Does authenticity have a place in the food world? Four top local chefs and I discussed the question over a recent lunch at Pad Thai restaurant, located at 156 Carlton Rd., next to Beer Run. The venue was appropriate. Pad Thai enjoys a huge following among area chefs, and is said by many to serve the most authentic Thai food in town.
But what does it mean for food to be “authentic”? Some say it means nothing at all, arguing that the word wrongly implies that there is some Platonic ideal of a particular dish or style of cuisine. “Authentic to what?” they ask. Others respond that even if its meaning is uncertain, the word can still be useful, particularly for restaurants serving food from a specific region. It can signal that the restaurant strives to serve dishes similar to what might traditionally be made by residents of that region. In the United States, for example, “authentic” can often suggest that recipes are not altered to suit American tastes.
I sat down at Pad Thai with Moto Pho Co.’s Vu Nguyen, Brian Ashworth of Ace Biscuit & Barbecue, and Zocalo’s Andrew Silver and Ivan Rekosh. While they all had different takes on “authenticity,” their opinions on the restaurant are the same: they love it.
The chefs are so loyal to their favorite dishes that owner Santi Ouypron* didn’t need to take their order. For Silver and Rekosh, it is the Thai beef consommé noodle bowl. With a house-made broth that Silver calls “profound,” it’s Silver’s favorite dish in Charlottesville.
“The depth of flavor in the broths is what keeps me coming back,” Rekosh said.
For Ashworth, it’s the tom yum noodle bowl with beef tongue, for the complexity of the broth and also the sense that the food has the “feel of homemade.”
This, it turns out, is no accident. Since it opened in 2006, Pad Thai has served the very same food that Ouypron and his wife, Utaiwan, made at an eatery they ran out of their Bangkok home for five years before coming to the United States. It is quite literally Thai home cooking. According to Ouypron, none of the recipes has been altered for American tastes.
“I stay with the Thai way,” said Ouypron. “I don’t make it the American way.”
It’s no wonder then that Nguyen, a Thailand native who lived there for sixteen years, frequents the place.
“This is comfort food to me,” said Nguyen. “I appreciate that they are offering menu items that you rarely see at any other Thai establishments.” His favorite dish happens to be the exact same as Ouypron: clear broth noodle bowl with the additions of roast pork and shrimp wontons.
With decades of experience as a “kitchen artist” in hotel restaurants around the world, Ouypron himself is responsible for many of Pad Thai’s recipes. He even once earned a gold medal for chocolate carving at the World Culinary Olympics. But it’s Utaiwan who does most of the cooking, which she learned from her mother in the kitchen growing up, and also working at her aunt’s countryside Thailand restaurant. Her own favorite dish, although not on the menu, is usually available: Chinese broccoli sautéed with either pork belly or shrimp.
There’s so much good stuff on the menu that I find myself ordering something different on almost every visit. Grandpa’s Favorite, though, is hard to resist. Ouypron recalls that his father would ask his mother to make this dish so often that it became known as “Grandpa’s favorite” to his kids. Nuggets of fried catfish, a Thai omelet, and a curried seafood egg roll all rest atop green curry flavored fried rice. It’s rare that a dish both excites and comforts, but this one does.
Ouypron also loves the appetizers, such as pork patties, which are best enjoyed with a beer at the bar while watching a game. Fortunately, Pad Thai has one of the best beer lists in town, particularly for hopheads, with hoppy ales like Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale among the ten beers on draught. They are the perfect foil to Pad Thai’s fiery curries.
Interestingly, Ouypron is among the skeptics of the word “authentic.”
“I don’t like the word,” said Ouypron, who prefers “home-style.” Whatever the word or meaning, in the end the chefs agreed that it’s all really beside the point, because the ultimate criterion is taste. And Pad Thai’s food tastes delicious.
As Silver put it, it’s a “Charlottesville gem.”
*In an earlier version of this story, Santi Ouypron was incorrectly identified as “Santi Ouygen.”