Fine Cooking (June/July 2011)
We had so much fun with our General Tso's Challenge earlier this summer -- and got such great feedback from you guys -- that the moment we saw this Pad Thai in Fine Cooking, we knew we wanted to do another head-to-head bout.
How would our at-home Pad Thai compare with the delivery version?
We love Pad Thai. It's sort of like the spaghetti and meatballs of American Thai cuisine. It's predictable and filling, and it's pure comfort by the bowlful. And it's always familiar -- trust us, even if you've never had Pad Thai, you'll want to dive into the bowl after the first bite.
At the same time, it's never the most exciting thing on a Thai menu. Amid all those enticing, exotic dishes, it's always with a slight tinge of apologetic guilt whenever we announce to a server, "Oh, I'll just have the Pad Thai."
We love trying all kinds of Thai dishes. But Pad Thai is just always so delicious, with its tasty combination of stir-fried noodles, eggs, peanuts, lime, fish sauce and peppers and spices.
So we called up a Thai place in our neighborhood -- one we've been to a thousand times -- and placed an order. At the same moment, we started cooking our own Pad Thai at home.
Who would win on speed? Who would win on cost? What about flavor?
Ladies and gentlemen: the Pad Thai Challenge!
Delivery from Regent Thai, just down the street from us. (Galae Thai, printed on the bag, is a sister restaurant in Virginia owned by the same people. Multiple restaurants, same bag? That's how they pass the savings on to you!)
Let the battle begin!
When we said we started cooking at the same time we called Regent Thai, that wasn't exactly true.
The process really started 24 hours before that. See, the recipe calls for pressed tofu, which is tofu that's had all the moisture pressed out of it. But as Fine Cooking acknowledges, pressed tofu can be hard to find in the U.S., even at some well-stocked Asian markets. The magazine offers simple instructions for pressing your own. It's very easy, but it does mean 24 hours of advance prep time.
Obviously, if we include the 24 hours of pressing the tofu, then there's no way homemade is even close to delivery. For the sake of argument, then, let's ignore that prep time.
So we started the clock when we called the Regent.
The person who took our order told us it would be 30 to 45 minutes. It was perhaps the one time we've ever been delighted to hear anyone say this. But then the delivery guy buzzed our door 16 minutes later. Sixteen minutes! How is that even possible?!
Our homemade version took more like 40 minutes, and that was with both of us working together.
So even if we forget about the 24 hours of tofu prep -- and even if you assume you have a Thai delivery guy who doesn't use some crazy cosmic wormhole to deliver food 16 minutes after the order is placed -- the delivery version handily wins on speed.
Pad Thai from the Regent costs $14.95, which is just under the restaurant's $15 minimum for delivery orders. So we tacked on an order of spring rolls. For comparison's sake, though, let's say the Pad Thai costs $15, plus a two buck tip. Total for the delivery version: $17.
Pricing our at-home version is, of course, a tad bit trickier. With many of these ingredients, you're only using a fraction of what you buy (and honestly, what are you going to do with the rest of a package of dried shrimp?). Others, like fish sauce, eggs, chicken broth and peanuts, you might already have in your kitchen. Still, here's a rough estimate of what the ingredients cost, based on current prices at Peapod.com:
1/3 cup fish sauce: $1.50
1/3 cup fresh lime juice*: $1.50
1/3 cup agave nectar: $1.08
5 Tbs vegetable oil: 18 cents
1 clove garlic: 10 cents
1/3 cup small dried shrimp**: $1.00
5 oz. tofu: 86 cents
4 large eggs: 83 cents
10 oz. Pad Thai noodles: $3.50
1 1/2 cups chicken broth: $1.39
1 cup bean sprouts: $1.99
1/2 cup cilantro: 50 cents
1/4 cup unsalted roasted peanuts: 36 cents
3 scallions: 33 cents
Sriracha*** to taste : 10 cents
1 lime: 50 cents
*Lime juice is listed in the recipe as a substitute for tamarind. We actually were able to find Tamarind Concentrate, but it was hard. We looked several places, including an Asian food store, before our friend Ralph spotted some at a wholesale food market in D.C. It was cheap -- $1.50 for what seems like a lifetime supply. But we don't expect most people will be able to source Tamarind Concentrate, so we're pricing this based on limes.
**We had to go to an Asian specialty food store to find the dried shrimp.
***We actually had Thai Bird's Eye Chilies left over from our scallop crudo! But those can be hard to come by as well, so we'll base the price on Sriracha, which the recipe recommends as a substitute.
Even if you have some of these ingredients on hand, that's a pretty long list of items. And many of them, including the tamarind, Thai chilies, and dried shrimp, were hard for us to find, even in a major city. We had to go to four different stores to compile all these ingredients.
