The new Thai restaurant, Pad Basil, is a great and searing contribution to the dining options on Tenth Avenue. It is a mind-altering account of the Thai food experience. Every conscientious American should eat there.
There is a pervasive physicality to the menu—the elemental vulnerability of eating from a foreign cuisine in America. But the disturbing challenge of Thai food is its rejection of the American dream. My ancestors chose to eat here. For them, American casual dining was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, American casual dining was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity and the chance to rise, not to mention free refills.
The tom ka soup came in a bowl. (I think that’s what they said. I didn’t actually ask.) In this coconut broth, the tofu and ginger float like a comfortable suburban “fairy tale.” For this soup, chicken or shrimp is the original sin, from which there is no redemption. Tom ka with chicken is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. Even carnivores are caught in this crushing logic, determined by the delicate lemongrass and scallions, from which there is no escape.
The pad thai was complicated. In what is bound to be the most ordered item on the menu, flat rice noodles smolder under bean sprouts and peanut sauce. The waitress indicated that, indeed, it was spicy, but she obviously does not mean that literally (sometimes in her phrasing she seemed determined to be misunderstood).
I ate this dish like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the flavor is respected and sinks into the palate. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect the waitress’s experience and accept her conclusions? Does a white person in a Thai restaurant have standing to respond?
If I do have standing, I find that the dish just wasn’t that spicy. The little chili pepper on the menu was inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices. I think this little chili pepper distorts American history.
This menu, like each item on it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a little chili pepper for every flavorful but non-threatening dish and a new American trying to make a better life through hard work for every condescending white man writing for the paper of record— and usually vastly more than one. Willfully ignorant white people are embedded in America, but they are not close to the totality of America. And I should know. I was born in Canada.
The mango with sticky rice was an education for white people. There has been a depth, power, and richness to the different items on the menus that has been humbling and instructive.
Maybe you will find my review irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. In any case, Pad Basil has filled my belly unforgettably. Three stars.
Jordan Alexander Stein: educates the future leaders of tomorrow at Fordham University and tweets @steinjordan