Chile peppers arrived in Thailand in the 16th century from the Americas via Portuguese traders. To say the Thai people took to them is an understatement. They now grow more than 75 varieties in the Southeast Asian country, including some that reach six figures on the Scoville scale.
The central role of chile peppers in Thai cuisine is on full display at Pad Thai Café in the International District. Chile fires the curries and stir-fries; it insinuates itself into the chopped-meat salad called laab. The heat smolders on the tongue long after the meal is done.
The restaurant opened in 2015 across from the entrance to Talin Market in the aptly named International District around Louisiana and Central. Along with Pad Thai Café, the block is home to four Vietnamese restaurants, a couple of Mexican places and an Indian market.
Like so many of the Asian restaurants in town, Pad Thai Café is soldiering on through the COVID-19 pandemic as a takeout operation. The staffers all wear masks, and they even sell some beautifully embroidered ones at the counter for $7.
The menu offers all the familiar Thai dishes at prices that are on the low end of the range for similar restaurants in the city.
An appetizer of chicken satay ($6.95) offers six skewers of flattened white meat chicken burnished golden brown with curry powder. The accompanying peanut sauce is a wonder, the nuts, coconut milk and fish sauce conspiring to create something at once briny, pungent and sweet. A refreshing cucumber salad sits coolly at the other end of the spectrum.
Thai cuisine bears the influence of its neighbors, as in laab ($9.95), a salad of minced pork flavored with lime juice, fish sauce and chili powder that is the unofficial national dish of Laos. Rice, toasted and then ground into a powder, gives the dish an appealing grit and nutty fragrance. Pad Thai Café’s version is outstanding, the heat level noticeable but not intolerable, with cooling notes from the cilantro and mint.
Thai curries typically have a soupier consistency, thanks to the presence of coconut milk. At Pad Thai Café you can order from seven varieties, including red, green and yellow, and select a heat level from mild, medium and hot. At the medium level, the green curry with chicken ($9.95) is spot-on, an aromatic, sweet and savory tangle of bamboo shoots, basil and tender pieces of chicken in a broth that’s the color of green tea with milk.
Spicy chili basil pad gra phow ($9.95), a popular Thai takeout lunch, has more fire than the curry, even at the mild spice level. A stir-fry of beef with onions, bell peppers and Thai chile, it had great flavor, although the beef in it was a roll of the dice – some pieces were tender, others tough.
A dessert of khao tom mat sai kluai ($3.95) brings together three formative products of the Thai landscape: rice, coconut and bananas. The rice is cooked with coconut milk, wrapped around banana slices and steamed inside a banana leaf. The result is a rubbery sleeve, faintly fragrant with coconut, with just a touch of sweetness from the banana. It’s very starchy and might have benefited from a sauce.
When I ordered by phone, I was told it would be 30 minutes, but the food was ready when I got there in 20 minutes. Everything was bagged and stacked in a cardboard box for easy transport.
If you like your food spicy, then Pad Thai Café delivers. There’s no shame in asking for the mild spice level. Even there, it’s more than enough heat for the average person.