So even though the cost of homemade is actually a tad bit lower than the delivery price, sourcing all those ingredients yourself is costly and time-consuming. For that reason, we're saying the cost comparison between the two versions is a wash.
Taking a bite of the delivery Pad Thai, the overwhelming flavor is sweetness. There's also a nice taste of peanuts, but sweetness dominates the plate. That's not necessarily a complaint!
But compared to the at-home version from Fine Cooking, the delivery Pad Thai is a little bit one-note. The homemade dish is bursting with complex, layered flavors, from the savory, briny fish sauce and shrimp, to the fresh Thai basil, to the garlic and the spicy Thai chilies. With all those flavors going on in the homemade version, the delivery dish falls flat by comparison.
On texture, though, the Regent had us beat, hands down. Their noodles were silkier and more unctuous, while ours ended up a little gummy (although we're probably to blame for that, not Fine Cooking). The biggest difference on texture was the tofu: Even with 24 hours of pressing our tofu, it ended up unremarkable. It wasn't bad -- it was just limp and not anything special, and it got lost in the noodles. The Regent's tofu was firm, golden and crisped on the outside. (Maybe they double-fry it?) Anyway, the Regent's tofu really added a nice dimension of texture.
However, as with the General Tso's Challenge, the more we sampled these two Pad Thai dishes, the more we liked the homemade version. Bite after bite of the delivery Pad Thai was just more and more of the same sweet flavor. But the at-home dish had different flavors -- hot, spicy, sweet, savory -- going on in different bites. The delivery dish got old, while the homemade one was packed with great tastes until the end.
So although they were very close in flavor -- and although the Regent handily wins on texture -- we think this was a win for the homemade Pad Thai.
Making your own Pad Thai at home can be fun, and we enjoyed trying to recreate a classic delivery/restaurant dish in our own kitchen. Using fresh herbs and other ingredients really amps up the flavors. And this Fine Cooking recipe in particular is packed with layered, complex tastes that are really wonderful.
But is it worth it?
This at-home dish involves a considerable bit of prep work and cooking with a lot of ingredients that can be tricky to find. And the texture of the final result was a little disappointing.
And unlike, say, that General Tso's Chicken, this Pad Thai doesn't really benefit from higher-quality ingredients. Whereas the quality of the chicken in the General Tso's really changed the outcome of the dish, with this Pad Thai it's not like you're using better rice noodles, or better fish sauce, or better peanuts.
So even though we did slightly prefer the flavor of the homemade version, the next time we're craving Pad Thai, we probably won't reach for a block of tofu and start pressing. We'll probably reach for the phone.
Serves 6 as a snack or first course; 4 as a main course
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/3 cup tamarind concentrate (or substitute fresh lime juice)
1/3 cup palm sugar (or substitute agave nectar)
5 Tbs. grapeseed or vegetable oil; more as needed
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup small dried shrimp, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and drained
1 5-oz. cake pressed tofu, thinly sliced
4 large eggs
10 oz. medium (1/4-inch wide) rice sticks (pad thai noodles), soaked in warm water until pliable (at least 20 minutes) and drained
1-1/2 cups homemade or canned lower-salt chicken broth
1 cup mung bean sprouts, rinsed, root ends trimmed (if you like)
1/2 cup Thai basil or cilantro, freshly torn
1/4 cup chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
3 scallions (white and green parts), trimmed and thinly sliced diagonally
3 fresh red Thai chiles (or other small hot red chiles), seeded and thinly sliced, or Sriracha to taste
1 medium lime, cut into 6 to 8 wedges
In a medium bowl, whisk the fish sauce, tamarind concentrate, and palm sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved. Set aside.
In a large wok, heat 2 Tbs. of the oil over high heat until shimmering hot. Add the garlic and stir-fry until golden, about 15 seconds. Add the dried shrimp and stir-fry for 15 seconds. Transfer to a medium bowl, leaving behind as much oil as possible, and set aside. Add the tofu to the wok and stirfry until heated through and golden in spots, about 1 minute. Transfer to the bowl of shrimp and set aside.
Return the wok to high heat and add 1 Tbs.of the oil. Crack the eggs into the wok and scramble gently to break the yolks, making sure not to overmix so as to retain some yellow and white parts; cook until just set, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside. If any egg residue remains in the wok, wipe it clean.
Heat the remaining 2 Tbs. oil in the wok over high heat. Add the noodles, broth, and fish sauce mixture. Cook, tossing occasionally, until the noodles have completely absorbed the liquid and are sizzling, 4 to 6 minutes. Add the dried shrimp and tofu,toss a few times, and divide among plates or bowls. Garnish each serving with some scrambled egg, mung bean sprouts, basil, peanuts, scallions, and chiles. Serve hot with the lime wedges on the side for squeezing over the noodles.