When it comes to cooking, less is often more. That’s the ethos of many kitchens, particularly those particularly prone to Americanization and hybridization. And just like Chinese and Mexican, Thai is one such cuisine.
In Thailand, the less-is-more approach permeates cooking. In America, however, Thai restaurants too often indulge in excess to satisfy the more-is-more norm of American expectations. Many Thai restaurants in the US sacrifice rigor on ingredients not typically found in real Thai kitchens, along with dishes from other cultures that don’t need to mix on the same menu (like Thai restaurants adding some sushi or Chinese food ).
When it comes to experiencing a more legitimate, soulful taste of Thai cuisine, chefs suggest keeping it simple and authentic, and ultimately saying no to dishes that would be more at home in a Chinese-American restaurant.
“Less is more on a menu,” he says Dan Coughlin, the chef at Le Thai in Las Vegas. “I grew up in my mother’s Thai restaurant and most Thai restaurants have huge menus. I’m a bit more ‘new generation’. If I don’t know how to cook a dish, I don’t want to put it on the menu. I’m wasting my time and the customer’s time.”
While he actually has a penchant for the much-maligned pad thai, a dish that tends to draw a lot of criticism when oversaturated with ingredients, Coughlin’s main taboo on such bloated menus is Chinese food — a sure sign of inauthenticity.
“Any Thai restaurant that still has Chinese dishes on the menu should be avoided. There are some who still do this because they feel they have to. My mom told me when she had a restaurant in the 80’s nobody knew what Thai food was, so you had to put a kung pao or orange chicken on the menu to get people through the door. It’s 2022 now, so a Thai restaurant should only have Thai food and a Chinese restaurant should have Chinese food.”
Instead, stick to simple Thai classics like Le Thai’s pork jerky, or what Coughlin calls “fantastic flat noodles,” made with bean sprouts, scallions, egg, and garlic stir-fry sauce. “Less is more. Keep menus small and concise and it’s a win for everyone.”
Just as inauthentic and out of place as kung pao chicken are items like cheese rolls, crab rangoon, and egg rolls.
“The number one thing you should never order at a Thai restaurant is a cheese sandwich,” he proclaims Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of Kin Dee in Houston. Why? Because cheese is not part of an authentic Thai diet. “Thai cuisine is about balancing the different flavors of meat, vegetables and herbs to create fresh — and sometimes fiery — dishes,” she says. “Cheese represents a Western influence that doesn’t authentically represent Thai cuisine.”
A fan of authentic Thai cuisine, Chef Chad Johnson of Bern’s Steak House in Tampa heeds that advice and echoes those sentiments. “Don’t waste your calories on ubiquitous egg rolls, crab rangoon, or steamed edamame,” he notes. “They’re most likely just on the menu to reassure customers who don’t know what to order. If you need something for an appetizer or first course, branch out and order Larb or Nam Sod.”
Regarding what to order in a Thai restaurant, boss fern and Chief Pla from Luv2eat Thai Bistro in Los Angeles know a thing or two. Originally from Phuket, Thailand, the duo cook up a menu that is as close to Thailand as this side of the Pacific can get.
Rather than bogging down the menu with over-the-top Americanized dishes, they prioritize the types of foods they grew up eating, like Som Tum Pla Ra. “It’s papaya salad with a special fermented fish sauce that Thais call pla ra but Laos call padek,” the chefs explain. “The color is darker than regular fish sauce and it’s very interesting, but it has a very strong smell. Many think it has a very unpleasant smell and a strong fishy taste, but a very unique taste.”
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or in this case, if you’re at a Thai restaurant, don’t shy away from the funky fish sauce.
Matt Kirouac is a travel and food writer and culinary school graduate with a passion for national parks, all things Disney and road trip restaurants. Read more about Matt