[ review ]
According to Hindu myth, 16 elephants sprang from a broken eggshell when Brahma, the god of creation, sang sacred hymns above it. Among the divine pachyderms was three-headed Erawan, whom mack-daddy deity Indra saddled up as his personal ride. Lots of extra trunk space.
Erawan is also the name and mascot of a little Thai restaurant you might know on 23rd just above Walnut. Husband and wife V and Laddavanh Pongdara — he's from Thailand, she's from Laos — took over the cute-as-a-banyan curry house in 2007, a year after coming to Philly from D.C. (the location's housed a Thai restaurant since the early '70s), but Erawan feels like it's been there forever. Maybe because its following is as hardcore as the Eagles', consistently mentioned on the short lists of top Thais in town.
In April, the Pongdaras parlayed that success into a second location at 10th and Arch — working backward, beginning in farang-friendly Rittenhouse, then coming to the longtime heart of Philly's Asian community.
Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown, you might say, but not so fast — there's plenty of Americanized slop to go around in this district, but Erawan gives winners such as Shiao Lan Kung, Nan Zhou and Banana Leaf a new neighbor that can hang.
"The first [Erawan] has a wide range of customers," Laddavanh explained. "A lot from Chinatown. We [opened the second location] because we wanted to serve our customers on this side of the city as well."
With a team of cooks, V runs the kitchens at the Erawan twins, turning out a typically massive menu (80-plus items!) of street-food bites, salads, curries, noodles and more. Before coming to Philly, he worked in restaurants in D.C. for eight years. When I asked Laddavanh if she also has a background in food, she replied: "I have a background in food tasting. I'm good at that one." I love this lady.
But I didn't love her and V's po tak, a sort of Thai bouillabaisse featuring overcooked scallops (as well as perfectly cooked shrimp, scored squid tubes and sweet, green-lipped New Zealand mussels) in a sludgy shrimp paste/oyster sauce/soy gravy. The sauce was just too savory (too-mami?) — strange, considering Thai cooking, at its core, is about balancing the sensations of hot, sweet, sour and salty. In this dish, the first three were M.I.A., all bound and gagged in salty's basement.
I feel bad, because the po tak is Laddavanh's favorite — though during our interview, she made an identical pronouncement about at least four other items. Like I said, I love this lady.
Slight and stylishly dressed, she floats around the restaurants greeting guests. Laddavanh is radiant, or maybe it's just the restaurant's tangerine walls. Backing her up are a tribunal of gracious pixies that live up to what author and American expat Jerry Hopkins tells Anthony Bourdain in the Thailand episode of No Reservations: "[The Thai] are as friendly as the tourism authority says."
Yeah, your server might bring you Thai salad instead of the Thai sausage you requested — it proved a happy accident, tossed in a comfy, creamy peanut-and-coconut dressing that takes an hour to blend by hand — or a forgettable stir-fried shrimp and broccoli you didn't order at all, but she'll be as sweet as the Thai iced tea, whose straw wrappers, fittingly, come twisted into little paper hearts.
Dumplings, on the other hand, come twisted into lotus blossoms filled with fragrant curried chicken or elegant satchels cinched with threads of pandan leaf. The latter are called golden bags, a popular homage to the Pongdaras' grandparents' generation, who used to bundle their treasure and money in garments and carry them around on sticks, according to Laddavanh. Sounds exhausting. The deep-fried purses popped open on contact, spilling their contents: ground chicken, ground shrimp, cilantro root and other family secrets no one shares. They were moist and gingery; I was happy to shut up and eat.
And keep eating. Aside from the lackluster shrimp/broccoli sitch and the po tak, everything else Erawan delivered really delivered: fat shrimp in nests of refreshing silver noodles tossed with celery, cilantro, red onion and sharp drops of fish sauce; garlicky, lemongrass-and-lime-leaf-scented pad prik king, full of green beans that crunched like water chestnuts; a dazzling beef salad whose bold strokes of lime, mint and chili made it easy to overlook the errant unchewables lurking among the strips of tender flank.
Even though they're based on store-bought pastes (drag), Erawan's curries are as well-balanced as a high-wire artist. Shrimp suits the feisty yellow curry just fine, but I loved it with chicken, too. Got to be beef for the green curry; the meat's umami enriches the cool, coconutty jade jus just so. Which begs the question, which to order? Green or yellow, green or yellow? You know what it is: Both, ladled over Alps of fluffy rice.
For dessert, think iced coffee like velvet and sesame sticky rice with mango — noteworthy because the notoriously fickle fruit was perfectly ripe. Sweet but not sickly, tangy but not astringent. Laddavanh will honor requests for this dessert only when the mango is right. "I tell [the servers], if you don't feel confident about it, don't serve it," she says. Words every restaurant should live by.
Erawan thai cuisine | 925 Arch St., 215-922-7135, erawanchinatown.com. Lunch Tue.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Tue.-Thu., 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4-10:30 p.m.; closed Mon. Appetizers, $4.50-$10.95; entrées, $11.95-$21.95; desserts, $4.95-$6.95. BYOB.