Thai'd and True

The secret’s out: Frequently packed Pad Thai is a local gem.

Pad Thai 5657 Darrow Road, Hudson 330-650-9998. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (Lunch served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.)
Even from the street, Pad Thai's pagoda-shaped roof - is an eye-catcher. - Walter  Novak
Even from the street, Pad Thai's pagoda-shaped roof is an eye-catcher.
The big man was all shook up. "Get your butts down here!" he fairly shouted into his cell phone. "I'm in Hudson, at Pad Thai, and they're not busy! We'd better take advantage of it, pronto!"

Besides making us wonder if Phone Guy had never heard of reservations, that little exchange serves to point up how popular this well-appointed restaurant remains, even as it passes its first anniversary: On an icy, miserable weeknight, for example, enough brave souls had made the trek to fill at least half the tables; come the weekend, the place typically gets slammed.

Of course, "popular" and "good" aren't always synonymous; hell, if mass appeal were the first law of dining, we'd all be chowing down at Ye Olde Hometown Country-Style Buffet. But this time, Everyman has got it right, and the fact that this good-looking Thai and Chinese restaurant has become a dining magnet throughout the local environs should not be held against it.

Pad Thai's owners are Timothy and Joann Ly, and the experienced restaurateurs (who also own Thai Gourmet in nearby Stow and are preparing a third location in Fairlawn) obviously know how to satisfy Northeast Ohioans' appetites. To that end, they and their staff dish up big portions of moderately priced food in a setting that is both pleasantly exotic and utterly familiar.

Even from the street, Pad Thai is an eye-catcher, with its pagoda-shaped roof, dramatic water fountain, and landscape all a-twinkle in little white lights. Inside, the artful intimations reach their zenith, and tasteful bronze statuary, intricately embroidered wall hangings, and finely crafted dolls in traditional Thai garb seem to glitter from every nook and cranny. Complex, floral aromas seduce the senses, and at night, recessed lighting washes the rooms in a golden glow. Yet, just about the time a diner might feel on the verge of drifting off into a Siamese reverie, he's apt to be pulled up short by the New Age piano riffs tinkling in the background or by the basketball games being broadcast on the two TVs in the open lounge.

Not to worry about encountering any unusual condiments or strange utensils waiting on the tabletops, either; instead, there are white cloth napkins, substantial flatware, and little Victorian-style oil lamps. The large, annotated international wine list, too, would seem right at home in any all-American steakhouse; in fact, about the only hint that this isn't a steakhouse comes on the final pages, where guests will discover more than 30 types of beer, including brews from India (Kingfisher), Vietnam (33 Export), Korea (Hite), and Thailand (Singha), as well as sake, plum wine, and Tedeschi Vineyards' appealing Maui Blanc ($6/glass; $24/bottle) -- soft, semidry, and a fine accompaniment to Pacific Rim cuisine, with its lush bouquet of sun-ripened Hawaiian pineapples and the mouthwatering acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc.

But when it comes to the voluminous lunch and dinner menus, Pad Thai is all about the flavors of the Far East. While Timothy Ly says the traditional Thai dishes (such as red and green curries, chicken and beef satay, tom yum, and of course, pad thai) are most popular with his guests, familiar Chinese dishes (including General Tso chicken, moo goo gai pan, and wonton soup) are well represented too. There is also a broad assortment of what might be called "Asian-influenced options," including dishes such as "Thai spaghetti," "Thai cornish hen," and "steamed Chilean sea bass with lemon sauce," which seem cleverly designed in the hope of coaxing cautious diners into Thai'ing one on. But if not everything on the menu rings with "authenticity," the kitchen nevertheless earns high marks for its dexterity in juggling the basic Thai flavor principles of salt, sour, spicy, and sweet, and its skillful use of essential ingredients like coconut milk, lemongrass, lime, basil, peppercorns, and chiles.

Both Chinese and Thai versions of fish and seafood figure prominently on the menu, and the ones we tried were uniformly fresh-tasting and attentively prepared. For instance, a bountiful assortment of gently handled baby squid, scallops, shrimp, and mussels (along with pasty chunks of artificial crabmeat that we could have done without), in a mild, complexly flavored Massaman curry (made with coconut milk, sweet spices, and tender pieces of carrot, potato, and onion), delivered a delicate, sweet-hot sizzle. And a starter of crisp, juicy Chinese salt and pepper shrimp, here tossed with chopped scallions, a scintillating blend of salt and peppery spices, and whole red chile peppers, almost had us dancing in the aisles.

(Many of the dishes, including the two described above, are flagged on the menu as "hot & spicy," with the notation that the kitchen can alter the spices to suit one's tastes. We were never asked for, and we never specified, our preference; as a result, our foods were all over the map in terms of heat, ranging from the soft warmth of the Massaman curry to a fierce, sweat-inducing, but deliciously lively version of tom yum, its translucent broth brimming with lemongrass, bamboo shoots, fat little mushrooms, bits of red chile peppers, and the citric counterpoint of lime. So delicate palates, take note: If your dining pleasure is dependent on mild seasonings, be sure to tell your server.)

Other standouts included hot-and-sour coconut soup with veggies, an aromatic, multilayered confluence of coconut milk, galanga, and lime juice, loaded with bits of broccoli, water chestnuts, green peas, and bamboo shoots; Pa-nang beef, its paper-thin slices of buttery meat awash in a fragrant, brick-red curry sauce flavored with coconut milk, fresh basil, lemongrass, and lime; and Gourmet Tofu, one of nearly three dozen meat-free options, made from finger-sized rolls of paper-thin tofu deftly stir-fried with fresh green beans, onions, mushrooms, and red bell pepper, in a sweetly understated garlic sauce.

While the intricately flavored peanut sauce accompanying an order of beef satay was rich and creamy, and the side of cool, sweet-sour cucumber salad added a refreshing contrast, the thinly sliced, skewered beef itself was dry and chewy. Crisp, dainty spring rolls didn't rock us either: Although the frangible wrappers provided an enticing crunch, the finely diced filling (allegedly of shrimp, chicken, and veggies) was pasty and bland. And Pad Thai's version of its namesake shrimp, chicken, egg, and rice-noodle dish was fairly mundane too: Just a little too dry, and lacking the zesty punch of freshly squeezed lime (a substitute lemon wedge didn't fill the bill), it was an almost-tedious go, especially following such flavor fests as the tom yum and the salt and pepper shrimp.

For dessert, the small list of options ranges from tiramisu to avocado ice cream. Although we were sorry not to find thick, sweet Thai coffee among the possibilities, the House Special Dessert, a prodigious portion of fried banana dumplings and coconut ice cream, drizzled with coconut milk and chocolate syrup, proved soothing to the palate and not at all sugary, and was easily ample enough to satisfy three or four diners. And shankaya -- here, a variation on rice pudding, made from dark, nutty glutinous rice bathed in coconut milk and topped with coconut-milk custard and ground peanuts -- delivered both a satisfying chewiness and a wonderfully wholesome taste, with just enough sweetness to qualify as dessert.

Possibly because of the constant crush of diners, service seemed polite, efficient, but detached, as if the parade of ever-changing faces made it just too hard for servers to care much about any particular set of diners. This was hardly more than a passing concern, though -- especially in the face of all that fine food -- in fact, our only real regret is that we seem to have made scarcely a dent in Pad Thai's huge menu, and such tasty-sounding dishes as Crab Rangoon, duck in yellow curry, or Mango chicken will have to wait until another day. But when that day finally arrives, believe us: We won't need a Phone Guy to tell us to get our butts down there, pronto!

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