If you’ve eaten at a neighborhood Thai restaurant, you’re likely familiar with pick-your-protein Technicolor curries. Odds are you’ve tried papaya salad, spring rolls, and pad thai improbably made with ketchup and maybe even peanut butter.
While many ethnic cuisines are domesticated to Western palates, Thai food may be the most bastardized in America. “We have the same basic Thai dishes over and over again, many of which have nothing to do with Thailand,” says Andy Ricker, the James Beard Award–winning chef behind the bicoastal restaurant empire Pok Pok, known for authentic dishes like charcoal-roasted hen with lemongrass and tamarind.
But for as many sugarcoated Thai restaurants operating in the U.S., there’s an appreciable number of spots doing it right—especially in immigrant-heavy cities like Houston, where Asia Market encourages diners to personally adjust their dishes with condiments like pickled peppers, fish sauce, and chili sauce (nam prik). L.A., meanwhile, supports both NIGHT + MARKET, which puts a hipster spin on Thai street food, and Thai Town’s Jitlada, where chef Tui Sungkamee makes traditional fiery southern dishes.
“Thai is not a monolithic culture and, as such, not a monolithic cuisine,” explains Ricker. “It varies vastly from region to region and even from house to house.”
If a restaurant’s focus is northern, expect vegetables, bitterness, and earthy, oily flavors like coconut curry (khao soi), along with heaps of sticky rice. Northeastern (or Isan) tends to be tarter and spicier; order the larb (a spicy minced meat salad) and fermented sausages. Southern Thai is all about pungent, bold curries spiked with turmeric, while central prioritizes balance, best exemplified by traditional pad thai, made with tamarind, lime juice, dried shrimp, and salted turnip or radish—never ketchup or peanut butter, swaps made to satisfy America’s penchant for sugar.
“Thai food is one of the most balanced cuisines,” adds chef Haidar Karoum, who spends hours making curry paste from scratch at Doi Moi in Washington, D.C. “It’s never just sweet or just spicy, rather a balance of acidity, sweetness, aromatics, and heat.”
Read on for more restaurants striking that perfect Thai balance.