With a few notable exceptions, Thai food in Philadelphia is often like a pop star who’s never quite as good in concert as you hope. The lead-up to the experience conjures up thoughts of curries as deeply flavored and complex as their burnished reds or greens imply, of that telltale balance between the ethereal lift of basil and tamarind and the deep soul-funk of fish sauce. In reality, however, most of us have simply accepted that we have to make due with overly sweet pad thai, with shrimp cooked to within spitting distance of mush, with noodles as springy as an octogenarian’s vertical leap.
So when Erawan, the popular, reliable 23rd Street stalwart opened up in Chinatown, I felt a flush of optimism.
The space is comforting and warm, the walls a peach-sherbet tone, the carpet colored like a bruise or a crushed raspberry. Service follows suit with enough friendliness and delicacy to set it apart from many of its more abrupt Chinatown neighbors. And the menu, populated though it is with all the familiar greatest hits of the cuisine that most devotees look for, features enough surprises to keep the experience from growing stale.
The food itself bears the distinctive mark of solid technique. At its best, this leads to preparations like the fish cake, a curry paste-limned, almost glutinous patty. Or to the shrimp roll, a sneakily delicious finger food composed of nothing more than a single, sesame-marinated shrimp, mummied-up in a delicate deep-fried sheet. Or to the fried pork dumpling, whose slick of oiliness was easily forgiven once my teeth sank into the snappy, water chestnut-anchored pork ball itself.
But then there are times when technique actually seems to get in the way of expressiveness. The broth-like texture and careful layering of flavors of the coconut soup was a welcome respite from all the heavy-handed ones I’ve slogged through over the years, but the floating vegetables were devoid of much flavor. Tom yum fared better, though, its floating sediment of spice staining the sides of the bowl and the mushrooms somehow softening the addictively tangy funk of fish sauce.
Pottery shrimp sounded more interesting than it was in practice. The baked shrimp demanded the most attention here: Like nearly all the other proteins I’ve tasted from this kitchen, these were cooked to an exactly proper temperature, leading them to that ideal intersection of firmness and pliancy. But the bean thread noodles, though appealingly slippery, called out for more flavor than they’d been given.
Drunken noodles reversed this equation. The protein here—sliced pork—had been cooked a bit too long, but the noodles did more than enough to take up the slack, their unexpectedly roasty basil character guaranteed to lead to overeating past the point of fullness. (The noodles themselves are picked up daily at the local Nature Soy factory.)
Green curry built from scratch—no powders or pre- packaged pastes here—boasted all the layering and complexity that makes it one of the emblematic dishes of the country. Almost as impressive as the curry itself—creamy but not cloying, its spice heat tingling the throat but never singeing it—were the vegetables scattered on top. They’d been added at exactly the right moment: Early enough to have absorbed the essence of the curry, late enough to maintain their own firm textures. (The string beans actually squeaked with each bite: A great sign.)
Erawan Chinatown is slowly building up its customer base, and I’m confident it will continue to grow. At a recent midday visit, there were no fewer than 20 guests in the dining room, many taking advantage of the excellent lunch combo: For between $7.95 and $10.95, you get a soup, salad and one of a generous selection of entrees. The entirety adds up to more food than you can probably eat.
Thai dining in Philadelphia can often leave you underwhelmed, yet this new Chinatown outpost avoids the trap. It’s an affordable, pleasant, honest destination to satisfy your jones for Thai, and has enough soul to keep it on your regular rotation of the neighborhood’s haunts.
925 Arch St.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30am-3pm; Dinner: Sun.-Thurs., 4-10pm and Fri.-Sat., 4-10:30pm.
Price range: $4.50-$21.95.
Atmosphere: Warm and comfortable.
Food: Generally very good renditions of Thai classics.
Service: Helpful and friendly.
Dinner with Luke Palladino