Ah, pad Thai: the gateway drug to a full-on Thai cuisine addiction. This stir-fry of humble means has not only become the national dish of Thailand, but also an emblematic representation of its culture throughout the globe. Even if you don't know much about Thailand, you've had pad Thai.
Its ingredients are simple: bean sprouts, rice noodles, egg and meat seasoned and coaxed to silk in a wok with tamarind juice, sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce. A proper pad Thai will usually never contain ketchup, which has crept into some Westernized recipes. But all pad Thais should embody the requisite flavors of sweet, sour, salty, and hot.
Here in OC, I argue that you needn't go to a restaurant like Thai Nakorn to get good pad Thai. I've found that pad Thai seems its most delicious eaten from a foam take-out container and in front of the TV.
Today we compare and contrast two take-out pad Thais. One from the irrepressible and persistent local chain called Thai Spice, the other from a newcomer, Thai & Chinese Express in Irvine. I chose the Thai Spice in Irvine at the corner of Irvine Center Drive and Jeffrey, because, well, it was closest; but keep in mind that all Thai Spices are not created equal. A changing shift schedule of cooks will determine the final product.
Price: Chicken pad Thai at Thai & Chinese Express, $6.25. Pad Thai at Thai Spice $6.95. Winner: Thai & Chinese Express.
Quantity: Thai & Chinese Express in Irvine loads up their take-out foam with more food than Thai Spice. I would have to estimate that they're serving about a third more. Winner: Thai & Chinese Express. Keep in mind, they're also cheaper.
Protein: Thai & Chinese Express slices white meat chicken in theirs, cooked tenderly. Thai Spice uses dark meat. Which is better fit for the purpose? That depends on preference. I am still undecided. Thai Spice, however, included a few shrimp in their version. Winner: Slight edge to Thai Spice for the shrimp.
Noodles: The noodles from Thai Spice are slightly oilier while Thai & Chinese Express' are less greasy. As a consequence, Thai & Chinese Express' pad Thai seems to slurp a touch drier. Both noodles will clump if you wait too long to consume the dish; but Thai Spice's higher oil content seems to hinder the tendency. Winner: Thai Spice.
Flavor: Both have a similar tangy and sweet bent, with Thai Spice's version just incrementally bolder than Thai & Chinese Express'. Both are garnished with about the same generous helping of crushed peanuts. The green onion stalks are cooked more in Thai Spice's version. They retained some of its sharpness in Thai & Chinese Express' dish. Medium spice level for both burned the tongue at the same degree of hotness–plenty of heat without killing every other flavor nuance. Winner: Tie.
Final verdict: An undecided draw. Thai & Chinese Express will be more consistent since it's a family-run operation with presumably the same cook producing the same version. Thai Spice's rotating shift schedule can mean the pad Thai can vary within the store and especially the chain. In this instance, I preferred Thai Spice's version by just a hair; but as a cost-conscious consumer who likes to pay a little for a lot (read: cheapskate), I appreciate that I was able to get almost two meals out of Thai & Chinese Express' ample portion.
Thai Spice, 15455 Jeffrey Road, Irvine, (949) 857-8424; Thai & Chinese Express, 2540 Main St. Unit J., Irvine, (949) 724-1813