein in some soybean oil before an egg's cracked in, then a tangle of noodles. All good until two sauce bottles appear — a ready-to-go Pad Thai sauce and Sriracha chili sauce with both English and Thai on the labels.
The latter's just red chili, sugar, vinegar, garlic and salt, so not horribly egregious. But the former's more flagrant (not fragrant), with sugar as the first ingredient, and the preservative sodium metabisulphite as the last. When dining out, I expect from-scratch.
Paprika and several sugar pinches follow, with green onions finishing in the wok and a lime garnish on the plate. The dish isn't bad — starchy with an ample crushed-peanut rain — just not on par with truly homemade versions.