Whenever I eat good Thai food, I think of that junior high biology class diagram of the tongue. Do you remember it? It mapped out the taste perception areas of your tongue and it usually went along with a "lab" involving a sugar packet, a lemon and a salt shaker. The conclusion was that sweet, salty, bitter and sour all have specific addresses in your mouth. And since your taste buds have addresses, you can send them notes. Or, in the case of Thai food, love letters. No other cuisine works so hard to please every part of your tongue.
Since I'm waxing poetic, you can guess that I bring some pretty elevated expectations to Thai food. So I was cautiously hopeful when I called Lahn Pad Thai to order for a small get-together. Ordering, using the letter/number system on the menu, was efficient. If you're like me and tend to mangle the pronunciation of most languages (including English), you'll be glad to prevent any confusion. The staff person taking my order was painstaking in asking about the heat level on most dishes and was attentive to a few special requests (i.e., no straw mushrooms in the tom yum gai because... yuck). The restaurant offers delivery with a small fuel charge (depending on location) but we opted to pick the food up. The order was correct and ready on time.
We began with two fried appetizers -- shrimp purses ($9.95) and "angel wings" ($10.95). Of the two, the shrimp purses were the simpler dish and our clear favorite. Whole, meaty shrimp were wrapped in a thin, square noodle and fried to crispy perfection. The shrimp were firm and peppery, with a sweet sauce that provided balance. We ignored the sweet chili dipping sauce and cleaned the plate. The wings, while beautifully presented -- deboned and stuffed with a noodle/pork/spice mélange -- were more exciting to the eyes than to the palate. It was the evening's only disappointment.
Of course, we ordered the restaurant's namesake, and my favorite comfort food, pad thai ($12.95). Starchy, sticky rice noodles were enlivened by a strong, pungent hit of fish sauce, spice and a subtly sweet finish. Firm pieces of chicken and shrimp added substance, bean sprouts added freshness and crushed peanuts added salt and crunch. The dish was a winner and we all tried casually to scoop up the last bite.
By comparison, the sidewalk noodles ($11.95) with chicken were a bit bland. While I would probably not order these again on their own, they might be a good accompaniment to a spicy, more assertive dish.
The tom yum gai soup ($11.95) was bright and lemony and generously packed with chicken. The aromatic broth -- heavy on the basil -- had a pleasant, grassy fragrance. It smelled and tasted of spring.
The kiew warn ($12.95) with beef, green curry and an abundance of crunchy bamboo shoots packed a powerful punch, especially considering that we requested "medium" heat. The coconut milk balanced the spice level, but the dish is not for the faint of heart. Of course, there's a warning right there in the name. Proceed with caution.
The following week, I took my daughters to Lahn Pad Thai for a Sunday afternoon lunch. The restaurant was the one bustling business in an otherwise sleepy strip mall. We were greeted and seated at the last available table and appreciated our good luck as we watched other families arrive only to face a wait. The room is small and the décor is simple, but the spicy fragrance coming from the kitchen makes it a room you want to be in. My only complaint is that there is no buffer between the entrance and the crowded dining room. This results in a chilly blast of air every time anyone enters or exits. We were seated closest to the door, so other tables might have been more comfortable, but if you plan to eat in the dining room during winter months, wear a sweater.
For lunch, we ordered spring rolls ($7.95), the beef noodle bowl ($12.95), kalbi ribs ($16.95) and drunken noodles ($10).
The spring rolls, while crispy and well-stuffed, were underwhelming to me. A spring roll dissection revealed lots of bean thread noodles and cabbage, but very little of the promised chicken. My daughters, however, declared them delicious and scarfed them down quickly.
The thick, flat, chewy noodles in the drunken noodle dish were a hit with our table. The sweet sauce with just the barest hint of chili makes this a family-friendly dish. I was happy with the generous quantity of fresh basil leaves that topped this dish and added a bit of freshness to each bite.
The generous portion of kalbi short ribs -- a traditional Korean dish -- was beautifully presented on a bed of lettuce with a side of rice and a sweet pickled cucumber salad. The sticky soy/sesame sauce that coats the ribs was irresistible, and while the ribs had good flavor and an appealing element of smoke from the grill, I found them a bit tough and chewy.
The dish of the day (and my favorite of all the dishes I tried) was the beef noodle bowl: a rich, savory broth teeming with thin rice noodles, beef slices, green onions and cilantro. A liberal slick of sriracha (or similar hot sauce) slowly melted into the broth and insinuated itself into the tangle of noodles so that each bite became more complex and flavorful. I had only intended to "try" the soup and indeed I "tried" it until the bowl was empty.
The dishes at Lahn Pad Thai deliver complex and harmonious flavors -- a welcome adventure for your taste buds. So do your tongue a favor. Dig up that old seventh-grade biology chart and do some experimenting of your own.
Lahn Pad Thai
Hours: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-8:30 p.m. Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Sunday
Location: 2101 Abbott Rd.
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By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent