Tarad Thai's interior looks like a '70s Chiang Mai bodega designed by Hollywood, a home away from home to Viet-vet expats who moved to the Thai countryside to find their souls.
And it is indeed a home away from home: A motley tiling of reclaimed wood lines the walls, while bits of domestic furniture and door moldings have been cobbled together into market shelves holding low-priced curry cans, Nong's Khao Man Gai sauce, hot pots, Thai soap (six bars for $1!) and toothpaste. Softly, classic rock plays on a 40-year-old transistor AM/FM housed on a high shelf by the heater; the server told us her brother found the radio at a garage sale.
This all adds up to a slapdash charm, but also a self-consciously designed stamp of authenticity that would be suspicious were it not for the fact that this little market restaurant's list of Northern Thai specials includes some of the best Thai food in the city.
The reason is simple: care. Though even streetside carts in Thailand may take their sweet time mixing sauces on the fly, Thai cuisine in America is often a quick pan-fried affair built for near-instantaneous service. Tarad Thai, on the other hand, makes you wait—for which you'd best thank them—for pork slow-cooked in ceramics until its flavor completely saturates the light, milk-free curry its served in.
Though that gaeng oam hot pot dish ($12) billows with flavorful herbs, chili, lemongrass and kaffir leaf, the real wonder remains the audacity of the broth's sheer meatiness, which almost overwhelms. The gaeng hung lay ($12) is likewise meat-centric, a stewy showcase of tender pork and pork belly melded so completely with copious ginger that spice and meat become indistinguishable. They have transcended their oppositions, like the punchline to a Hegelian dialectic.
Meanwhile, the som tum papaya salad ($7), served with fresh tomato and perfectly cooked shrimp ($3 extra), is not only at least as good as Pok Pok's version, it's damn near as good as Pok Pok's salad used to be, with bright lime and a lingering chili spice that offers no quarter to the tourist, but doesn't railroad the flavor. The pad Thai ($10) maintains a similar brightness, without the sludgy peanut overload that ruins far too many renditions.
Even overfamiliar dishes such as pad kee mao ($9) are revivified; we got the often-gloopy dish as a take-out order, and were rewarded in a cardboard box with the satisfying firmness of fresh rice noodles, fresher basil and well-balanced spice.
Tarad Thai is already popular in the neighborhood for lunch, and its late-night proximity to the drunken canoodlers of Dig a Pony causes concern that as business inevitably picks up, the high level of attentiveness and patience in Tarad's cooking will not endure.
For now, however, the place is a beautiful refuge; if you don't find your soul there, you'll at least know what soul tastes like.
- Order this: Gaeng oam, som tum with shrimp.
- Iâll pass: The guoy teaw moo pork noodle soup is serviceable, but doesnât hit the highs found elsewhere on the menu.
EAT: Tarad Thai, 601 SE Morrison St., 234-4102, taradpdx.com. 11 am-3 pm Monday-Friday, 4:30-9:30 pm Monday-Thursday, 4:30 pm-2 am Friday, noon-2 am Saturday. $$.