2 Dishes, 1 Result, in Sunnyvale

Just because my wife and I are working on losing weight doesn't mean we don't have adventures in dining any more. On the recommendation of some co-workers, we've gone out to try new and exotic food from exotic cultures in less-than-exotic (and downright dirty and borderline unsavory) locations.

We've had Korean tofu stew in an Asian food court in a strip mall. We've had awesome teppanyaki and bacon fried rice at a Japanese steakhouse in Fresno. We've had Korean barbecue buffet at a shiny but crowded joint along El Camino Real (which has no shortage of Korean restaurants, all of them begging to be tried.) And we've had Thai food at a small hole in the wall in Sunnyvale, which led to one of my more memorable spicy food experiences. That last meal is the one I'm here to talk about.

Pad Thai Cuisine is a tiny little place on Lawrence Expressway in Sunnyvale, located in the same area as St. John's Bar & Grill (some of the better burgers in the area, but we're not here to talk about burgers. Forget the burgers. Put those juicy, grilled-to-perfection, smoky patties of beefy goodness out of your mind, even if you're thinking of the bleu bacon burgers, with the tangy thick flavor of the bleu cheese combined perfectly with the fatty salty accompaniment of their thick-cut bacon; or their mushroom Swiss burger with the almost-too-greasy-but-really-just-greasy-enough sautéed mushrooms smothered in the almost acidic tartness of a melted layer of nice Swiss cheese; and also don't think about their baskets of fries, all crunchy and perfectly salted, with curry ketchup or ranch dressing for dipping; or the calamari, or nicely spicy chili, or... crap. Now I want burgers.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, Thai food.

The exterior of Pad Thai Cuisine is less than impressive; a generic storefront identical to the Subway sandwich shop a few doors down, or the falafel place or yoga studio, all of which can only be differentiated by the signage in front. It's when you go inside that you start to become impressed... wooden facades cover the walls, giving the place almost a farmhouse feel; a myriad (well, not actually ten thousand, but a boatload [well, not actually a literal boat-full, but a large number]) of hand-carved wooden sculptures and privacy screens definitely give it an exotic Thailand vibe; and the occasional out of place item like the fancy golden pendulum clock on the wall liven the place up a bit and give it a little bit of quirky appeal.

And the FOOD. Yeah, I know -- talking about a restaurant's food is so cliché, but bear with... can't fill an entire blog post describing the intricacies of the many-layered elephant herd that was artfully and beautifully hand-carved into the piece of driftwood they have hanging on the wall. We had been here once before with some co-workers of Lucie's, so we knew a little bit about the food offerings, but this time we went by ourselves so we were able to be a little more liberal with the choices.

We started with the appetizers of chicken satay skewers and the Thai spicy wings. The chicken skewers are good -- they almost look as though they're formed from ground chicken, but there's also the grain of actual chicken meat, so not entirely sure how they're made. The result, however they're made, is juicy but with a peppery, almost dry taste to the outside layer, and with the peanut satay sauce bringing an almost creamy counter to create a nice balance of flavors and textures, all on a stick (which makes eating anything more enjoyable.) When I order the spicy wings and they ask me how spicy I want them, I flippantly reply, "how spicy can you make 'em?"

Apparently, these guys take this as a challenge. They bring the heat, in a big way. The wings themselves are deep fried to lava-hot perfection (anybody who tried to claim that baked chicken wings are just as good are lying. Baked chicken wings may be healthier, but never as good as deep fried. Ever.) These suckers come to the table still too hot to hold with your fingers, as I find out when I pick one up to sample; doing what nobody in their right mind would do, I immediately jam the wing -- probably still bubbling on the inside it's so hot -- into my mouth so I can let go and protect my fingers. This proves to not be the smartest thing I have done this decade, but the pain of the temperature-based heat still isn't enough to distract me even the slightest from the spice-based heat. These wings are SPICY. It's a Thai sauce, so there's a sweet aspect to it -- most likely a honey based glaze -- but the heat from the chilies is truly immense. My lips turn numb, my nose immediately starts running, and my eyes water as I take bite after searing bite of the wings, needing to let go of the wings between bites because it still hurts to hold them they're so hot. But the flavor is seriously fantastic. Juicy chicken wings with a crust that is superbly crispy but not so crunchy it's distracting; and a thick and gooey glaze that is deeply spicy with a sweet finish. I love my hot wings, and in all honesty these are the best hot wings I've ever had. No acidic vinegar blast like you get with run-of-the-mill buffalo wings; no chewy skin from baked wings; no healthy or convenient alternatives like skinless or boneless; just pure hot wing bliss.

