Everyone has different standards by which they judge restaurants. Atmosphere, service, price, quality of the food -- all items that come into play when weighing restaurants against one another. In that same vein, everyone has a dish by which they judge certain restaurants. Cafeterias are judged by -- perhaps -- the quality of the macaroni and cheese, barbecue joints by the quality of their brisket, Italian restaurants by their risotto. This measuring stick is different for everyone, of course.
For me, that measuring stick at Thai restaurants is pad see ew. While others may care more about the pad thai, the spring rolls or the curry, my heart has always belonged to pad see ew. If I don't see pad see ew on the menu at a Thai restaurant, I immediately regret my decision to eat there (my misgivings always have been proven sadly correct in these instances). And if the restaurant's pad see ew is subpar, you can generally bet that the rest of the dishes are as well.
The very reason that I love pad see ew so much is because of its simplicity: broad rice noodles cooked at high heat with a straightforward mixture of soy sauce, garlic, sugar, Chinese broccoli, an egg and some meat (preferably pork). That's all there is to it. The resulting dish is an inspiring quartet of flavors: sweet, smoky, slightly fatty and meaty. Vieng Thai on Long Point has long had the best pad see ew in town (with Asia Market a close second), and putting it into this fight would be like dropping Goliath into an arena of hobbled, weaponless Davids.
Instead, I visited two other popular local Thai restaurants to see how their pad see ew measured up.
Thai Cottage, 3995 Richmond
Thai Cottage is a quasi-local chain of fairly inoffensive Thai restaurants with six locations in the greater Houston metropolitan area and one -- strangely -- in Corpus Christi. It's the kind of place that you end up at after exhausting several other options and are getting too hungry to think straight. It's not that it's bad, per se, it's just that it's certainly not sitting atop anyone's "best Thai food" lists (and if someone has Thai Cottage at the top of their list, question them strongly on this).
One of the things that Thai Cottage has going for it is ambiance. The interior of the Greenway Plaza location on Richmond is soothing and calm, a nice respite from some other, unnamed Thai restaurants with tattered menus, surly service and stained curtains. The menu is fairly straightforward -- no surprises or earthshatteringly different dishes to be found -- so it won't startle your grandparents. And the service is polite and inobtrusive. Like I said, a generally inoffensive restaurant.
However, the food is subpar in the saddest way. The pad see ew on Monday night came with an odd assortment of vegetables: overcooked baby corn, regular broccoli (no, no, no!) and thick, hard carrot rounds. Chicken was the only option for meat, which offended me nearly as much as the intrusive vegetables and the non-Chinese broccoli, as it was almost as tough and tasteless as the carrot rounds. There was virtually no flavor to the sauce except for the barest hint of smoke and sugar. I gave up on the dish halfway through and stared sullenly at a fountain on the rear wall for the rest of the meal.
Nidda Thai Cuisine, 1226 Westheimer
I had much higher hopes going into Nidda, which came strongly recommended by several trustworthy friends. In all the years that it's been a Montrose institution, I have never once eaten there, preferring instead to drive the extra few miles and eat at Asia Market if I'm craving Thai food.
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The interior at Nidda is also calm and soothing, albeit in a totally different way. The wood-paneled walls and low light impart an almost familial vibe to the place, as if you're eating in an aunt's dining room. The windows onto Westheimer allow for some excellent people-watching, as well, especially with a glass of cold Singha beer in hand. Service is cheerful, efficient and friendly -- most of the servers seemed to know all of the customers by name, which is always a good sign.
Sadly, the pad see ew at Nidda didn't live up to the ambiance, the service, the recommendations or even the wonderful little tod mun pla (fish cakes) that I ordered as an appetizer. Once again, the dish came with interlopers: carrot sticks and regular broccoli. Chinese broccoli has an entirely different flavor -- one which is vital to the dish as a whole -- and simply can't be replaced with a wholly different vegetable, even one that also happens to be called broccoli. This substitution plagues me in most Thai restaurants, and I was sad to see that Nidda -- for all its seeming authenticity -- was no different in that area from a chain restaurant. Happily, the dish tasted much better than Thai Cottage's version. It was much smokier, much sweeter and much more savory (not to mention the chicken actually tasted like chicken, although I still wished it was pork).
Nidda Thai Cuisine, for having far better food overall and for at least having a closer approximation of pad see ew. However, it would still never stand up in a real fight against Vieng Thai or Asia Market, which is where you really should be going for the best plate of pad see ew around.