Sunday, March 15, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Thai(m) To Do the Sukho Dance!

When I moved back to New Orleans for the second time, I came back a person with an insatiable taste for Thai food (namely Pad Thai), a taste developed on Long Island with the introduction of new Thai restaurants and refined while working in Manhattan. So the day before I left, thinking of the shiteous (as Perez Hilton says) noodles at Bangkok Thai on the Riverbend next to Cooter Brown's, I ate two plates of chicken and shrimp dumplings in sweet chili-spiced soy and two steaming plates of chicken pad thai, mourning the loss of such a wonderful dish from my foreseeable future by stretching my stomach its obscene limits.

Needless to say, when I stumbled upon Marigny staple Sukho Thai and (wonder of wonders!) loved it, I was overyjoyed. Tears just about spilled down my cheeks as I shoveled into my face forkful after forkful of tender rice noodles in a light orange sweet tamarind-based sauce with crisp bean sprouts taking the edge off the heat, and long cuts of scallions arcing through the tropical, sugary sauce with their signature bite, topped with fresh lime juice squeezed over crushed peanuts. It was an amazing day.

I will confidently hold the pad thai at Sukho against any of the Thai restaurants in New York that I've been to (other than uber-trendy Nooch in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, which will always and forever be my fave Thai haunt), and state on the record that the only way that this dish could be improved would be to use a slightly wider noodle. New Orleans rice noodles tend to run fine. But other than that, it's all very exciting.

However, one fateful day, I was offered a bite of my coworkers's dish, the Dirty Noodles--more commonly known as Pad See Ewe--and God almighty, they were good. They were so amazing, as a matter of fact, that I have ceased to order the chicken pad thai and my favorite server at Sukho, my buddy Curly-Headed Dude, doesn't even ask me what I want anymore. He knows that I'll be having a plate of Dirty Noodles with extra broccoli, and that the only question he needs to ask is whether I'll be taking a second plate to go. You know, in case I'm sad later and need to make myself feel better ... although in the case of Pad See Ewe, I'll most likely make up some excuse to be unhappy so that I can eat these incredible noodles.

What exactly is it that makes them so good?

Well, I'm not exactly sure, to tell you the truth. I've had my fair share of Pad See Ewe in quite a few Thai restaurants, and not a one has knocked my socks off--not even yanked on the toe a little--whereas, the Dirty Noodles at Sukho have made a gluttonous, feeding-frenzy monster of me.

Here's why:

The wide, flat noodles are always perfectly al dente, fabulously "to the tooth" with a squishy resistance that just feels good. It's a sensation that's satisfying, the naturally mild and neutral noodles serving as a background player but key vehicle for the tropical flavors that coat their firm surfaces. A deep caramel-colored sauce with an obviously soy base is the main flavoring, covering the noodles like a thinned out thick sweet soy sauce, all molasses and richness without actually being thick or saucy. A light layer is all there is to lend this fabulous flavor to the entire dish, with barely any residue on the plate, permeating the noodles, chicken, egg, and broccoli in such a subtle way as to allow the purity of the fresh ingredients to shine through while making the entire thing that much more exciting. It's an unplaceable taste, exotic and light, but sweet and savory enough to keep it grounded and complement the heartiness of the main components.

The chicken is sliced in a traditional Asian stir-fry method; each piece is cut from the breast at a diagonal and against the grain, then lightly tossed in a still translucent flour and water mixture to preserve the moisture. This keeps every slice, no matter how small or thin, tender while getting the maximum amount of bites of chicken out of one ... well, chicken. The broccoli is just barely on this side of cooked, different from the well-doneness that is typical in Chinese fare. It's crisp, woody, and the florets are large and much wider across than the stems are lengthwise. However, because it is still sauteed in Asian fashion, there's a lovely bright sheen of oil that glistens across each piece of broccoli, giving the young green flavor a tiny bit of an earthy char, especially at the little blossoms that are, at best, a tad bit burnt at the tips.

What's also really nice is the fried then scrambled egg pieces that are interspersed throughout the dish. An egg is dropped into an extremey hot wok, scrambled in the wok, then left to fry, achieving a toasty brown color which adds a soft crunching element. The egg absorbs the flavor of the sauce better than the chicken does, although from the looks of it, the meat spends more time with it. This may just be me, but I go nuts over these scrambly-fried eggs in Asian cooking, and find that the egg adds a really interesting alternate flavor to the mix.

It takes a lot of skill to cook rice noodles ... or an extremely hot wok. Sukho Thai apparently has both, because in order to get wide rice noodles to separate individually yet maintain that nice, dense bite as you sever mouthfuls of it, you need to steam the noodles then drop them into a well-oiled wok that's surrounded by high, searing flames. Try sauteeing chow fun noodles (as they're alternately called) on an electronic cooktop and you'll find yourself with a gloppy mess that just kinda melts into itself, gets very mushy, and just sits there ... like pearly white Flubber. Anyway, they're perfect every time--juicy, only a little greasy (to lubricate the pieces, they have to be, or like I said, they glop), firm, and thinly coated with just the perfect amount of sauce.

Part of the beauty in Sukho Thai's Dirty Noodles is the simplicity of it. Introduce too many different flavor elements and the whole taste profile becomes something else entirely. For instance, although newcomer Chill Out Cafe on Maple and Burdette Streets does a mean bright-orange, spice-infused plate of pad thai, they don't do right by the Pad See Ewe. Their chefs are from Thailand, so I'm not sure if my love is just for the bastardized Western version versus the authentic stuff, but I'm not a fan of it at all. Fresh Thai sweet basil gives it an herb-y element which influences the way it smells and therefore, the way you perceive it to taste, and the onions and peppers overcomplicate the dish, adding flavors that I don't think mesh well with the overly sweet but simultaneously overly mild brown sauce they use there. This was all pretty disappointing, considering how good their pad thai was, how close it was to my house, and how affordable it was to eat there, but hey -- you win some, you lose some.

But if you have the patience to wait a while for your food and to drive to the other side of town, I cannot recommend Sukho Thai in the Marigny more highly. All I know is, if I ever move back to New York, it'll be a different Thai food scenario: just me and two plates of Dirty Noodles.

Word.

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