Ochar_1 web.jpg
© Siiri Sampson 2011.
Note to self: You can always add MORE spice; you can't pick off every pepper flake after the fact.
Pad Thai

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Tongue Thai'd at O'Char

Ochar_1 web.jpg
© Siiri Sampson 2011.
Note to self: You can always add MORE spice; you can't pick off every pepper flake after the fact.
Pad Thai is an oddity of Americanized food culture (along with pho, burritos, and cappuccinos). Every Thai restaurant, highbrow or hole-in-the-wall, seems to offer it, so it must be easy and universally similar, no? The only real way to answer that would be to train in an authentic Thai kitchen, or be lucky enough to grow up with a Thai best friend whose mom you could watch constantly churn out everyday Thai delights. and steal her recipes. Short of being a 12-year-old kitchen spy or cashing in your 18-year career at Microsoft to work under some marginalized line cook prepping tofu cubes for minimum wage, the secret of good Pad Thai will remain a mystery to non-Thai natives.

Pad Thai's sordid history reads like a soap star's bio. Allegedly, Vietnamese traders brought it into ancient Thailand. Then a Thai prime minister used it as a life preserver to alleviate export demand issues before World War II. And of course that totally pissed Erica Kane and Chandler off, so they stole the recipe. After Erica divorced Chandler and gave the recipe to every Thai joint in Pine Valley (and we hear that's not all she gave them), numerous bastardized versions started popping up.

Today's common version generally features the same base ingredients, while the "indigenous" version played out in street carts and home kitchens is much more like a dumpster dish, incorporating leftover meats and veggies to stretch the usefulness of ingredients and prevent waste. With so many variations on a classic, there's bound to be one that just does it for you. When you find that perfect mix of fish sauce and chili flakes, you hang on for dear life. On the Eastside, O'Char Thai Cuisine in Bellevue (15100 S.E. 38th St.) has a kitchen that puts out plenty of must-eats, even if their Pad Thai isn't one of them.

Ochar_2 web.jpg
© Siiri Sampson 2011.
Phad Se Iw? When the name sounds like "ewwww," are you less inclined to order it?
Serving the entire Eastside with three locations (others include Crossroads and Pickering Place), O'Char meets the challenge of serving a full Thai menu--including the sweet and delicious dessert of Black Rice Pudding with coconut milk--with ample portions, solid quality ingredients, and prices from 1995. Unlike some other places (cough *Chantanee* cough) that inflate prices to cover the overhead of a shiny new space, O'Char maintains a reasonable balance of price to portion. Lunch is a steal with over 15 combinations, most ranging between $7.95 and $8.95 and producing enough leftovers for the lap dog you're hiding in your purse.

Since the gold standard of American Thai is Pad Thai, they have it on the menu. It's in six of their lunch combos paired with the likes of red, yellow, or green curry; sweet and sour deep-fried chicken; or stir-fried cashew chicken. The Pad Thai itself is merely decent; it's not worth driving across town for. The Pad Se Iw ($8.95), on the other hand, especially with chicken and extra vegetables, is a different story. There are enough ingredients to actually warrant a meal, not just a carb-heavy dish you're going to sleep off in your cubicle at two o'clock.

For dinner, definitely start with the Crab Rangoon ($6.95), but ask for a side of sweet chili or sweet and sour sauce. What's better than real crab meat and cream cheese deep friend in wonton wrappers? Nothing, that's what. If you're ready to try something new and refreshing, reach for the Larb Gai ($8.95); similar to the Laotian version, it's healthy and filling, made with ground chicken, lemon grass, mint leaves, red onions, and fresh chili tossed with lime dressing and served with cabbage.

Don't let the strip-mall exterior of this place fool you; just like Noodle Boat in Issaquah, good things come in small (and sometimes randomly located) packages. What O'Char lacks in stellar Pad Thai, it more than makes up in value, service, and pretty much every other dish on the menu.

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