Going into my trip to Thailand in March, I never imagined how many meals would be spent crouching over chipped bowls of pad thai from food carts parked alongside rowdy, smog-filled intersections. The more strands I slurped down, the more I realized that it did not matter where I ate—only that it tasted good. Sharing a similar propensity for Thai street food is Daniel Coughlin.
Roaming the sois, or alleys of Thailand, Coughlin devoured piles of pad thai and mentally documented the nuances of each one from Chiang Rai down to Phuket. Unlike the overly sweet and noodle-heavy versions found in the U.S., pad thai in Thailand is studded with fiery spice, fresh ingredients and time-tested woks. “I once read that if 100 people cook it, there will be 100 different versions; I saw this firsthand,” he says. When Coughlin opened his second restaurant, Le Thai, on East Fremont Street in 2011, he saw his passion project become a downtown feeding frenzy. Coughlin sought to develop an authentic pad-thai recipe, pulling from numerous inspirations. Through his travels, time spent in the kitchens of his mother’s Thai restaurants in Milwaukee and Las Vegas and his first effort, Mix Zone Café, Coughlin was introduced to a variety of methods and flavor profiles. “My mother has a sweet tooth, which comes through in her food. I have more of a salty and sour palate like my grandma,” Coughlin says. His grandmother’s recipe also influenced the final version. “She never sat down with me and taught me step-by-step. If I wanted to learn, I had to watch her,” he says.
His cooking has garnered national acclaim; his Thai beef and meatball noodle soup being named one of the best new Asian dishes in America (Details, “The Asian-Food Revolution,” June). But it was his pad thai in particular that attracted the likes of local celebrity chef Kerry Simon. “I brought a different style to the dish, and I think he respected that,” he says. Despite the popularity Coughlin remains humble about the attention. “I try to bang out cool stuff and trust that people will like it.”
While consistency reigns in his own kitchen, Coughlin urges those at home to practice and experiment with balancing sweet, salty and sour flavors, the key to Thai cuisine. “You almost have to fail to succeed [in order] to figure out what works for you.” Since the restaurant uses greater amounts of heat for the wok, Coughlin notes that this dish can be a bit more challenging to replicate. He also warns that noodles can go south fast, so watch them carefully, lest they stick together and turn to mush.
In keeping with Thai hospitality, Coughlin suggests pairing this dish with friends and a six-pack of Chang beer ($7, Lee’s Discount Liquor). “I’ve noticed it becoming quite popular here, especially among younger generations,” he says. Coughlin might have had a little something to do with that, too.
Chicken Pad Thai
Makes 3 servings
1 1/2 chicken breast, raw and sliced
3 handfuls 5-millimeter rice noodles (about one 2-ounce bag)
3 ounces soybean oil
3 ounces lemon or lime juice
3 ounces fish sauce
3 ounces sugar
3 tablespoons tamarind juice
3 teaspoons fried garlic
3 teaspoons crushed peanuts
3 teaspoons chopped sweet pickled radish
3 handfuls bean sprouts
1/4 cup sliced green onion
3/8 cup chopped cilantro
3/8 cup shredded carrots
3/4 cup water
Fresh chopped Thai chili peppers to taste
Soak the rice noodles in very warm water for one hour, or until soft. Using a wok, heat soybean oil over high heat. Add eggs and scramble them. Add chicken breast. When chicken is half cooked, add rice noodles. Stir for a couple of seconds. Add the lemon or lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and tamarind juice. Continue to stir together. Add fried garlic, crushed peanuts, sweet pickled radish, green onion, chopped cilantro, shredded carrots and Thai chili peppers. Stir until liquid is almost gone. Add bean sprouts. Add water to loosen it up. Pan fry in wok until all liquid is gone.