Critic's Notebook

Phad Thai May Be More Interesting Than You Think

A little talk with Wiley Frank.

By Kathryn Robinson May 19, 2016

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Little Uncle, home of simple phad Thai.

Image: Facebook

Wiley Frank and Poncharee Kounpungchart, known as PK, are the owners of Little Uncle, which recently launched its sit-down location around the corner from its longtime takeout at Madison near 15th. After my visit I called Frank to ask him a question that pesters me every time I encounter the full-throttle glories of Thai cuisine: Why does phad Thai persist as the most popular Thai dish?

In his response Frank alerted me to an installment from last month of the food anthropology podcast, How it Got in Your Mouth, in which Little Uncle figures prominently. It’s well worth a listen—at least through the part where the genesis of phad Thai is discussed and Frank and PK tell us why they like it so much. (After that, it devolves into opinion flogging of LA and New York restaurants…great if you go in for that sort of thing.)

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You will hear how phad Thai was developed out of nationalist fervor in the mid-20th century, why no self-respecting Thai cook would make it with chicken, why ketchup became a substitute for tamarind, and why it’s much harder to make than it seems. (Cooking it longer than four minutes is too much, Frank reveals.)

You will also hear Frank discuss why Little Uncle—where phad Thai accounts for some 60 percent of their trade—makes it in the simplest possible, or tamada, style, with the best ingredients available. After that, he insists, the embellishments lend all the intrigue you need. "The lime, chilies, sugar and peanuts make it as interesting as you like,” Frank emailed. “As you get deeper into the noodles, all the little bits of chilies, sugar and peanuts filter down so it evolves as you go.”

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