When it comes to food from other cultures, "authentic" is a tricky designation. Not only is authenticity complicated by ingredient sourcing and the quality of the chefs themselves, when another country's cuisine is transposed onto our local dining scene, often only the most basic recipes survive. In the Twin Cities, this is the case with Pad Thai, the original Thai fast food dish.
So let's focus less on authenticity -- that threadbare endorsement trotted out by hipsters and food snobs -- and instead get down to which Pad Thai in the Twin Cities brings us the most enjoyable, belly-filling, satiating dining experience.
The Venue: Taste of Thailand on Selby Ave in St Paul has been around for decades. Cheap, quiet, and moody, it's the perfect place for a long, rainy day lunch spent plotting your evening plans with a friend or sobbing silently over your student loan debt. On's Thai Kitchen is a bit more formal and stylish. This would be a great spot for a second date because it's quiet enough to enjoy good conversation and there are unusual items to share, like the sour sausage served with slices of ginger, lettuce, and dried red chiles.
The Weigh-in: Pad Thai is one of the most popular menu items at many Thai restaurants, especially for people new to Thai cuisine. Both restaurants boast of authenticity on their websites, and both deliver seriously spicy dishes upon request. Taste of Thailand has deeper roots in the Midwest, and because it has been a favorite for quite some time, the very fine On's Thai Kitchen is the underdog.
Round 1: The noodles Noodle firmness is often the deciding factor in these kinds of dishes. Whether ramen, spaghetti, or rice noodles, cooking time matters. We like our noodles a bit firmer than most, though, so our vote goes to Taste of Thailand.
Round 2: The chicken Pad Thai conjures images of street food vendors sweating away with steaming woks over smoking grills. Both Taste of Thailand and On's use sizable, tender, satisfying chicken pieces that look like miniature shark fins. But Taste of Thailand's chicken comes with a hint of smoke that deepens the sweetness of the cane sugar and contrasts nicely with the dish's crunchy bean sprouts. On's Thai Kitchen throws in some fried egg, too, but it is not enough to hand them this round.
Round 3: The sauce A great sauce should hit a lot of places on your tongue, and the best Thai sauces are a simultaneously sweet, sour, salty, and hot. So how do you put something like this together? By throwing cane sugar, tamarind, lime, peanuts, and peppers together. On's Thai Kitchen delivers the goods on all counts and handily claims this round.And the winner is... Taste of Thailand. Its no-frills take on this popular dish may or may not be more authentic than On's, but it fulfilled our expectations and satisfied our appetites. One caveat: Time can seem to stand still at this very low-key hangout, so if a vibrant atmosphere and prompt service are a must, On's Thai Kitchen is an excellent alternative.