PAD THAI -- 1639 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-342-3394. Open: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. MC, V. Reservations suggested for parties of six or more. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.95 to $5.50, entrees $5.50 to $7.50; dinner appetizers $3.25 to $5.95, entrees $5.75 to $8.25. Full dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip about $15 to $20 per person.
SOME OF THE DIFFERENCES between what you should expect for a $15 meal versus a $50 meal are obvious -- the level of comfort, the stylishness of the decorations, the quality of service, china and glassware. But when it comes to the food itself, the differences are not so obvious. Certainly an expensive meal allows for such luxurious ingredients as lobster, prime beef, first-quality fish and exotic produce. And for $50 every dish should be prepared with consummate care. The cooking should be more complex and difficult. But if you are willing to forgo some of these luxuries, a $15 meal can be every bit as delicious. There are talented cooks at every level.
Pad Thai is one of myriad examples. There are countless Thai restaurants around Washington now, and probably there is some really good food at every one of them if you have the patience to cull the menu. That's the thrill: discovering a dish worthy of a $50 talent at a $15 meal.
At Pad Thai it's there occasionally -- when the chef has the seasonings right and tones down the salt. And one dish is always a standout: Pad Thai serves the best stuffed chicken wings I've had in any Thai restaurant. They are called Paradise Chicken here, and the menu misleadingly describes them as stuffed chicken legs with crab meat. More accurately, they are the first joint of the wing, not the drumette part that most restaurants use but the tender delicate part with two thin bones, which in this case are removed. The skin and boneless meat are stretched over a light and airy filling that combines crab meat, transparent noodles and black mushrooms, then molded into a large puff, fried crisp and greaseless, and served with a fiery sweet dipping sauce. The menu offers a dozen other appetizers and nearly 40 entrees. Some are spectacular and others ordinary; most are inconsistent and unpredictable. But since most entrees cost around $7, spectacular cooking is not what one would routinely expect.
As long as you like the internal explosion of hot chilies, the meat or seafood salads marinated in lime juice and chili are routinely good, the beef version tender and the seafood version -- with shrimp, scallops and squid -- cleanly fresh tasting and heady with cilantro. Satays and me krob -- the syrupy-sweet crisply fried rice noodles with bits of pork -- show this kitchen's penchant for sugar. Satays are thickly coated with a nutty peanut paste that is only mildly peppered and sweetened just short of cloying. The me krob is definitely cloying. And, like some of the main dishes, it is occasionally oversalted. Curry puffs are reminiscent of India's samosas, large, crunchy fried pastry shells enveloping ground beef and potatoes mildly flavored with curry. And fried bean curd is also grease-free, but unfortunately this bland tofu is not quite brought to life by its faintly sweet and lightly spiced chopped peanut sauce.
While few of the appetizers rise above the mundane, many of the main dishes do. Half the menu is noodle dishes: translucent, thin rice noodles; wiry golden egg noodles; homey, thick flat noodles the Chinese call chow foon. The flat rice noodles are the most satisfying since they absorb the seasonings and therefore hold all the nuances of flavor. Noodles Kee Mau, flat noodles with ground chicken and basil, interweaves hot peppers and faintly anise-scented basil with delicate ground chicken so the homey noodles are as aromatic as they are fiery. Noodles Nua Sub immerses those same comforting flat noodles in a ground-beef and vegetable mix with a touch of curry and soy sauce. And Pad See You once again features flat noodles, this time with a choice of meat and crunchy broccoli, tossed with a mild, somewhat nutty black soy and bean paste sauce.
Dishes made with thin noodles are more likely to be dull, as when the curry paste drains off the Sen Me Kai and leaves the chicken and watercress bare. Pad Thai, made with thin rice noodles, is pasty, though its rather sweet topping of shrimp, pork and bean sprouts is fragrant. The menu goes on to bowls of noodle soup that are complete meals, and mildly smoky fried rice that tastes like something that at your most creative moments you'd concoct from leftovers at home. There is a small selection of vegetarian dishes and a large list of stir-fried meat or seafood over rice. Two of these stir-fried dishes have had stunning sauces. Pad King, with its finely grated fresh ginger, starts slowly and builds on the tongue to a dramatic finish, leaving you scraping up each bit of beef and grain of rice. Gang Kai, strips of chicken breast bathed with a green curry sauce, also unfolds from a creamy, herbal first taste to a fuller curry hit that makes the dish seem mild and hot at the same time. Yet much on this menu is inexplicably dull. Pad Ho Ra Pa -- meat or seafood with basil and snow peas -- is very hot with red chili paste and excessively salty. Pad Woon Sen, translucent noodles stir-fried with shrimp, pork, onions and scallions in egg sauce, is simply forgettable. Pad Pao Talay, stir-fried seafood with canned straw mushrooms, is gently peppery and quietly pleasant. And Kai Yang, grilled marinated chicken, suffers from being pitifully overcooked, though the spices rubbed into the skin add a savory and faintly sweet distinction.
Desserts are sweet and odd to American tastes. Coconut custard is made better elsewhere. Coconut and fruit ice cream is chewy and icy, with a flavor reminiscent of canned milk. And sweet brown sticky rice is true to its description and strangely topped with sour-tasting coconut cream. Thai fruit or just sweet and creamy Thai iced coffee or tea might be the most satisfying endings.
Though the garnishes are few -- a carrot flower here and there -- the portions are piled high on the platters. And while the service can be slow and awkward, the waiters try to be helpful and always convey a sense of welcome. The service, like the food, is often flawed but just as frequently hits high notes.
Pad Thai is a small restaurant, decorated with Thai prints and mirrors etched with Thai dancers. Its glossy black tables are brightened with red chopsticks against pink napkins. Thai music plays softly. It is unassuming; it has a quiet personality.
If I could taste all 52 dishes several times, I might be able to draw a clearer map of Pad Thai's treasures. Short of that, I can say that this is one of the many good Thai restaurants, small and personalized, that make inexpensive dining such an adventure.