Lucie can only eat two of the wings because they're a bit too intense for her, which hurts me a little. Not because her not eating them hurts me emotionally; but because I eat more of the wings myself, which hurts me and my mouth in ways that shouldn't be described too vividly lest they give James Wan or Eli Roth ideas and Thai spicy wings end up as one of the torture devices in Saw the 13th: Freddy vs. Leatherface.

Our entrees are preceded by the restaurant's free offer of their version of agadashi tofu, small cubes of tempura tofu on a bed of pickled carrots. I have grown to love just about all versions of agadashi tofu, and this is no exception. Soft tofu provides an almost melted consistency when compared to the slight crunch of the crips breading; and the very mild flavor gives my taste buds a brief respite from the spicy wings, nearly fooling them into thinking the pain of uber-hot Thai food is over. Then, of course, the main course arrives and my taste buds get jumped from behind and kicked senseless by a street gang of spicy thugs in the form of chili peppers.

Lucie goes for the pad thai (I mean, if the place is called "Pad Thai Cuisine" you kind of ought to, right?) with a mild heat level, and I have the beef pad see ew, also ordered with the "how spicy can you make it?" challenge. It's essentially pad thai, except pad thai's thin rice noodles cooked in tamarind are replaced with thick, almost meaty slabs of rice noodle cooked in soy sauce with broccoli and egg. Think of it as the Thai version of chow fun, except with a spicy heat that rivals the gentle warm glow of nuclear fuel rods.

It's delicious. And painful. But delicious. I wolf down (an appropriate metaphor, since my taste buds are howling) most of my food, saving some space for dessert. The few bites I have of Lucie's pad thai are slightly sweet and tart from the tamarind, and the few bites she has of mine are "something that would hurt Corporal Hicks more than a face full of alien blood" (I might be paraphrasing her words, since I'm the geek in the marriage) but also well received. We combine our leftovers into one container for the next day so she can increase her heat levels a lot and I can dilute mine slightly, and we order dessert -- fried bananas with ice cream.

The fried bananas are golf ball sized chunks of banana, battered and fried, the crispy tempura shell being a nice contrast to the warm and mushy fruit, almost pungent with the caramelized sugars that result from the cooking process. The ice cream (served on the side by request, out of consideration for the lactose intolerant) is a tiger stripe of strawberry jam in vanilla ice cream, very good but almost cloyingly sweet when paired with the bananas. They also offer the fried bananas with a honey sauce instead of ice cream -- something we'll have to have next time we come here.

The sweet cream from the ice cream, and the sugars from the banana, are still not enough to stop the effects of my dishes, and I resolve that the next time we come here -- and we will be coming back, make no mistake -- I'll still order the Thai spicy wings and the pad see ew, but maybe I'll just stick with "spicy, please" when they ask, instead of "how spicy can you make it?"

Or maybe not -- as painful as it gets eating supremely spicy Thai food, the flavors are outstanding, and once the endorphins kick in, I almost get a little heady eating the stuff. It's not so hot that I don't enjoy the flavors, but also spicy enough where I wouldn't want to eat it every day.

Once in a while, though, it totally and completely hits the spot.

(Not THAT "spot"; that happens the next day, and it does indeed get hit. But let's not talk about that bit.)


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