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Pad thai is a relatively new culinary invention, developed in the 1930s, when the Prime Minister of Thailand decided his country needed a national dish that would promote patriotism and unity.
At the time, the Asian country was in the midst of a rice shortage, so noodles were stir-fried and tossed with tamarind, chiles and whatever proteins were available from eggs to chicken to shrimp.
Garnished with crunchy bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and a squeeze of lime, it didn’t take long before this salty-sour-slightly sweet meal was a solid part of the national identity, served at street carts and markets everywhere.
When immigrants — like Utah’s Wilat and Pom Mongkolprasit — came to the U.S. and opened Thai restaurants, they introduced an entirely new population to this culinary creation.
The owners of Sawadee Thai Restaurant have developed a loyal following since opening in 2006 and in a recent online poll, the eatery’s pad thai was the declared the best in Salt Lake County. It received nearly 18% of the 111 votes cast.
In a distant second place was Chabaar Beyond Thai in Midvale.
While these eateries were the top vote getters in The Salt Lake Tribune’s unscientific contest, it is clear that there are many other favorites across the valley.
Just one vote behind third place were Salt Lake City’s Skewered Thai and Laan Na Thai — a restaurant born from the spice Kitchen Incubator program — as well as Tuk Tuk’s, which won best restaurant in West Valley City last month.
In addition, more than two dozen Thai restaurants across the state received at least one vote, including Benja’s Thai and Sushi in St. George. “I’ve eaten at a dozen restaurant in Salt Lake City,” wrote the respondent, “and Benja beats them all.”
[One reader used the opportunity to suggest another idea entirely: “I like Thai,” the person wrote, “but tell me who makes the best biscuits and gravy.”]
Pad thai secrets at Sawadee
At Sawadee, the pad thai is the most popular item on the menu, along with the yellow curry, said Wilat.
When asked why the restaurant might have won the pad thai contest, he replied: “It just tastes better than at other restaurants.”
He gives all the credit to Pom, who is in charge of the kitchen and uses recipes she learned before immigrating to the U.S. some 30 years ago. The standard version includes chicken and shrimp, but it can be made with beef, pork or tofu for $15-$16.
Besides taste, another reason diners gravitate to Sawadee is the generous portion sizes. Our recent takeout order of vegetarian pad thai with egg and tofu weighed more than three pounds and was enough to feed four adults, with leftovers for the next day.
Sawadee’s inside dining room has been closed during the pandemic and will reopen as soon as Wilat and Pom can hire enough servers and busers. Until then, the patio is open and pad thai s available for takeout and delivery.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, pad thai was an especially popular takeout item at Chabaar Beyond Thai, said owner Anny Sooksri. “It’s one of those things that’s really easy to take and go.”
Sooksri — who also owns FAV Bistro and Tea Rose Diner — believes one of the reason pad thai is so popular in the U.S. is it fits easily in many diets. The rice noodles and tamarind sauce are gluten-free and it can easily be made vegetarian or vegan.
Most of all, people just love the flavor, she said. “It’s sour, salty and sweet with nice, chewy noodles that soak up all that good sauce.”
Everyone, even in a divided world, will vote for that.