Pad thai is the benchmark most people use to gauge a Thai restaurant's authenticity. Not me. I rely on pad see ewe, a simple soy-sauce-and-rice-noodle dish with only a few ingredients and a lot of room for error.
How well it's executed depends on how the noodles are stir-fried and seasoned. It has to be slick but not oily, dark but not burnt, sweet but not cloying. Above all, it must have that most elusive of virtues: the smoky imprimatur of the wok. And if the pad see ewe passes muster, chances are good everything else will, too.
We used this metric during a recent trip to Rice and Spice Thai in Rancho Santa Margarita, open since last fall. Despite the fact it's got an off-the-shelf name and an even more mundane location next to a Pavilions, it produces one fine pad see ewe. The flat noodles were as sheer as tissue—wispy things that melted on the tongue and left only the smokiness of the blazing wok. The beef was tender and the broccoli was crisp—all signs of good things to come.
Their crispy tofu confirmed what the pad see ewe foretold. Our teeth met a perfectly fried, thin crust before it sank into its quivering curd. We smothered each golden cube with a syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce textured with lots of ground peanut and sliced cucumber.
A smoother sauce made with peanut butter accompanied their satay, wide planks of turmeric-kissed chicken skewered on sticks. The white meat was remarkably moist and blessed with bits of char from the grill. And that peanut sauce? It was the perfect slathering medium—creamy, spicy and rich.
Twirls of beef they call Thai beef jerky were nothing close to their American counterpart. With a ropy texture and crispness (thanks to a deep fry), each was cut to bite-sized pieces easy enough to chew and dunk into a feisty lime dipping sauce.
Pork was the main ingredient in nam sod, a dish that's listed as a salad—and is one in the loosest sense of the word. The meat was minced by hand and got a good sluicing with a perky lime-juice dressing. The acid from the citrus and the bite of raw ginger balanced the richness of the hog, creating a refreshing dish. Roasted peanuts are strewn about for texture, and a wedge of raw cabbage was provided for crunch—just in case you forget it's a salad.
Tilapia sam ros, one of the more expensive dishes, featured deep-fried filets of the fish glazed and swimming in a tangy red sauce shotgunned with garlic and scorching chile. This was a dish to eat with lots of steamed white rice—and plenty of ice water.
But we made sure to save room for their crab fried rice, a harmonious mound of starch with egg, tomato, onion and gossamer morsels of crabmeat. The rice grains, loose and packed with flavor, were as airy as cotton.
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Mussels were steamed in a covered pot but would have been unremarkable if it weren't for the fistfuls of Thai herbs that joined the shellfish in the sauna. Slivers of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and Thai basil imparted a heady, fresh-from-the-garden aroma and a Southeast Asian flavor to the fat New Zealanders.
For a capper, six thumb-sized banana-filled egg rolls huddled themselves around a scoop of coconut ice cream. The rolls were drizzled with honey, while the ice cream was covered with peanuts pulverized almost to dust. These toppings were a blissful yin-yang play: the sticky to the powdery; the fried to the frozen; the sweet to the savory.
We ambled out the door without trying the pad thai, but we know it's great. The pad see ewe test has never failed me yet.
RICE AND SPICE THAI RESTAURANT, 22431 ANTONIO PKWY., RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, (949) 888-0222; WWW.RICEANDSPICETHAICUISINE.COM. OPEN MON.-THURS., 11 A.M.-9 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-9:30 P.M.; SUN., 11:30 A.M.-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $30, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER AND WINE.