There’s got to be a way to get to the bottom of this: We’ve got two Thai restaurants on Broadway, separated only by a tiny business that, ahem, apparently does waxings for men and women. Which restaurant is better? How hard could this be?
These two eateries have been competing and coexisting, while simultaneously confusing and amusing us for years.
Many of us drive by. We do double-takes. Maybe we look in the windows to see which is busier — except they’re both reasonably busy. Most of us can’t remember the names. We refer to them as “the one on the left” and “the one on the right.”
I’ll be honest. I had always heard that the one on the right was better. I can’t remember who told me. I can’t remember when.
Go ahead and snicker, you discerning diners out there who’ve settled on a definitive favorite. But you’re wrong. Deep down, you know you don’t know for sure which one is better.
How do I know? Because I know I don’t know. I’ve spent more time and money on this than is reasonable. I’ve eaten more hot and spicy dishes than is normal. I’ve singed my lips. I’ve burned my tongue. I’ve eaten until I was sniffling, wincing and practically overwhelmed by it all.
To follow my lead would be silly. And expensive. And you won’t feel so good the next day. That much I know.
I went about this challenging bit of culinary sleuthing in several different ways. I ate at the one on the left (Taste of Thai) one night, and the one on the right (Chada Thai) the next. I took pictures. I took notes. I felt the lively flavors and plenty of heat dance all over my tongue. I saw Thai food in my sleep, smelled basil and kaffir leaves in my dreams. While you were watching “Breaking Bad,” I was obsessing over another addictive product, eating red, yellow and green curries, and scribbling notes.
At one point, I ordered the same dishes with the same degree of spiciness on consecutive nights. It was pretty much a draw. I was happy both nights. Taste of Thai has fabulous pad thai, which, according to many of us who love Thai food, is one of those litmus-test dishes. It has two varieties, glassy noodles and standard rice noodles, and both are spirited and satisfying, thanks to a mild, tomatoey sauce that pulls it all together and makes it more enjoyable than Chada Thai’s basic and restrained version.
Everything else — a salmon dish, a yellow curry with pork, a deep-fried tofu appetizer and a Thai iced tea that tastes like a thousand others I’ve had all over North America — was nicely prepared and reasonably good. So, if you’re a pad thai person, you might be a lefty.
But this wasn’t over. Over the phone, I ordered the same six dishes from the one on the left and the one on the right.
Clever, right? Not at all.
I picked up the food on my bike. I slipped into the one on the right, paid the bill, went out to my bike and put the two large bags of food in my basket. Concerned they would be onto me, I hid my bike away from the large front window before I stepped into the one on the left.
As I was paying, a thought occurred to me. What if people who monitor my credit card can’t come to grips with my little scheme? Two $60 orders from two Thai restaurants two doors apart might trigger one a Visa Theft Prevention moment. They’d freeze my card, call the police and it would be really awkward explaining what I was doing with all this food packed in Styrofoam. The card machine was acting up. I was on edge. The employee swiped the card again. I waited, then saw him reach for the receipt. So far, so good.
Outside now, I attempted to ride my bike and balance $120 worth of Thai food, only to fumble one of the bags. One container exploded and oozed. But it smelled terrific, a red curry with eggplant and bell peppers, its sweet, spicy aroma at once delighting and dismaying me. But I digress.
I made it home. I laid out all the dishes, side by side. I marked the boxes with a Sharpie. I took pictures. I got a big glass of water. My dogs looked at me funny. I took a bite of the red snapper from Chada Thai. The salmon was tender and wonderfully flavored — a little earthiness from the mushrooms, touches of basil here and there. Then I took a bite of snapper from Taste of Thai. It was significantly different, fried instead of baked and a little less exotic. But it was good, too, with plenty of vegetables.
I tasted the above-average squid salad from Taste of Thai. Yikes! It was good, but spicy. I quickly realized I was a overconfident on the phone. How hot do I want it, they asked? Thai hot, of course, which means really, really hot. My lips were beginning to tingle. I was 30 seconds into my clever little culinary examination. I tasted the other squid salad, which was equally good. Then I had an epiphany. You know those a-ha moments? This was my oh-no moment, as in, oh no, my tongue is on fire and I have $110 more worth of food to taste.
I soldiered on, gulping water and occasionally gasping. Almost everything was good, however.
If you’re a curry lover, you might just be a righty. The curries are more nuanced, the textures slightly more appealing. The red curry at Taste of Thai had a smoky flavor note I found distracting. If you’re a fan of good, flavorful chicken, you will be disappointed that both joints have opted to use white meat pieces that are, at best, bland and chewy.
Days later, I still hadn’t picked a winner when I opted to drag a fellow journalist into the equation. Elaine Corn, the cookbook author and food reporter for Capital Public Radio, did an excellent series of reports on the slew of Broadway eateries in 2009. One of her segments was about these two restaurants. From Corn, I learned there is no animosity between the owners, but no friendship, either. In her piece, Corn interviewed left-leaning folks, Chada-righties, and pragmatic wafflers — those who go back and forth.
At Chada, we ordered an avocado curry with coconut milk and eggplant, and loved it —creamy, nuanced, balanced, soothing. We also got the squash curry chicken and it, too, was good, with the distinctive flavor of kaffir leaves giving it a lingering, herbaceous flavor note. Our favorite dish might have been tom kha , the coconut soup with lemongrass, mushrooms and ample thin slices of galanga, a sinewy root related to ginger that you can chew for the flavor and then remove from your mouth (at least we did). We said farewell. I had already visited Taste of Thai with other pals.
Which is better? Where do I stand?
After all this — the overloaded bike ride, the singed palate, the dishes all laid side by side, my own dogs thinking I’d lost my mind — this much I know: I go back and forth, which makes me a proud but pragmatic waffler.