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FOOD: Pad Thai

SNOB Story: Frank Lee's pad Thai hews close to the original

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Pad Thai
$10.50
Slightly North of Broad
192 E. Bay St.
843-723-3424
Available during lunch Mon.-Fri.
11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Finding pad Thai on the menu at Slightly North of Broad (SNOB) might seem a bit incongruous at first. After all, this is possibly the most stereotypical dish of Thailand being served at a restaurant that many regard as a Lowcountry culinary institution. But take a few minutes with SNOB's founding Chef Frank Lee and the dish seems an obvious fit.

First, Lee lets you know that he never wanted the menu at SNOB to be confined to Southern cooking traditions. Rather, he wanted to offer many options (they even served pizza in the early days). Lee describes SNOB's cuisine as "whimsical and eclectic," and from day one he felt that pad Thai worked with this concept.

Furthermore, Lee missed the ethnic food he enjoyed so much during his time in Chicago and Washington, D.C. He spent his formative years in these cities working under top chefs and honing his skills. This translates to long, exhausting days and very little free time. Lee remembers Mondays as his only break from the grind. He would spend the morning cleaning the house and then treat himself to lunch and a cigar.

His tight budget led him to Asian restaurants where low prices and bright flavors ruled the menus. At Thai restaurants, pad Thai was generally one of the more affordable options, and he loved all the accoutrements — the hot sauce, peanuts, cilantro, and bean sprouts.

Upon returning to his home state of South Carolina, Lee found a serious lack of Asian fare, and when he had the opportunity to open SNOB in 1993, he decided to fix this problem by putting his favorite Thai dish on the menu. He did want most of SNOB's dishes to have some sort of link to the region, and he asked himself how pad Thai might fit this criteria. Ultimately, he decided that since its main components of rice noodles, shrimp, and pork happened to be some of the Lowcountry's staples it wouldn't be too much of a stretch.

At the time, Asian ingredients were not readily available, and Lee had to seek them out in the small ethnic groceries of North Charleston. Shopping at places like First Asian and Lucky Oriental Market, Lee became friends with the owners, and he attributes his successful pad Thai to their help. He also feels that his exposure to so many foreign ingredients at these stores really increased his awareness.

Lee says that he perfected the dish with the help of Kim Ahn who came to work for him after her local Vietnamese restaurant fell victim to Hurricane Hugo. He now thinks it is as good as any in New York or Chicago, but since he has never been to Bangkok he doubts he could compete with the seasoned street vendors.

Supposedly, pad Thai (which loosely translates to Thai-style stir fry) became popular during World War II when Prime Minister Luang Phibunsongkhram promoted it as the national dish for his country. He reportedly hoped the dish would increase patriotism and cut down on rice consumption (which was budgeted during wartime.)

Today, Lee's pad Thai shines with all the traditional flavors like tamarind, fish sauce, and lime juice, and achieves an extra boost from fresh Lowcountry ingredients like farm eggs and local shrimp.

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